Why Apps can’t Transform Society

The nice folk at ICTworks are plugging WikiReader again & are asking:
“Is WikiReader the Killer App that will transform the developing world?”.

Well, the answer is a resounding “No”. WikiReader is a neat gadget but like any other gadget already invented, or yet-to-come, we can be 100% certain that it is not going to “transform the developing world”.

Development is not a commodity that some foreign dudes can manufacture by burning a bunch of information onto a read-only device.

Transforming education (or agriculture, or whole societies) is not susceptible to a technical fix; you can’t just ship the latest gadget, stand back, and wait for the magic to happen.

Where genuine transformation has been achieved it has generally required a long-term commitment to sustain the training and professional development of teachers (or agricultural extension workers, or community activists).

Research on other technology-push programmes in ICT for Education supports the idea that realising the potential benefits of educational technology requires refocusing on the agency of the teachers and learners by investing in teacher training, learning materials, and curriculum support.

There is no silver bullet that can overcome centuries of structural underdevelopment – not in education and not in society more widely.

Radical social transformation necessarily involves overcoming resistance from those with vested interests in preserving the status quo. Previous experience tells us that overcoming entrenched opposition requires that women and men come together to work as agents of change, winning over new recruits to the cause, and build a constituency for change that becomes irresistible.

In pursuit of transformation, educators and social activists will always make best use of whatever information and communication technologies are accessible to them. Educators will use chalk boards or computers as available; agricultural extension workers will draw diagrams in the dirt or use mobile phones as appropriate; community activists will use pamphlets and megaphones alongside Twitter and Facebook.

As previously posted whenever people combine together, intent on social change, ICT can help: be it in advocacy work to build a constituency for change, or to coordinate supporters in direct action as part of a wider struggle.

The point however is that the agency in transformational change is never technological; in social change the agent is always human.

As the @ict4djester, Kentaro Toyamo says, without human action technology is just a ‘hunk of junk’, yet when applied purposefully by people seeking social change technology will amplify existing human capacity and intent.

The WikiReader is not a bad thing but creating the illusion that gadgets can transform the world is. To suggest that “killer apps” can “transform the developing world” is to offer false hope, and to divert attention from the real need, which is to focus on local people’s needs, agency, and capacity.

Local people, not foreign gadgets, are the agents of transformative change. Technical artifacts cannot create history; only people who are politically conscious and acting in unison have that potential.

Social change will not come in a box with batteries and instructions.

Teacher Training in Chikanta, Zambia


About Tony Roberts

Founder & ex-CEO of http://www.computeraid.org/ co-founder & ex-Executive Director of http://www.coda-international.org.uk/ co-founding Trustee http://www.bond.org.uk/ co-Founder & Director of http://www.webgathering.net/ currently PhD student of ICT4D at University of London Gooner
This entry was posted in Africa, Development, ICT4D. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Why Apps can’t Transform Society

  1. Pingback: Developing intent « Island 94

  2. Tonygleb says:



  3. What if you look at these apps and gadgets as an extension of other platforms and technological advancements – starting from pen and paper to electricity, radio, TV, fax and phone, computer, PDA, eReaders. The fact remains, without these tools, society would have still lived in the stone age, or the medieval era right?

    So, in effect, creation, development and usage of “apps”- which are basically applications or devices or programs, helping us work faster, collaborate with people across the world, and bridge the distances of time and language – are crucial incentives that help bring about sweeping changes to the way we have been thinking, working and communicating.

    Of course, clicking on Like button of Facebook doesn’t help reduce crimes in a country, but neither does protests, marches or newspaper editorials. We need every little action that can minutely help.

    • Jaume Fortuny says:

      Nilofar, apps as fundamental incentives that lead to radical changes has people behind because people need knowledge to use these tools. With tools and without ability to use them, we would remain in the Stone Age or in medieval times.

      I mean we need that people have enough skills to take advantage of technologies. I would express what we discussed on this blog in mathematical form:

      applications + people + education = empowerment of society = killer app

      If we have the apps and we have the people, let’s put our focus in education and training. Included in developed countries.

