A comment by the author, Tony Roberts, on his Laptop Burns post “Why apps can’t transform society”:

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 momentum 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 definitely ‘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.

Tony Roberts also connects the dots in a previous post entitled “People’s Power: have we got an app for that?”:

  • providing market info to privileged individuals is not development
  • development requires solutions that serve the common good
  • resource distribution is currently grossly uneven
  • more equitable redistribution requires reversing power relationships
  • this will be resisted by powerful elites
  • reversing power-relationships will therefore require collective action
  • technology can not be a substitute for people’s collective action
  • people’s capacity and intent can be amplified with ICTs
  • equalising power & redistributing resources is a political project

So to be clear, this isn’t to argue that building apps is a waste of time, but that the capacity and intent needed to actually change the status quo first needs to be identified if not built—and building intent ultimately hinges on political questions that those in power (and those currently pushing public app development) may be loathe to address.