Reflection – U.N. Human Development Report 2001

A decade ago, we imagined development in the context of technology as a sprawling task, beset on all sides by uncertainty and ambiguity about the course of global information flows. As evinced by the United Nation’s annual report, policy and the economy together undergirded the activity of development, while a tangle of both instrumental and classical understandings of available data spanned our understanding of the data that impacted those twin pillars. Our ability to comprehend the status of efforts towards development in historical context – and the technological frameworks through which we formed and communicated that comprehension – put world-views at stake for both developers and those becoming-developed. Meanwhile, we left assumptions of the direction of developmental progress untroubled by ongoing global shifts in technological and cultural patterns.

The report frames human development as the central tenet of the political and economic architecture of the Millennium Development Declaration. Crucially, development is seen here as a process that depends on a potential equivalence in measurements of the quality of human lives. Here, policy and governance interventions intersect with economic and financial data in both neoclassical and neoliberal paradigms. Moreover, an historical transformation in social organization – from collocations to networks – appears at the forefront of deliberation about development. Networking technologies both define and drive the period’s developmental priorities, so the report concentrates on how changes in technological availability constitute both a metric of developmental progress and its central instrument.

To allow our imagination of development to advance in technological structures of logic and feeling, we find a plethora of catalysts at hand. First, indices of technological capacity join those of economic status and political qualities. Then, an emphasis on risk and its management furthers the project of drawing equivalences between lived realities across disparate parts of the globe, by framing those realities in a common, global paradim, complete with heirarchies of strategy ranging from global to national to institutional. Categorizing relationships between development statuses and historical progress leads to a pattern of assigning what is known about the developed world to universalized cognates or abstractions, and then mapping those broader assumptions into expectations for changes in the developing world. Each discussion places both actors’ and analysts’ worldviews at stake – the most radical claim advanced by the report is that creativity invests, like power, in the products of technological construction, such as intellectual property and institutional networks.

However, the report assumes, from start to finish, that the direction or valence of development and progress are givens, and beneficial to boot. Redressing inequality becomes a boot to which quite narrow concepts of modernity, science, technology, and growth are strapped nearly indiscriminately. This inattention to fundamentally contradictory beliefs, such as the inherent agency of technology to produce knowledge for humankind’s benefits, allows the development imagined by the report to distance itself from technological utopianism even while espousing its teleology.

Contemporary research on the topics of development and technology might, then, interrogate the grounds on which we imagine both of them. Can we, after all, draw unequivocal indexing rules out of the messy data that proliferate around us? Upon what higher-order logics – or beliefs – must we draw in order to transform analysis into strategy? These questions, one step removed from the authoritative, might guide research over the course of this semester.


(Reference: United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2001: Making New Technologies Work for Human Development, New York: Oxford, 2001.)

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