  4. “If you can say anything bad about the the WikiReader is that its just a browser for the Wikipedia and eBooks. The hardware is great, but it has no other use.”

    Great! 😉

    • Tony Roberts says:

      Thanks for your comment Emmanuel. I like the WikiReader; it is a neat gadget and I know that it would be a useful tool where you are unable to connect to the internet.

      I just think that (a) it is too expensive for a ‘developing world’ market and (b) there can ever be a ‘killer app’ that transforms the ‘developing world’.

      It is a false hope to suppose that there can be a silver bullet for development. Long-term investment in teacher training and educational resources are more realistic aspirations, and would be affordable if we diverted a small fraction of the money spent globally on military spending / advertising / bailing out greedy bankers / nuclear power/weapons etc.

  5. brenda zulu says:

    Can we say that apps transform the developers? As for consumers could we also say that apps depending on how one uses them they can actually transform a society eg Tunisia and Egypt have been transformed by a twitter and facebooks apps on both mobile phones and PCs…. Would like to get a feedback from you.

    • Tony Roberts says:

      Brenda I follow your blog on ICT4D and ICT in Africa: http://brendait.blogspot.com/ So I am very happy to find your comment here. Thank you.

      The point I was trying to make is that people are the agents of change and not technology. Technology can play a role but it cannot instigate anything – only amplify existing momentuma and direction.

      People without sophisticated technologies can transform their world (e.g the Haitian, Cuban & Zanzibar revolutions). On the other hand technology without people is just an inanimate ‘hunk of junk’.

      Apps can’t transform society. Apps do not have volition; they cannot take purposeful action. That requires people.

      I strongly agree that people, in struggle, can make very productive use of technologies to change society, as happened in Egypt.

      However it is important to note that the uprising in Egypt drew on ten years of community activism and trade union struggle to build the bonds of solidarity that made it possible to bring thousands of people into Tahrir Square by using Facebook as one technique among many. (See next post “Development as Struggle” for more on this).

      Technology alone is impotent. Yet where people are already organised and intent on action then technology can definately ‘amplify the existing intent and capacity’ to great effect.

      The lessons here are that development should start – not with technology – but rather with people, and the development of the capacity and intent of people’s organisations.

      Building Apps should not be the starting point or primary sight of development engagement.

  6. mwakarama says:

    The first technology to enter in the African huts was the transista Radio – the radio brought new thinking in Africa yes. And, it got the ordinay closer to greater systems generally. The Box Camera surely turned guys in my father’s generation picking good old coins in photography…

    Then came record players which introduced new dancing even to the villages. Then the Cassettes revolutionarized things a little.
    Shortly after wards, when the Videos came – a race was on between East and West. America lost! Betamax video player was the trap-door…
    It has been a long road in that race – and very certainly, microsoft is in the lead. Though, all that hightech products we Africans benefit from are not given to us free… we appreciate that it tought our thick skulls a lesson.

    Let us begin to discuss less Aid to Africa really… speaking plainly. The references to POVERTY – all these African people are actually not poor… there are poor people but they are in TRAPS that weren’t their faults to find themselves in – I mean they can do without hightech foods for example. So there are certain areas of technology that don’t have to be linked to aid… the African reading culture isn’t much, but it has a visible progressive trend. Books and plain papers are our level… let us agree to keep it there for the moment as far as aid is concerned.

    • Tony Roberts says:

      A lot of interesting points here mwakarama. Thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that we all need to be more discriminatory in technology choice, and reduce our overall technology consumption levels. Current levels are unsustainable. I also agree with you that another area where we can all cut back is in the consumption of the high-tech foods of agro-industrial farming: injected with antibiotics, wrapped in plastic, and shipped half way around the world in climate controlled containers. Madness.

  7. Pingback: Why Apps Can’t Transform Society |

  8. Pingback: Apps for development? » Grabbing Aid Debates

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  10. Maria says:

    The pricing also seems very counter-productive to their intended aim. They seem to be targeting rural (the devicice works offline, low battery consumption), first time technology users (dead simple interface, limited/focused functionality).

