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When poverty is the problem, TEK isn't the solution

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced that its researchers had developed a cheap and effective way for people with slow Internet connections to search for information on the Web (see Developing World gets own Search Engine).

Anyone wishing to use the new search engine would send a query by email to a central server in the United States, which would search the Internet, choose the most suitable web pages, compress them and email the results a day later.

Having spent almost all my working life as a science journalist in my native Argentina, I feel that this project has both pros and cons. I can imagine it may work as a tool of last resort in extremely poor countries, where the cost of international communications is prohibitive.

But this seems to be giving in to the ideology that political problems can be solved by technological means. After all, extreme poverty is not an economic problem, it is political – and poor communications are part of it.

I am not surprised that the proposed search engine, known as TEK Search ('Time Equals Knowledge'), comes from MIT. That is widely considered to be the birthplace of a technology-centred view of global communications – a "mythologising" of technology that distorts the reality, both of technology and of human communication.

The strongest objection to the proposed search engine is raised by the question: who will select the documents in Boston, and using what criteria? The danger is that the project will be based on a misplaced form of international paternalism, an attitude that makes people more dependent, not more free.

Supporters of the new search engine suggest that we should trust the good faith of those who select the documents at MIT and send them back to the person who asked for them. My main concern is how anyone in Boston can make an appropriate decision on what is technically appropriate for a cotton farmer in Nigeria, or the Philippines, or Chaco province in Argentina. Again I fear that there is some overconfidence about the powers of technology. 

Another objection concerns the languages of the documents being searched. Most of the World Wide Web operates in English. While there are almost 400 million English-speaking people around the world, most of these live in developed countries and former British colonies. Some 7.6 billion more people do not speak English.

How many poor farmers outside the former British colonies read English, if they read at all? Conversely those in such countries who can read English are highly unlikely to need the services of TEK Search. So the claim that TEK Search will be the Developing World's "own search engine" sounds a bit exaggerated.

Instead, poor people in the developing world need efficient communications and cheap computers and software, allowing them to navigate the Internet and find appropriate documents themselves. Paternalism, in contrast, perpetuates underdevelopment.

The millions of dollars spent by governments, international agencies and non-governmental organisations to distribute food and medicines certainly alleviate much suffering. But they are never enough, and essentially do not change the development conditions of the beneficiary countries.