Contradictheory: Digitalisation is not about giving everyone a smartphone

Post-Covid-19 and the world wants to move online. But technology is a part of the puzzle, not the solution. Photo:

It has been suggested that one way we can help narrow the digital divide between haves and have-nots in Malaysia is to simply give a laptop (or equivalent) to every child. As someone who once was involved in a project to give computers to nearly 100 school laboratories, I think this is potentially a very bad idea.

Actually, you don’t even have to listen to me. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, initiated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s luminary Nicholas Negroponte, has its own share of critics. The OLPC was a noble idea, that computers should be cheaper so everybody can have one and nobody is left behind. But there were issues with parts of the implementation, which began in the latter half of the 2000s. Specifically, if you give hardware without adequate training or support, it results in the technology not being used. Estimates given for some implementations were that computer usage actually saw a drop between 27% and 59% due to hardware problems and lack of knowledge.

The thing is, computers are part of a system rather than the jewel that solves a problem, as they are often seen to be. The mantra I learned when I first started implementing technology was this quadruplet: technology, processes, policies and people. All four must work with one another. It was true a quarter of a century ago, it’s still true now.

The great thing about technology though, is that although the initial investment might seem high, the value of the return will be higher – if done correctly. In 1997, when the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) was about to hit its stride, the country was hit by the Asian economic crisis. The ringgit doubled against the US dollar, and suddenly we were plunged into a recession.

Yet the MSC project continued to move ahead. It is said that a recession is a great time to invest in the future, and for countries, it means building infrastructure. A similar idea is echoed now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the world’s economy. The Pelan Jana Semula Ekonomi Negara (Plan to Rebuild the Nation’s Economy, or Penjana) is a broad initiative to both arrest the immediate impact of Covid-19 on local industry (especially small and medium enterprises, or SMEs) and also push development in the next few years. Although the plan itself is broad, there are pockets of opportunity for both the government and businesses to digitise themselves. The question is, how?

Well, it shouldn’t be about putting a computer lab in every SME. You are not trying to supply hardware, you are trying to build an ecosystem and – possibly more importantly – a culture.

Let’s take Estonia for example. The country has built a reputation for having the most digitalised government in the world. Around 80% of their citizens interact with the government using the Internet (in comparison, the figure for the rest of the European Union is less than 50%). A demo I saw last year showed that a citizen who logs into the government system will see a personal home page with all government-related information on it. Not only your personal data but also details of your family (and a link to a marriage certificate), perhaps the land you own (with corresponding link to land office records), even a list of schools you can register your child for in the coming year.

It might look straightforward on the surface, but it was a lot of work. You need laws on personal data and how it can be accessed. You need a system to integrate the various databases. And people need to know how to use the tech comfortably.

It took 17 years to go from “You can do your tax filing online” to “There are now 2,000 services in 900 government-related organisations that can talk to each other”. Compare that with Malaysia, whose Malaysia Government Enterprise Architecture (MyGovEA) project only began its awareness campaign last year.

The lesson to learn from this is that for all the talk about leapfrogging and quantum jumps, there are really no shortcuts. Digitalisation is a gradual process that takes time and dedication. And anybody who tells you there are quick fixes to this is probably not going to be working beside you in the long run.

Nevertheless, we should start laying the foundation. For SMEs, it means understanding what it means to digitise the data you have. And it probably means digitalising your company rather than your customers. You want to provide a more efficient service, not give every person who walks through your doors a free smartphone.

In education, I think there is far more value in getting teachers and administrators digitalised rather than students. For a start, the entire ecosystem is under the control of the Education Ministry, so it’s easier to put in place appropriate policies and procedures. And the focus should be on making teachers more efficient by alleviating the burden of their non-teaching tasks. A report by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development states that teachers spend about half their time on such duties. Any time reduced in that is time now spent focused on your child.

Ironically, it may mean that the student is the last person that really needs technology in his/her hands. But at least you know when that finally happens, he/she will be the final piece to complete the whole picture in the jigsaw rather than the starting point that is trying to make sense of the whole puzzle.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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