A talk at the World Bank, and the meeting I almost (accidently) crashed

This is one of the busier weeks in recent memory. I’ve slept in different cities each of the last four nights, given two talks, and have two more talks and another city ahead before the week’s over. I was griping about my schedule to David Weinberger at Berkman yesterday and he just laughed – he’s about to start a speaking tour for his (brilliant, must-read) new book Everything is Miscellaneous, which will make my current perambulations look like a walk around the block.

Today’s talk was at the World Bank, part of a conference on the role of the private sector in international development. I felt like I was in a bit of a time warp giving my talk – the issues on the table were ones I thought about nearly every day when I worked on Geekcorps, but they’re much less present now that I’m working more on Global Voices. The topic for our panel was “does connectivity matter to development?” It’s a surprisingly tough question to ask, even ten years into World Bank funding for connectivity-centric projects.

My counterpart on the panel was Professor Joel Mokyr from Northwestern, an economic historian who pushed the conversation in a wonderful direction, looking at the Internet from the perspective of the 18th century. Stepping back in time lets him frame the questions of the value of access to knowledge in abstract, non-technical terms, rather than getting tangled in the world of satellite connectivity and undersea cables that my work frequently inhabits.

Mokyr’s basic thesis is that increased connectivity in the 18th century – through scientific journals, postal mail, the advent of the encyclopedia and other reference works – is an increased connection between two different types of knowledge, “propositional” and “prescriptive”. Propositional knowledge is scientific knowledge, knowledge about the world. Prescriptive knowledge is procedural knowledge, how to make something or carry out a process. He points out that the two types of knowledge are tightly connected in today’s world – we create new processes because we understand the underlying physics, chemistry or biology. But in the 18th century, there were lots of things we knew how to do – fertilizing fields or making steel, for instance – but didn’t know why it worked.

It wasn’t that people were stupid, Mokyr reminds us – brilliant work in physics and mathematics was done in ancient Greece, for instance. But there was a profound separation between the “savants” – the people who knew things – and the “fabricants” – the people who built things and did things. In the 18th century, the fabricants began putting questions to the savants and getting answers that allowed for techological innovation and invention. “The 18th century’s greatest insight was that reducing access costs to human knowledge is critical to human progress.” The flourishing of scientific publications, the standardization of scientific language and of measurement, the rise of scientific societies and of the encyclopedia were all ways to reduce the cost of access to knowledge and push forward scientific progress.

A great talk, though it threw me off my stride a bit, as I’d come in prepared to argue about open access models for access to fiberoptic cables. I focused my remarks on a more recent period in history – the past decade of attempts to bring economic development to the South through ICT, and the successes and failures we’ve experienced thus far. I argued that two areas where we’ve been less successful than expected – outsourcing technology jobs to developing nations, and selling via ecommerce from the developing to the developed world – are both cases where non-digital limitations come into play. Basic infrastructure is an obstacle to the rise of ecommerce, while education, management training and language skills are a huge obstacle to entering the outsourcing business.

In two areas where there’s been an unexpected degree of success – mobile telephony and alternative financial systems – there’s a clear correlation to market competition and deregulation. Two areas where I argue the jury’s still out – the role of technology in education via projects like OLPC, and the importance of citizen media – are both areas where we’ll probably still be asking questions about the precise connection of technology to development a decade in the future.

The audience was almost solely World Bank and IFC folks, which means that everyone asking a question knows more about the country they’re speaking about than you do. One respondent was upset with my explanation of the “India fallacy”. I used the term to refer to the fact that many governments I talked with a few years back had ambitions of becoming “the next India” and becoming major players in outsourcing in ten years. I argued that India’s outsourcing success had a great deal to do with investment in tertiary education (training skilled scientists, mathematicians and engineers who were good candidates to become programmers), the Indian diaspora (Indians in the tech industry in the US were able to bridge cultural gaps in working with programmers in India) and the importance of the English language. One respondent, who spoke about his experiences in Andhra Pradesh, argued that I was overstating the importance of both the diaspora and education and understating the importance of government outreach to large corporations. Another respondent wondered why the Carribean, with an English-speaking population and huge diaspora, hadn’t become a major center for outsourcing.

What’s interesting to me is that, over a decade into the field of ICT for development, there are lots of conflicting theories about why India has had success in outsourcing and why other nations have had a harder time. You can have a productive and useful argument on the topic despite numerous papers written by people much smarter than me (you know, people who’ve actually taken a class in economics.) If the issues weren’t so damned important, it would be great intellectual fun – instead, it’s the sort of fun that leaves you with a nagging sense of doubt about whether any of the projects you’ve worked on will have positive impact on the world.

Talking with friends after the session, we took an elevator to the top floor of the bank, believing that the conference party was on the thirteenth floor. We headed towards a room that was promisingly laid out with chafing dishes and a bar, but was curiously quiet. As we entered the room, a gentleman in a suit quickly intercepted us and said, “What are you doing?”

“Just looking for the private sector conference party.”

“There’s a board meeting taking place. You can’t be here.”

Oh. That board meeting. One of my friends was wearing a blue ribbon – she speculated that the guard probably thought we were on our way to burst into the board meeting and issue our demands for Wolfowitz’s resignation…

We slunk out and found the party a floor below. Probably not the best week to be aimlessly wandering the halls of the World Bank, just in case you had any plans to do so…

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9 Responses to A talk at the World Bank, and the meeting I almost (accidently) crashed

  1. On the secret sauce behind the Indian rise, a couple of recent pieces from the Indian Economy blog seem relevant:
    Indian IT industry
    the culture of risk

  2. AKMA says:

    If it’s any comfort, Ethan, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have at the World Bank demanding Wolfowitz’s resignation. Thanks for the effort. . . .

  3. Mary says:

    “oh, that board meeting”… nice to know it was well-catered

  4. Rich says:

    I’m sorry that I missed this event. However, you may be interested in another event on open source and open stanards that the World Bank is holding next Wednesday. Here is the link if you are…

    http://www.worldbank.org/edevelopment

  5. Jean-Claude Guédon says:

    Ethan,

    Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Mokyr. As a historian of science and tech, I find his thesis intriiguing and will investigate further.

    Warm regards,

    jc

  6. Ethan says:

    Sp glad to know you’re reading the blog, Jean-Claude. We missed you in New York… Mokyr was fascinating – wish I’d had several hours more to talk with him, and hope to meet with him again soon.

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  8. Alberto says:

    Ethan

    Yesterday, Amartya Sen at the Oxford Union, talking about the success of the IT industry in India, gave his contribution to our understanding of why the subcontinent fared so well. As well as those reasons you’ve already mentioned – aducation, Nehru’s government vision, economies of scale, etc. – he added a last, more cultural reasons: Indians give huge importance to the knowledge and understanding of mathematics. He quoted an ancient legend about an Indian mathematician, who persuaded his daughter to devote more effort to the study of the subject, on the grounds that it would enhance her conversation skills at dinner parties.

    The story might not be true, but it did make us smile.

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