May 292008

No one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions, Patricia Wiliams, The Alchemy of Race & Rights

M.I.T. has recently discovered third world poverty. A number of institutional projects have emerged which endeavor to put M.I.T.’s considerable resources to use in service of poverty alleviation and development. In 2007 and 2008 I had the opportunity to spend nine months doing ethnographic observation of these projects.  As a sociologist of political economy, development, and social movements, I became fascinated with their discourse of poverty and development. I draw on my experience with discourse analysis methods to examine the logics, and subjectivities of these projects.

My personal biases in engaging this project should be revealed. As an M.I.T. undergraduate, I have a subtle and sympathetic understanding of its unique culture and the subjectivities it creates, perceptions of which are often distorted by stereotypes about various kinds of privilege and also by commitments to certain visions of the world. As an alumnus of M.I.T’s Urban Planning program as well as its undergraduate experience, I was interested to explore and engage with cutting edge projects.As a scholar of grassroots social movements in resistance to colonial projects, I have a healthy hesitation about power-laden encounters between the 1st and 3rd worlds and the goals and function of development projects in an international economy dominated and shaped by corporate interests. This note is written in a spirit of hope and bridge-building with the energetic people of M.I.T. It is intended to be a constructive influence on further 3rd world and development work at M.I.T.

Types of projects happening at M.I.T.

An MIT professor who I interviewed told me that in 2009 there were more than 500 different organizations on campus working on some aspect of 3rd world poverty.  With a combined graduate and undergraduate population of less than 10,000, this is remarkable. The projects include student service organizations, classes, and competitions and are collectively referred to as Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D).

One of the innovations for which MIT as an engineering shcool is highly respected and imitated is its  competitions. Several large undergraduate engineering classes are run with a curriculum based on, for example, building a robot to play a particular game or run an obstacle course. Each student is given an identical box of materials and a series of lectures relevant to the design at hand. At the end of the semester, the student’s projects compete in the game with the highest grades going to the best-performing projects. There are now institute-wide annual competitions in which students are invited to submit designs for “solutions” to various problems of third world poverty, with the winner receiving seed money to test a prototype in the real world.

Technology understood as a cure

There is something particular about being educated at M.I.T. which is the belief that every problem has a solution. If you are determined, you can find an optimal solution to any problem. The answers are within yourself. Complexity is not something to be viewed with some awe and humility, but tackled persistently and subdued with an “elegant solution”.

Why should the problems of human society be any different from those posed by the natural world? The task of the engineer is to find a route, grasping the essential nature of materials and utilizing them to deliver a robust, efficient, and universal design.

The fervent desire to avoid culture and institutions

With this perspective, complexities which refuse to reduce themselves to manageable variables are unpalatable. Complexities which are persistently local thwart the aspiration to universal designs. Existing methods and pathways which seem inelegant are viewed as obstructions and avoided. Institutions and cultures are such obstructions. To an engineer such social facts are not facts at all, they are whimsy and habit, bad design, outmoded.

Educational tools should be delivered directly to children, avoiding (indeed disempowering) teachers, parents, and school systems. Laptops must be given directly to children, and their parents prevented from stealing them.

For this reason, the increasingly ubiquitous cell phone is a favored delivery mechanism. It avoids all the leftover mess of the undesigned past and goes directly to the individual victim, who can easily motivated to take the cure with promises of cell phone credit (one of the more important currencies of the world today).

Needless to say, culture itself is not seen as a “material” for design. As feminists and safe-sex advocates know, it is a weary battle to change the culture, but it is possible. Perhaps it’s best that the engineers dislike this material, although the ad-men well know its malleability.

Good and Evil: Victims and Obstructionists

The absurdity of this approach exposed itself through the accumulation of projects. Literacy projects for children persistently vilify parents who keep their children out of school and seek to provide devices (usually some type of video game) which would capture the attention of children victimized both by a hopelessly inadequate and corrupt educational system and lack of access to it.

Turn 90 degrees in a room full of engineers turned social entrepreneurs hawking their projects and see the benighted and cruel mother now a saintly victim of “indoor cooking smoke”. MIT students have indeed come up with elegant solutions to this problem.

Bouncing around the same room you can find fathers and teachers alternately villianized, victimized, and heroized as different projects target various parts of their lives.

And the biggest hero, is of course a selfless white man, Paul Farmer. He is a ferociously good model, and it is good that so many privileged students are attracted to his commitments.

While participating on the margins of this dialogue at MIT in 2008, I had the opportunity to put together a one-session study syllabus on ICT4D.


Modern technology with its practice of intervention, wherein success is measured in terms of the efficacy of the given technique, claims victory for the ‘resolutionary’ approach and renders listening impossible. Alberto Melucci, Challenging Codes 1996