Wrong side of the digital divide, again

Bobbie Johnson at Comment is Free reports on criticism of Nicholas Negroponte’s plans to produce $100 laptops for developing countries. Some of the criticism comes from Intel and Micrososft and, as Nick says, that can be only good — it means they’re nervous. But some of the criticism is more politically correct — that there are more pressing priorities. Well, of course, there are. But just because you can’t solve those problems that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to solve the problems — and create the opportunities — that you can. Negroponte et al are not in the position to feed the world and end wars and cure diseases. But they can bring technology and all that means to more people. This is the same skewed PC logic I complained about here — a ridiculous and offensive habit of showing that you are more concerned about the world if you can remind us of a more serious problem we’re not solving: You shouldn’t blog until everyone is online; you shouldn’t get more people online until everyone has computers; you shouldn’t get everyone computers until….

  • Deflation can’t be fun for people trying to make a buck so I’m sure WIntel are motivated by fear… but what about a couple of entrepreneurs in Africa who were thinking of starting a small PC business who now must compete with MIT subsidized laptops? Moore’s law being what it is you have to assume that laptops are going to cost $100 in a couple of years anyway.

    Somalia has no government which means there is nobody to ban Skype to protect a state run telcom monopoly like you see in China, etc. They have the lowest international call rates in Africa and a surprisingly good telcom infrastructure not to mention higher life expectancy than their neighbors.

    My point is that when you have intervention, be it foreign aid, government, or well meaning people at MIT, you run the risk of killing whatever dreams the locals may have had about building an economy of their own.

  • I agree with you Jeff that we don’t have to solve all the old problems like poverty, lack of clean water, and so on to address new ones, like lack of access to computers and the net. Whether Negroponte’s tactics will be effective or not is open to question, but I think the strategy of connecting people in developing countries to computers is a good one, especially if those computers can be connected to the net.

    People could use those computers to find information about how to build a good well, or water filtration system, or other such pressing needs. And they could use their access to the net to publicize their difficult living circumstances which would educate the outside world about what needs they have.

  • I often hear the “clean water first, then Internet access” argument, and my response is always this:

    Here we are with a tool that opens up the smallest village to the rest of the world, potentially increasing the rest of the world’s knowledge about the fact that they don’t have clean water. Not to mention that the villages can now talk to each other about how to solve the problem of not having clean water, and they can study the history of how others have found solutions to the problem.

    Plus, how often do you see mass media and blog coverage of the need for clean water? Okay, now cut to Kofi Annan cranking on that laptop prototype. There’s an image that actually gets people motivated to solve a problem.

    The laptop project is a means of education and information, and with that, people in developing nations will be able to accomplish more on their own and depend on the US and UN less.

  • Marcus

    Leute! Kauft Lilien, liebt euch…
    Macht die Welt ein klein wenig lebenswerter!

  • I think I want to invoke my Mother’s logic here:

    Yes, giving something can be a huge help. Those laptops can indeed open a village to the world.

    But if you want the good to count for something in the long run, we have to give more, and there need to be other structures in place to make sure the giving counts.

    Recently, there was an article on Cameroon and why it hasn’t developed in Reason magazine. I blogged about it here; you might find my comments useful, or perhaps the article more useful.

  • ashok,

    The best thing you can give a person is an opportunity.

  • alan,

    Agreed. I don’t think I said “don’t give.”

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  • gibreel

    I see both sides. While clearly it’s well-intentioned and thus immnune from a degree of criticism, there’s no doubt that if some of the energies being put toward this project were redirected to, say, making clear drinking water or fighting malaria, peoples’ lives would be bettered in significant ways.

  • JSinger

    Here are my two criticisms, that have nothing to do with “Until we solve…”

    1) Negroponte and his crew have been bragging for years about how their grandiose scheme is going to transform the world. And so far, they’ve issued press release after press release and haven’t delivered a single machine. I’m sorry, but when you cultivate your own celebrity, you catch criticism.

    2) And if it weren’t for 1) I wouldn’t complain publically about this just like I don’t when others do the same thing — this project suffers from the same flaw that these Wiring The World projects usually do. The idea is to provide the most exotically wretched villagers with the most exotic new hardware. Instead of putting maintainable, extendible systems in the hands of people who can make use of them, the goal is instant revolution.

    Kirk’s point is also a good one.

  • Henry

    You shouldn’t blog until everyone is online

    My dear boy, it’s not like that at all. It’s more a case of some people shouldn’t blog until everyone is online.

  • “The laptop project is a means of education and information, and with that, people in developing nations will be able to accomplish more on their own and depend on the US and UN less.”

    Wow, that’s it right there, isn’t it?

