On Techno-Colonialism

“.. sometimes we visit your country and live in your home,
sometimes we ride on your horses, sometimes we walk alone,
sometimes the songs that we hear are just songs of our own.”
– Grateful Dead – Eyes of the World

Techno-colonialism is a term I coined back in the ’90s to describe the exploitation of poorer cultures by richer ones through technology. In particular, this was focused on Internet technology, though it may apply more widely. Like ice cream, techno-colonialism comes in many flavors.

Classic Capitalist Exploitation is when equipment, software, and education companies from rich countries sell inferior, broken, and out-dated technology to poorer cultures because they can not sell the out-dated technology in their own. This leaves the colonized with poor technology, and with education in the use of inferior technology, when it is critical that they learn modern engineering.

The Vendor Territorialist attempts to lock significant segments of a culture into using their hardware and/or software product. This is done through low cost vendor-specific education, pressure on the government, loss-leader initial entry cost, and making vendor-specific certification important in the job market. A neat trick is to ignore piracy until the colony is dependent on the sofware, see A Contribution to the Understanding of Illegal Copying of Software. A new variant of this is the social network with a do-gooder face and an embrace and devour body.

Aid Agencies in the ‘business’ of technology transfer are subject to the same diseases as business in general. At first, they have technology transfer goals and are happy to cooperate with others to achieve them. If they become ‘successful’, money flows to them, they grow, and they become focused on their own growth and survival, losing sight of the original primary goals. They see themselves as doing good, and succumb to the American (and others’) fallacy that bigger is better, and they can do more good if they are bigger. After all, the need for their services is perceived as effectively infinite. Others with whom they used to cooperate are now seen as competitors for the resources of self-expansion. They become protective of territory which they never owned in the first place. The colonies become caught in the crossfire of the foreign aid agencies, just as they became caught in the wars between the classic colonialists.

The Exploiting Hero brings, often inappropriate, technology in order to gain leverage for personal power or money. They care little for the locals or their needs. They have the righteous solution and will break anything to insert it, take whatever they came for, and leave.

The Agent represents others as opposed to introducing them. From a 2002 talk at Rhodes University, “Jose [Soriano] made it very clear to me that, if I went to the Northern expert and asked the questions and then returned the answers to Peru, this was a form of patronization and colonialism. Jose and other Peruanas were first class citizens capable of representing themselves. I was to introduce them to the experts and get out of the middle. Brokering and hoarding information are a dangerous form of techno-colonialism.”

Self-Exploitation is the saddest case, a person or group who is part of the exploited and who starts to exploit their neighbors. This is understandable as they are in a very resource scarce environment, and see leadership as a path to general improvement, self-fulfillment, and the power to improve things. Given the difficulty and complexity of making any significant progress, they become controlling and defensive. Though they speak of passing power to the next generations and to the public, they soon cling to power with their claws, as does any demagogue. Aside from the obvious damage, this breeds a public cultural defense strategy of sabotaging anyone’s success lest they become such demagogues; thereby keeping everyone down.

The Do-Gooder flies in, sings their song, drops a bit of technology and flies out again. Back home, they stand in front of the cameras and accept the accolades for their good deeds. The problem is that this upstages the in-country folk on the ground who actually did the work; and without credit for their work, the local folk have a hard time getting independent support to do more work which is desperately needed.

I speak from experience having been a do-gooder for 28 years, flying in and back out, and accepting the accolades. I have donated used equipment. I have helped to create organizations which became self-perpetuating katamaris. Being a privileged brat from a rich culture, I have yet to be a self-exploiter; but there is still time.

A simple solution to this seemingly difficult problem will be presented in our next paper. [ There seems to be no emoji for dripping sarcasm. ]

 Written by:

Randy Bush <randy@psg.com>

Tokyo, 2015.06.13