Beki Grinter

Development: A Case for Human-Centered Economics

In C@tM, computer science, discipline, empirical, HCI, ICT4D, research on March 31, 2010 at 10:13 am

I was reading a paper by Dorothea Kleine. (ICT4What? from the ICTD 2009 conference)

She observes the following paradox: the degree to which ICT4D researchers have to legitimise the impact of their research to funding agencies seems paradoxical given the widespread belief, and supporting rhetoric, of how much ICTs (most notably the internet) have changed the lives of millions of people.

I should immediately say that I’m not entirely suprised that this situation exists, nor am I certain that it’s a paradox. I think it exists because the impact of ICTs has largely not been for those who are the focus of ICT4D, but rather the focus for ICT4Me (i.e. a middle-class caucasian living in an urban city in the richest nation in the world).

However, she has a thesis about why this situation exists: two reasons. First, it turns on what she, and others, see as a definition of development that’s too closely coupled to economic growth. Second, the impact of ICTs is measured on a particular outcome, rather than the possibility that technology empowers people in a variety of ways. Briefly, the second seems very plausible based on a variety of accounts of impact I’ve read over the decades. Technology is unpredictable, users are surprising, outcomes are difficult to tie to a particular technology. All of these things are topics of research, which certainly suggests that measuring impact on specific a-priori outcomes is a non-trivial process.

So back to the first point. Defining development as economic growth. This is particularly interesting, particularly given that uneven growth, dependency and inequality are all features of the most prevalent type of economic system: capitalism. Is it just me, but thinking about things this way makes development seem almost menacing, the idea that intervention would potentially increase wealth but at the expense of someone else.

But, I feel times are changing. Not just there, but also here, there are questions of how we’re all going to manage economics in balance with other concerns such as the pressing social problems that increasingly seem to be defining the mission of Georgia Tech, or the ecological challenges that are increasingly confronting the United States.

In the School of Interactive Computing we’ve been having a discussion about a human-centered approach to Economics. It was triggered by Brook’s OP-Ed piece on the future of the discipline of Economics, but its also in Paul Krugman’s piece. In a nutshell, both of them are calls to reexamine economics, move it away from a mathematical, rational or quasi rational discipline (as an explanation for why Economists were the last to predict the recent economic downturn). Our school-wide discussions turned on what we, as faculty, thought a combination of people and machines might be able to bring to Economics. And then I was reading Kleine’s piece about development. Seems to me that there’s an important connection here. Is development the point of economics? What I mean is that development is the reason that individuals and nation-states practice any form of economic reasoning? In other words, is it to somehow move towards a desired state, either personally or as a nation, that is growth… by some definition…

And so what is development (a question that people in the development studies community, the ICT4D community and no doubt others, but perhaps less so economists, have been wrestling with)?

Kleine introduce’s Amartya Sen’s approach to development which focuses on freedom of choice for people in the personal, social, economic and political spheres. To accomplish this Sen has functionings: outcomes that people desire, and capabilities: the sets of functionings that a person can currently achieve. The goal is to provide more capabilities that will in turn let people reach more of their desired functionings. Economics may factor into this, but it is one component.

She suggests that ICT4D is potentially a test case for something better. And that something bigger is understanding how technology may play a role in a notion of development where the human is squarely at the centre making their own choices. And I wonder whether she’s right.

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