The guy next door is 22. My age, basically. It’s been some time since he left school. He’s graduated from a top school in Colombo – let’s not point fingers – and like most of the neighborhood, he has a decent PC and internet access. 

What does he use it for? Porn. And Facebook. And Porn. 

Somewhere, an analyst probably has marked him down as being ICT literate. And he is. He can successfully wank off using a computer, if not much else.

I know ICT penetration is a watchword, especially in third world countries like ours. We’ve observed the Developed Nations at play. We’ve seen what they’ve wrought with IT, and naturally we’re quite eager to have all of our citizens on the grid and accessing all that mythical Garden of Eden of knowledge, the Internet.  To that end, we’ve got quite a few efforts going on. The government of Sri Lanka, for instance, has managed to push ICT penetration from 12%$ to 40%. That’s a PHENOMENAL increase.

But what are we measuring, really?

Is it the number of 17-year-olds who’ve suddenly discovered youporn.com? Is it the number of girls who’re suddenly able to make Facebook profiles and go “Hikzzz” on Facebook posts (and possibly hang themselves later)? Is it more 9gag users?

Stop. This is the problem.

You see, we measure ICT literacy and all that from a very high horse. We talk about industry, we talk numbers, but we forget that at the end of the day, most people with access to core ICT tools – a PC, a smartphone – don’t do anything useful with them. On the surface, ICT literacy doesn’t inherently mean better IT workers or better communication or more power to the youth. It may mean that the next Zuckerberg may come from India or Sri Lanka, but it doesn’t have to. More likely the next million Google searches for little girls will arrive first.

In fact, if you look at it, humanity as a whole hasn’t really done much with the tools we have at our disposal. The greatest communication tool in the history of humanity (the Internt) is something we have access to day in and day out, and what do 99% of us do with it? We share cat photos. We Instagram our food. We indulge in ever more varied forms of narcissm. We bitch about stuff of blogs that nobody cares about (like yours truly).

Two girls in Sweden took this photo on a smartphone before robbing a restaurant. Technically, this is also "ICT literacy".
Two girls in Sweden took this photo on a smartphone before robbing a restaurant.
Technically, this is also “ICT literacy”.

Proponents of ICT literacy – those of us who push the numbers and do the math – would love to believe that an Internet connection to a home means that poor family now has access to all the knowledge they’ll ever need. Or better communication. Or something. We look at the numbers and are delighted. But really, we need to ask ourselves: what are we measuring here?

Am I making a case against ICT literacy? Heavens, no; but I’d like to point out that how we judge literacy – by the number of Internet users, or the number of houses with a computer – is flawed. Many households have TV: it doesn’t mean anybody’s doing anything meaningful or productive with it.

So – have we actually made a valuable difference, or have we just made someone’s life more meaningless? And how do you measure that?