    1. It’s a great means of education, if you’re literate. In 2000, UNESCO estimated that around 900 million illiterates in developing countries; that doesn’t even include the huge number of the partially literate. So until the same governments that are going to be distributing laptops establish adequate education systems, good luck to those guys, huh?

    2. It’s a great means of education, if that’s the way you learn. In all this talk about how it’s going to revolutionise learning in developing countries, I haven’t heard any actual discussion about how people in those countries actually learn. Because if they don’t learn by searching google, then this scheme isn’t exactly going to work for them, is it?

    3. It’s a great means of information, if there’s any information out there that’s useful to you. The absence of local content (particularly in local languages) is one of the biggest gaps in developing countries’ use of the web. And information on a screen is of limited use if there’s no tools to build that well, is it?

    4. I hate to break it to you, but most people in developing nations don’t rely on the UN, and they particularly don’t rely on the US. They rely on their hard work and initiative to survive, even in the worst of conditions. So please don’t cast this as a “white man’s burden” issue, because it really isn’t.

    Honest to god, I want to believe in this, if it’s going to lead to more people in this world getting an even break. But as far as I can see, everybody involved in this project cares about the technology more than the people it’s supposed to be helping.

  • JSinger

    In all this talk about how it’s going to revolutionise learning in developing countries, I haven’t heard any actual discussion about how people in those countries actually learn. Because if they don’t learn by searching google, then this scheme isn’t exactly going to work for them, is it?

    I think the scheme makes sense from the point of view of an MIT graduate student put in the position of a poor person with no sewage system. He’d Google “poor person clean water ” and then start blogging.

    Again, I’d just shrug sadly if this were just a well-meaning person trying to quietly help. But when you demand attention, you get it.

  • The real issue here is not whether or not poor people should have access and opportunity in the digital age –of course they should! — but what precisely is the best mechanism for making that happen. This is where Negroponte’s idea of “One Computer, One Child” goes awry. A much better solution has been proposed by Indian scientist Sugata Mitra and his “hole in the wall” team. Mitra has demonstrated more than a hundred times over that “One Computer, Many Children” is more effective, in that the peer-to-peer learning involved unleashes a ‘spiral of self-instruction’ that leads to children teaching themselves–and each other — the rudiments of computer literacy in about two weeks, with little guidance from anyone.

    My documentary film “The Hole in the Wall” examines how Mitra embedded a high-speed computer in a wall separating his firm’s New Delhi headquarters from an adjacent slum, and then discovered that slum children quickly taught themselves how to surf the net, read the news, and download games and music. Mitra then replicated the experiment in numerous other locations. Each time the results were similar: within hours, and without instruction, the children began browsing the Internet.

    Mitra estimates that, given access to one hundred thousand computers, one hundred million Indian children could teach themselves computer literacy within five years.


  • Bycycling magazine is tooting their own horn (pun!) about their latest “Biketown” project, which is to send custom made bikes to Botswana to help the people there. The people there have said this would be a good thing, as bikes that do not break or are easily repaired are scarce there. They will use them to help local health workers travel more easily and quickly.

    So what we have here is…..
    1. Identifying a low-tech way to help people by
    2. giving something they agree is needed and will use, and
    3. Actually getting their input on what the tool in question should do ahead of time.


    This link might get you to the article, at least it works today…

  • ashok,

    But wasn’t your original message, “Don’t we have troubles?”

    Yes, we do, but it doesn’t mean we can’t make life better for people a little at a time, and let those impovement spread?

  • Paul, it’s not a top-down design at all. Think Fidonet or Usenet. The point is to let people help each other while avoiding the need for infrastructure.

    Others, these devices are not super high tech. It’s called the $100 laptop for a reason.

    True, there are many ways the project can fail. But it seems like a great try. For example, building water infrastructure one city at a time is no good if the locals are not able to keep the infrastructure maintained. I am optimistic that people can and will learn to google “poor person clean water”. :)

  • Sorry, Lex – I’m not convinced.

    1. It’s very top-down – not the usage, but the project. It’s produced by an elite western academic institution and will be distributed by governments.

    2. These devices are not super high tech if you’re somebody like you or me. If you’re a child in a village in Lesotho (for instance), it’s entirely possible that ‘your’ laptop will be the most technologically advanced device that anybody you know has ever seen.

    3. I am not optimistic that people will learn to google “poor person clean water” – not because they’re stupid, but because of language, social and cultural barriers.

    Here’s a little test right now for everybody – you google “poor person clean water” and see what you get. Good luck maintaining that village well.

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  • On the one hand I salve my conscience by donating on a regular basis to developing countires, but on the other hand, having lived in and visited some of those countries I often wonder whether we are doing them any favours giving them aid.

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