Human agency? There’s no app for that

American folk music legend Woodie Guthrie and his famous guitar. (Photo: Flickr user aeryn42)

It was something of a week for information and communications technology (ICT), democracy, and development.

Last Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal‘s Corruption Currents blog featured Bribespot, a new mobile phone app that allows users to check-in anonymously anytime someone forces them to pay a bribe, including information on location, size of the bribe, and description of the event including who was paid and for what purpose.

Bribespot is just the latest in a procession of ICT-based anti-corruption tools. launched last year as a place for citizens in India to anonymously report when, where, and how much they pay for a bribe.

It’s certainly revealing for information about bribes to finally appear on such widely-accessible platforms. In countries like India or regions like sub-Saharan Africa petty corruption is ubiquitous yet victims have typically been isolated by geography or by custom. These new platforms unite what has long been divided. That’s a good start.

But also last Tuesday, an Aid Watchers guest post from George Mason University’s Tate Watkins titled “Poverty: Is there an app for that?” warned that new technology, while it can be very useful for solving problems directly, can also distract from the reality of development that comprises the ‘gradual emergence of problem-solving systems’. Systemic change still depends on people coming together and transforming knowledge into power, and power into change. ICT is a powerful machine, but someone still needs to pick it up and play the music.

In Leadership and the New Science, management consultant and Harvard Ph.D. Margaret Wheatley envisions organizations and systems as bodies formed around knowledge and information. The introduction or production of new knowledge or information–such as information from new ICT avenues–creates the opportunity to form new organizations and systems, but taking advantage of those opportunities is far from a given. There is no app for human agency.



2 responses to “Human agency? There’s no app for that

  1. There is a bit of logic conundrum here. I’m not sure whether the point you are making is that the corruption tools need a citizen critical mass to be effective or whether creating the tools in the first place is an example of meeting that critical mass.

    There seems to be emerging evidence that the tools themselves are empowering in ways that were not possible in the pre-Web 2/mobile world. An accelerator of systemic change.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Doug. I agree ICT can accelerate systemic change. What you detect as a logic conundrum, I might construe as a case of chicken and egg syndrome–on a case by case basis ICT may help sway public opinion to create a critical mass or it may simply reveal a critical mass that wasn’t possible or was difficult to reveal because of authoritarian restraints on other forms of media. I tried to straddle that line; though perhaps I could have made it more clear.