Late to the tech band wagon — chronicles of a reluctant techie(?)

I spent the entirety of my time in the Silicon Valley trying to escape the tech-evangelist bent of the place. It seemed anywhere I went on Stanford’s campus, I was sure to find a group of students huddled together, ideating the next app that would solve a set of problems that Californians were yet to discover they had. The ideas were interesting (a drone delivery service for marijuana), creative (a system that predicts a potential mate’s likelihood to text from their Facebook usage trends), and totally cosmetic (algorithms that match your frozen yoghurt order to your mood). What united them was their complete failure to capture my imagination. In my mind these ideas could only come from people from this particular part of the world; people living under the expansive grace of the California sun, deciding between a well paid job as a software developer at Facebook, or doing technology investing for Morgan Stanley. They represented solutions to the problem of having either too much money or too much time. Not being from California, or the Global North, these were not the problems that occupied my time.

To my alma mater’s credit, there were some initiatives that encouraged students to think about computer science for social good (one such initiative was started and championed by undergraduate students). I would also later discover that there were many instances of collaboration between programmers and medical professionals, lawyers, and political scientists, but these were drowned out by the app-based, elevator-pitch-ready pop ideas that seemed the order of things.

So failing to cultivate any intrinsic interest in writing code, and not being taken with the problems that tech seemed preoccupied with, I began (to my own detriment, in retrospect) to make myself into the antithesis of a Stanford student. I differed with my classmates who hailed the introductory CS106A class and its captain Mehran Sahami (who is actually brilliant to watch), and I went to job fairs just to record the faces of recruiters when I asked about roles for anthropologists or feminist and gender studies majors in their product development teams. I took more than my fair share of creative writing classes and embraced sport jackets, even in the sweltering heat, in the hope of setting myself apart from the NerdNation crowd clad in their tech company T-shirts and flip-flops.

It came as a complete shock to my freshman year roommate when,in June of 2017, I initiated and sustained a conversation about machine learning. A week later, I was poking about the subject of cryptography and blockchain technology. In retrospect it seems inevitable that I would develop an interest in technology — I could not have spent so much time in the heart of the tech bubble without catching my own version of technology fever. I merely experienced a delayed onset.

Look at you, asking about CS stuff. What happened?’ Jonas asked.

The answer was that my stubbornness had proved feeble in the face of reality. It had become plain that digital technology was going to become central to global affairs — in fact it already is. Whatever my thoughts about tech-evangelism, it was no longer a monster I could confine to the Silicon Valley. Technology is going to be a focal lever for economic development in rich countries and it could be an important piece to the development story for poor countries as well. I am interested in how developing countries can avoid the schism that seems to form between rich countries and poor ones when such transformation sweeps the globe. This realisation was emboldened by my discovery of alternative problem spaces where digital technology could be applied. In the summer of 2016, I worked for an EdTech startup that used digital tools to bridge the resource constraints that perpetuate the discrepancy in performance and opportunity between students straddling different class-lines. Later in 2017 I interviewed technologists trained in ICT for development, who were creating smart technology solutions fit for the realities of many African countries — low literacy, unreliable power, sluggish (if any) wifi , and underdeveloped transport networks. This work opened my eyes to a range of possibilities for the technology, and led me to the work that I will be pursuing over the next two years.

In January, I started work on a commission that aims to understand how frontier technologies might impact development pathways for the poorest countries. Technology and disruption are possibly the two most used words of the last decade. When they are evoked, it is usually in reference to developed countries and their anxiety about the extinction of middle skilled jobs and the loss of privacy that seems an artefact of the digital revolution. If poor countries are mentioned at all, the conversations are not nuanced. The language used to discuss disruption in the West is imported wholesale. The resulting articles feature the same existential anxiety as the stories about developed countries — if Americans will lose their jobs what hope is there for Bangladeshis? It is my hope that the work that my team and I will do over the next couple of years will expose both the opportunities and risks of frontier technologies for the poor and historically excluded, and that we will present a reaction other than despair to the future these technologies make possible.

I hope this work will involve allowing citizens of these countries to shape the dialogue about the role of technology in their communities. This is scarcely done in the international development space. I often quip that a majority of the world’s most lauded experts on international development, fragile states, and crippling poverty write their reflections in the air-conditioned rooms of 5-star resorts in developing countries, sipping, I imagine, an Aperol spritz. It is already comical that I have the privilege of doing this work when I have lived outside of Lesotho and South Africa for 5 years now. During this time I have acquired the facility to speak of poverty and state failure theoretically, engaging in the kind of ‘objective’ philosophical discussions about the poor that can only be had by people so vastly removed from penury. Instead of feeling like a fraud however, I have taken this as a charge to use my work as a platform to let in the voices of people in developing countries so that their fates, our fates, are not discussed in Oxford without us. Many initiatives like the Deep Learning Indaba, which brings together machine learning experts from the continent to discuss the role of artificial intelligence in data poor countries, are already underway. I derive immeasurable joy from seeing this type of ‘grass-roots’ tech taking flight. These initiatives fortify my belief that innovation and ingenuity are ubiquitous in poor countries, even though popular media would have you believe the opposite.

On occasion I wonder if knowing what animates me now, I would choose to go back to that CS106A class and drink the kool-aid with my classmates. Then I am reminded of that famous Steve Jobs commencement address : everything makes sense in retrospect. Perhaps if I had allowed myself to be enlisted into the cult of technology, I would not want to be involved with it as intentionally as I do now. The time that I spent trying to understand why dignity was taken from some people while others watched seems critical to my new interest in the intersection between technology and development. I don’t buy into the idea that technology is the answer, but I hope that it could be one of many answers to the puzzle of achieving collective prosperity. Because of its increasing importance in global governance and in the quotidian , I want to not only understand new technology and its implications, but to also appreciate the intricacies of how these technologies work.

So given the choice, I’d probably go about my time at Stanford in exactly the same way (sports coats and all), because it is precisely because that earlier reticence that I find myself where I am today, pursuing technology with the caution and quiet enthusiasm of a recent convert.

Writer | Lover | Young professional