23 July 2012

Value-Loaded Technology

Today, The Washington Post counts more then 25,000 people convened in the US capital in tune with the AIDS 2012 conference. The theme is 'Turning the Tide Together'.

As a technologist I walk the AIDS 2012 conference's Global Village in awe, admiring the mix of research, activists, civil society, and the obviously massive investments for the public good. I listen carefully to rousing speeches of dignitaries like the president of the World Bank Group, all calling for an end to the pandemic, and linking the fight against AIDS with the others, like the fight against absolute poverty. They echo the sentiments I discussed with Vint Cerf last week.

However, I feel quite lonely, no exhibition of technology on display at AIDS 2012 at all, it seems. Are we turning the tide together?

Nobody denies that the fights against AIDS and absolute poverty are important, and supersede politics and, maybe, even economics. These fights are justified by basic human values, like loving care. Values are operationalised by human intentions, and if technology amplifies human intent, where are the technologists to turn the tide, together?

Technology and values are closely related. The creation and/or availability of technology is a value-laden enterprise. Technology is a material part of culture and society and therefore its availability, or even its creation, is a moral, and possibly even political, act. Of course, technology itself is neither smart nor dumb, moral nor immoral. It is in the targeting of its utilization where the values, and morals, play out.

Thus, the discussion of appropriate use of technology, for instance in HIV-AIDS care and systems, must be put on the agenda of any major event, especially during these times in which technologies do let the world shrink.

22 July 2012


Traveling provides perspectives. On places, on people, on environments, on communities. This morning, as an unintended surprise, I attended a wedding in the center of Washington DC, USA. It realigned me again on global virtues that involve, among others, healthy measures of love, joy, peace, kindness, and self-control.

In Africa I do encounter dependence often, in both its healthy and unhealthy expressions. Healthy through Ubuntu – a culture expressing that I am because we are – and unhealthy, for instance, in the form of demands for others to take care, and blame when such provision does not emerge.

In America I do encounter independence often, in both its healthy and unhealthy expressions. Healthy through innovation – blisful energy to enhance reality - and unhealthy, for instance, in self-serving use of natural resource forsaking the responsibilities of its use in a global, social setting of capacity, and disregard when others request for account.

Here and there on the globe I find interdependence. Where interdependence reigns, a bold kind of humbleness exists. While opinions exist, they are not the measure. And circumstances are reviewed as per alignment with inspired and shared vision. Ultimately goals are reached as a collective; A "We, the Community of People", where worth exists from the outset.

The world is shrinking fast. Unfortunately, exaltation of dependence, or independence, can withhold similar advancement of society to be together. Let us strive towards interdependentness, a state of character where we do figure out harmonious sharing of our collective resources, and our collective potential as, and with, any place, people, environment, and community.

13 July 2012

Mastering a Master's

I am in the process of writing a Master's. It took me a while to understand what actually the purpose of the exercise is. Now I start to comprehend that this work exists to provide evidence of one's ability to define a (/one) problem, describe a (/single) methodology, and present the (/one) outcome, all embedded in extant literature. This process then certifies the individual to address the (creation of the) body of knowledge.

The struggle to understand this is fuelled by the obvious paradoxes and oxymorons involved in the process. As if one could be able to understand and define problems, as if methodologies are like clockwork, and as if outcomes do inform, and if literature does contain it all. If one could, then only for an instant..

It took a while before I yielded to this process. It helped to think it not to be about the production of wisdom, but solely about the production of knowledge. Of course, this was explained from the outset, but never really landed with me. I guess one needs much wisdom to guide oneself through the obvious dilemma’s and structural flaws, and ethically stay in one piece.

In my view, in the world of big-data, this process is pretty useless actually. It should be the other way around; All the outcomes are already known, like in the Zambian Smart Care Electronic Health Record system all health profiles are already computed using all possible methods. Thus the most important issue one must focus on is: what are good questions?

Maybe fortunately, my subject matter is not yet embedded in the big-data cloud. It is about people in Africa's rural areas whom are not (yet) fully linked to global communication networks. I study the 'how' of access to information and communication technology. Although the value seem obvious and important, only a small amount of persons embark on such journey. Now, with little to build upon, what is the right question?

