No matter how many times researchers caution about the tendency to exaggerate the impact of information technologies (ITs) as “magic bullets” to address a host of development challenges, common talk is predictably techno-optimistic. Policy makers, the media and aid organizations usually throw nuance aside to hail the arrival of the latest technology. Recent hopes for mobile telephony and “social media” and applied to aid and development follow in the footsteps of the past. (By the way, all media are social as opposed to anti-social or individualistic, a matter for another post).

Such optimism certainly rings of deja vu. Every new technology has been followed by grand promises and hopeful predictions about their impact on development. Suffice to find scattered evidence that people use new technologies to rejuvenate old hopes and truisms. The conventional wisdom believes that if we let technology blossom, wonderful things will surely follow. Distribute free or cheap laptops, promote telecenters, make wireless telephone widely available, and positive change will happen. Farmers will be connected to markets, schoolchildren will learn more, health systems will function better, and democracy will prevail. It may not be sudden, but it will happen in the long run. If technology can change commerce, education, politics in the West, it is reasonable to expect similar, positive transformations elsewhere. In the world of international aid permanently searching for new solutions to address (mostly) old problems, the notion that ITs bring a better future to individuals and communities is beyond a doubt.

As someone who has worked on communication and social change in both academia and “the field,” I have been often asked “what IT works?” Implicit in this question is the expectation that someone can exactly know what results “ITs” deliver. Is radio still good to transmit messages? Does television “work” in rural communities? How about digital platforms to reach young populations? How about advertising campaigns delivered via handheld devices? How about smartphones to improve educational performance?

There are no straight answers to these questions. Results about “what ITs work” (and why) are more complex than what techno-enthusiasts recognize, and policy-makers usually have time to hear. From the uses of transistor radios to video cameras, the record about the impact of ITs on development issues is mixed. For every indication of positive impact, many examples show little or no effects. We have evidence of tangible results, but numerous experiences have never been documented.

Even if you don’t want to sift through massive amounts of data, ask yourself: What development problems have been successfully addressed in the past that at least partially can be attributed to ITs? Increase in rates of children’s immunization? Disease control and/or eradication? Gains in political and legal rights around the world? Women’s empowerment? Higher enrollment of girls in primary schools? I bet your answer is “a mix of factors” to account for what happened, whether results were positive, negative or unknown.

A better answer to the perennial question “Do ITs contribute to social change”? is “it depends.” As recent articles demonstrate (see, for example, articles in Issue 5 of the Journal of International Development in 2010), many factors shape the way IT are used for development. Sure, one can hear exasperated voices in reaction to this argument. “It depends” lacks the elegance of clean-cut recommendations. It is hard to turn it into catchy soundbites and ambitious names for programs. It doesn’t lend itself to easy policy prescriptions. It sounds too complex, too academic for the aid industry in need of practical ideas that deliver concrete results. Yet, it’s true. People, not technology, change things under certain circumstances.

What does “it depends” refer to? ITs help when they become integrated in local networks of people that promote positive, progressive change. It’s not the isolated digital platform in a school, neighborhood, or hospital with limited resources. Instead, it’s about how people can connect to others who are able to spearhead changes or learn from others about solutions to a given problem. It’s about reaching out to people who don’t know, think they are confronting a unique problem, or believe that their actions have never been tried before.

Come to think of it, this way of thinking echoes old approaches that prioritized roads and bridges as the bread-and-butter of development and international aid. The latter, as well the idea of embedding ITs in social networks, are about connecting people to people, politics, economy, and education.

The difference is whether people, instead of The Stuff drive the process. From public infrastructure (schools buildings, health posts) to goods (medicines, insecticide treated nets), The Stuff has been a key component of aid programs. Over decades, donors have generously supported it. ITs are another example of the endless love affair with The Stuff in international aid. But one could argue that The Stuff effectively helps communities to live better when they are integrated and owned by local networks in ways that help people get connected.

This is why the idea of “network,” one of the buzzwords of the current age, needs to be embraced beyond its technological connotations and the current craze about “social media”. Instead, “network” needs to be fully incorporated into how we understand development problems and think about solutions. Just as studies have persuasively invited us to think about current societies in terms of “the network society” (the work of Manuel Castells is a good place to start reading on this issue), it is also necessary to put networks and people at the center of development and aid.

Call it “network thinking” as the kind of mindset that prioritizes social, rather than technological, networks. It is primarily sensitive to existing social networks, structures, and institutions and how they are and can be connected to others. It assumes that linked (or “mashed-ups”) social networks drive social change, not scattered technologies. It is focused on how ITs help to develop, consolidate, maintain, and promote networks of people interested and mobilized to change lives. It searches for opportunities to embed ITs in old networks, and catalyze new forms of interaction that facilitate conversation and action. It tries to dovetail with ongoing local processes of change that can be aided by ITs. Instead of distributing smart technologies because they are sleek and cool, it thinks smartly about strategic opportunities to support local connectivity.

If “it depends” is too ambiguous for a world that loves simplicity, the ideas of “social network” and “network thinking” should help us understand when and why ITs contribute to making a difference in the lives of ordinary people.

So, next time someone proposes to throw the latest technological gizmo at a problem or is convinced that marvelous “apps” will definitely cure all kinds of ills in the world, I suggest that you ask: Will ITs help to connect people in ways that facilitate communication and collective action? What communication challenge will be addressed? How do we know if people communicate better, then, they will be in a better position to deal with a problem? What has happened in the past when then-new ITs were introduced? What communication and development challenges could ITs help us understand and hopefully address? These questions should be at the center of “net thinking” for social change and development.