Turning the dial on techno-determinism in development

How often do you listen to the radio? Do you now stream it online, or listen to your favorite show as a podcast? Was the last article you read on a screen, or a piece of paper? When was the last time you turned a dial or a page instead of using a touch screen to gain access to audio and visual content?

Last week I discussed the inherent bias in the development sector that audiences in the global South only, or must, use new technologies for virtuous or pragmatic ends and the need to study “raw engagements with entertainment-orientated and social content” to determine best approaches for development impact.

But, this week, I would like to take a step back to an issue addressed in other posts on Creating Connections?, such as WORLD RADIO DAY 2017: Radio is you!, about the techno-centric and techno-deterministic nature of many international development projects. While we must remove inherent biases about how and why those in the global South use new technologies, as practitioners we must first consider if new technologies are, indeed, the best tools to achieve development impact in specific contexts.

Mobile phones, radio, print media, and TV will sometimes be much more effective tools for development in the global South, though these media are increasingly overlooked, and the imposition of newer technologies from external interventions often removes any agency or inclusion those in the global South might have in their own development. ABC International Development conducted a study into Citizen Access to Information in Papua New Guinea in 2014 that showed an increased access to the internet through the use of mobile phones in the country, but that radio was still the primary way most citizens received informational content.


As Lievrouw (2011) notes in her book Alternative and Activist New Media about media in the information age:

…many people have come to assume, rightly or wrongly, that new media technologies and applications will eventually be accessible to everyone – that they should be regarded as public goods on a par with electricity, water, a telephone service, or other necessities of life in developed societies. Whether and how this assumption will actually be realized in the form of greater access for people in disadvantaged areas or groups is still an open question.

New technologies have long been hailed the ‘magic bullets’ of development; though, often, techno-centric and techno-deterministic approaches are still functioning within the same social, economic, and political systems as ‘old media’ projects and, thus, encounter the same mistakes and failures of the past – new formats, tools, and technical solutions can rarely overcome contextual and structural constraints. Pieterse (2005) notes in his article, Digital Capitalism and Development: The Unbearable Lightness of ICT4D, how the digital divide is actually increasing instead of decreasing and the illogical nature that it can ever actually be bridged under the current structural systems, confirming that “the digital divide is a deeply misleading discourse: the divide is not digital but socioeconomic but representing the divide in technical terms suggests technical solutions”.

More concerning, while it is clear techno-centric approaches are not necessarily more effective than ‘old media’, such approaches could actually be suppressing inclusion and participation in communication ‘in’, ‘for’, and ‘about’ development. By equating development and growth with connectivity, techno-centric approaches reinforce a neoliberalism that replaces one form of colonialism for another. The international standards and norms of new technologies are designed by, and for, the global North resulting in a “new form of dependency on the West” (Pieterse, 2005). Furthermore, those in the global South are provided access to content over which they have no agency – 51.3 per cent of communication on the internet is in English, and 56 per cent of all web pages are in English, though only 5 per cent of the world’s population speaks it as their first language (Eriksen, 2014).

A techno-centric approach encourages and reinforces a rush to use the newest and most advanced technology, rather than asking whether it is the most appropriate choice (Pieterse, 2005). Techno-centric approaches to development fall into the same trap as past ‘development fads’ – assuming new methods can enhance development when underlying structures remain the same – ensuring more dependency, less capability, and little opportunity for agency and inclusion.


  1. Ian

    Fascinating post Lisa and I couldn’t agree more. I tend to work most in the field of TV and radio, mainly with BBC Media Action, and there has always been a tension between embracing new media, and serving the target audience of traditional media – quite often those without access to new media. The excitement about new media potential often overshadows the need to serve the target audience; driven by what is possible rather than by what is needed.

    I’m thinking in particular about a TV drama series in Bangladesh which looked specifically at maternal and neonatal health in the poorest rural communities. There was a big push to incorporate a significant mHealth component – based on a similar very successful project in India. But in the end, the enthusiasm for an mHealth component, was diverting attention from the main thrust of the health campaign, using TV and community radio.

    Having said that in areas with high social media penetration (like urban Cambodia) where we ran a TV series on sexual and reproductive health for young people, the social media conversations really helped – there’s a degree of anonymity in commenting and asking online that protects the askers from awkward questions and moralising in the “real” world.

    It’s also an area that I’ve been exploring a bit with my posts – looking in particular at Big Data and how the almost evangelical belief in its silver bullet power from some quarters, threatens other approaches.

    Thanks again for a great enlightening post.



    • Lisa Smyth

      Thanks Ian – I do believe as practitioners we need to continually ask ourselves what communication tools are fit for purpose and context – it’s an uphill battle with donors keen to see the implementation of new technologies, but one worth fighting.
      Thank you for the link to your blog – I am excited to check it out!

  2. Hanna Fjellborg

    Thank you for the reminder that in this digitalized world, we still need to acknowledge that the digital divide might never be bridged and not forget about traditional media to to thwart further inequalities

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