May 30, 2012

Debate: ICTs and a better world

The role of ICTs in society is debated in the Journal of Information Technology (vol. 27, N 2, 2012, articles are available for free till June).

The opening article by Geoff Walsham makes several points that align with my own ideas and positions: he emphasizes the importance of ethical and critical components in the information systems research and the need for methodological pluralism and interdisciplinarity. He also encourages shifting the research agenda from helping organizations to use ICTs effectively to asking and trying to answer the question "Are we making a better world with ICTs?"

This question is deep, stimulating, good, etc. However, asking it will lead the IS field to even more problems rather than to solving its crises. Here is why.

  1. This type of questions is inconsistent with organizational goals. There might be some types of organizations that think about improving the world, but all of them still have money, efficiency, profit, stakeholders, etc. as their priorities. And they need ICTs to serve those priorities. To put it in a larger context, can global capitalism be ethical and focus on the betterment of the world?
  2. Better for whom? Even though a lot of people try to define and measure 'better' (in terms of GDP, numbers of phones and computers per household and so on), the definitions don't work. Because they serve those who come up with them rather than the rest of the world. One statement that stands out in this paper is "Our ethical goals in this arena should surely include how we can use ICTs to support the poor of the world..." There are so many problems with this statement. The most obvious one is that it's not "we" who should be agents in this sentence, it's "the poor". As long as the poor depend on our support, the world won't be better for them. But it will be for us, because it'll make us feel good.
  3. Finally, can the world as a whole ever become better? Even the best intentions inevitably bring some evil, then is it honest from a personal and scholarly points of view to place such an idealistic question at the center of a research agenda? May be I'm too skeptical.

As I said above, a lot of what is said in the papers aligns with my own thoughts. But something is missing. Perhaps, more openness and critical questioning. Something that Ulrike Schultze tried to do in his commentary.