“Anyone got a can-opener?” Opening up the Internet

As promised in my text Stop the world, I wanna get off, here is the text related to learning in the context of Internet and developing countries. It was inspired by discussions during the September meeting of the IDEAS group in Geneva. Chaired by Bruno Lanvin, the subject of this “dinner-discussion” was the role of the Internet in developing countries.

OK! So you have a good idea and you’d like to share it with others. You talk about it to the people around you. Some find it great, some criticise it, others think you’re nuts! Talking about your idea matures it. Maybe you can make something of it. Writing often helps. At the same time, you may have helped others to take a step forward by bringing them to think about it. So far, so good.

Now, had you been rock sure of your idea from the outset, presenting your knowledge on a take-it or leave-it basis, chances are neither you nor others would have got so much out of it. It is this type of “knowing” that contributes to disqualifying all those who don’t know. It is this type of “school-master” knowledge on the part of some that turns not knowing into a pest for the others rather than a chance to learn. Maybe not knowing should be seen as an opportunity for those who want to learn rather than a handicap.

Now let’s come back to your idea and suppose that it has to do with improving the way something is done. What is pompously called developing “best practices”. And you say to yourself, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great if people did things like that!”. As a parent, a teacher, a manager,… you may be in a position to force people to change and do things your way, although some persuasion might be necessary. Once your back is turned, of course, there’s a good chance that people will revert to their old ways of doing things. What’s more, are you sure your way was really the best?

Ways of doing things resist change even under duress. Wanting to do good can so easily turn into bloody crusades. Ideally, people have to adopt the idea for themselves or, even better, develop their own best ways of doing things. That’s pretty frustrating if you are full of good ideas about how others could do things. It is downright annoying if you get a kick out of telling people how to do things. It may even be disastrous if you’re an expert whose livelihood depends on figuring out how others should work.

That doesn’t necessarily mean your idea is for the scrap heap or that you are out of work. It means finding ways of having others adopt and adapt your ideas as their own. That calls for a low profile. It is here that the top-down method turns out to be pretty inefficient. Many people in positions of authority bemoan the difficulty of having people learn the right way to do things, yet people in authority everywhere continue to lack confidence in the ability of others to develop their own ways of doing things.

Changing ways that things are done, then, has very little to do with telling people what to do, but much more with creating a framework for them to develop their own ways of doing things. If we take the example of Internet use in developing countries (although the same probably applies elsewhere, for example in bringing associations to the Net), Bruno Lanvin of UNCTAD pointed to several useful observations.

  • South-South peer exchange, ie. between actors in developing countries, is perceived as extremely beneficial by all those involved whereas input from developed countries could well be refused as paternalist.
  • Developing countries have to re-invent the use of these tools for themselves.
  • The basic know-how and financial requirements necessary to go out and use the Internet are getting smaller and smaller everyday.

A friend of mine, Pascal Eric Gaberel, has an amusing way of describing the Net. He says the Internet is like a tin-can in which the can-opener is inside the can. Most of what people need to know about the Net and many other things are on the Net itself. Once they get on, on-line information and peer exchange would be sufficient for them to learn all they need to know. So the first question is: how do you provide a light-weight Net-opener that fits in your pocket and can be duplicated and passed on to hundreds of others. Other questions will follow.