    However the price point of $99 doesn’t match their intended market? People still I cannot see a rural middle class Kenyan family purchasing this, for example. Actually the price point seems to be exactly right for the devices to be purchased an NGO/funded program for distribution and a year later they will be abandoned and underused.

    • Tony Roberts says:

      I think you are right Maria.

      At $99 maybe there is a market in North America and Europe as a Xmas stocking filler? But to be affordable to the intended audience the price would need to fall by an order of magnitude to under $10. Otherwise, as you say, it could only be affordable by INGOs and then wouldn’t be sustainable.

      I suspect that this product was not developed in response to working with people in a rural area to understand their needs and means. It feels like the product was conceived in the North and is now another top-down, tech-push, solution looking for a market.

      But maybe I got that impression because the women in the video from their PR company made me feel like I was watching the shopping channel?

  11. Maria L. says:

    The pricing also seems very counter-productive to their intended aim. They seem to be targeting rural (the devicice works offline, low battery consumption), first time technology users (dead simple interface, limited/focused functionality).

    However the price point of $99 doesn’t match their intended market? People still I cannot see a rural middle class Kenyan family purchasing this, for example. Actually the price point seems to be exactly right for the devices to be purchased an NGO/funded program for distribution and a year later they will be abandoned and underused.

  12. Tony Roberts says:


    Thanks for your comment.

    I like the WikiReader. It’s a neat tool for off-line access to Wikipedia (although I suspect that there is no mass market for it at $99).

    You are absolutely right to defend the contribution of ICTs as tools to serve the common good. I am definately in favour of using computers in schools and hospitals to improve education and healthcare. Like you I think ICTs can be useful tools in bringing about progressive social change.

    I just don’t think that gadgets can ever be causal in transformational social change, and I think that it is counter-productive to create the illusion that some “killer app” is going to come along and “transform the developing world”.


    • Jaume Fortuny says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Tony.

      From my point of view, WikiReader (as other tools and services) should have a business plan more aimed at the base of the pyramid. Even for me $ 99 for a limited device like these does not seem a good investment.

      Regarding the killer apps, we know that they can represent changes on uses and a huge influence on ways of doing things. But I agree again with you that killer apps can’t be used to create false illusions.

      Look what happens with mobile telephony. When discussing which will be the new standard for 4G in the developed world, in Kenya (for example) appears several business models based on 2G technology through SMS. What catches my attention more is the one where a guy is in charge of collecting the phones of the villages to bring them to places with supply of electricity to charge bateries and with coverage to send and receive SMS. I don’t want to talk of SMS as a killer app. I just want to expose that under this situation is remaining the lack of infrastructure, the access to phones and the lack of training.

      Let’s assume that from these three variables (infrastructure, tools and people), tools and infrastructure will never become killer apps to transform the developing world (because they are just a commodity).Then, let’s change the concept. Let’s ask:

      Would the “empowerment of people” be the real Killer app?


      • Tony Roberts says:

        Thank you Jaume. You say it far more clearly than me.

        Empowerment of people would be the real killer app!

        Who’s got an App for people’s power?

      • Jaume Fortuny says:

        “Who’s got an App for people’s power?”

        It sounds like a new entry in your blog.

        Or even better, like a new blog where centralize empowerment actions and discuss about its function as killer app. Do you think it could be an new interesting project?

  13. Jaume Fortuny says:

    Tony, I totally agree with the entry you posted to answer the question of the people of ICTWorks. Hardly an application or device can’t be a “killer app” to transform nothing (and much less the developing world).

    But I would defend the contribution of gadgets like Wikireader as catalysts for changes in the world. Of course they are only tools that have no use if you don’t know how to use them. And neither useless if people don’t know how to cause changes with them. But we need ICT as tools to achieve solutions that serve the common good, to equalise power and to reach a more equitable distribution.

    However, the changes will occur only if people want to do it from within. And can not be imposed either with gadgets nor from outside.

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