Technology, which was developed by the rich and powerful, is, of course, created to served their agenda. An agenda to save cost on (and dehumanizing) labour, and to maximize their profits. Although knowledge tells me I study technology, wisdom thus tells me that I deal with power. Power to know, power to be known. Power to connect, power to be connected. Power to control, power to be controlled. About what, for what, to what? When dealing with the 'how' of enabling communications network access through technology, what is the real question?

If the 'how' of ICT is solved, and access is ubiquitous, what happens to the balance of power? What is the best question?

The answers are already known: inequalities will continue to grow. Copiousness will lead to waste, shortage to war. However, lack of information leads to ignorance, and ignorance fuels opposition, which is not really helpful either. Undoubtedly, access to ICT will raise costs, while the digital divide continues to grow, and the affluent will segregate. So, what is the question here?

How to balance, how to partner, how to socially contract - for morality, and systemic change? That is the real question.

As you can see, I am getting through with the first phase of writing my Master's. Now, let's dive in the data!

12 July 2012

Technological Servanthood

When affects are ascribed to technology people might deem it the cause. This instills false dogma. Although technology is valuable, it remains an inorganic artifact.

Life's focal point is people. They are the dazzling subjects, the centre of earthly existence. Here morally-unable submit to the morally-able, and thus technology submits to people.

Living people's interactions are fruitful when empathy and compassion are facilitated in an ethical setting, while serving other's well discerned needs in peace. Within their context and culture, people do experience joy, discern wisdom, and recognize knowledge. Technology never does. Everywhere not-living technology can assist in absolute wonderful and stunning ways, or it can obstruct and even destroy.

Through distinct phases of bewilderment and amazement we reach out to expert and use technology. When technology is constructed to be appropriate - that is: to converge upon people's needs – it can be helpful. Mastered and controlled by people, technology's utilization can be purposeful and innovative.

Technology facilitates, it cannot not drive. Technology amplifies, it cannot initiate. Technology assists, it cannot lead. Technology does not determine, nor dictates: it serves.  

11 July 2012

Social Innovation Links Engineers Worldwide

An integral view of engineering is desirable, so all engineer from everywhere can be included to the world wide body of knowledge and share the joy of practice and progress. Current status leads to dull expectations on how engineers can relate, with most discussions echoing lopsided reports, e.g. on technological determination or how one size should fit all. Acquisition of a global view of engineering is not yet possible, as such necessitate practical understanding and recognition of (still) foreign ways to represent data and information. Current, dominant and singular definitions lead to reduced analyses of achievement, in turn further narrowing definitions and thus leading to (international) research unaligned with the multifaceted local realities and needs. Contextual issues like orality and relationality are not yet recognized as informing understanding. Especially the almost exclusive discursive way of communicating within the engineering professions and the hegemony of western thinking seem to be huge barriers for inclusion of all engineers, worldwide.

Social Innovation involves the engendering of innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations whose primary purposes are social (Mulgan, Tucker, Ali, & Sanders, 2007). The essence of social innovation is the creation of new, innovative solutions for social good. The term social innovation signifies a relative new approach for solving major problems while ensuring that stakeholders are equal partners and that wheels are not reinvented.

Social innovation allows transformation of the positivist, technical, western dominated sciences to encapsulate the important information of culture and context, and thus to include deemed intangible and unquantifiable results of interventions, like social capital. Engineering is an engine of progress for humanity, as it methodologically devised a world-of-things to interact with the world-of-humans. Social innovation augments engineering to address issues affecting us all.

Social Innovation provides an inclusive and intrinsic multidisciplinary approach for sustainable progress for all engineers. It invokes innovations in engineering sensitive of human relationships, and has effects in education, management, development cooperation, and co-creation in general. As such social innovation is instrumental to lead the way, enhance and facilitate local capacity development, and thus opens new venues for innovations and growth of knowledge, and mutual beneficial collaboration.