Give us this day our daily Megabytes

Tuesday, 25th September 2007 at 8:02 UTC 6 comments

The One Laptop Per Child project made a significant announcement recently as it ventures forwards with its mission to get personal IT equipment into the hands of children across the poorest nations in the world. To me, this is a tough one, made more difficult by the environmental plus points to the new machines. At over $100 each, are there really not better uses for the money?

I suppose the basic questions here revolve around the necessity of computer ownership to a good life. We see Education as being critical to a countries development, but does this really need to include IT in countries where schools are often inadequate and undernourishment is rife amongst students, who’s mental capacities may be improved simply by providing a better diet? Are the attitudes informing this philanthropic mission based on a real objective viewpoint, or are they based on western-centric views that are getting something deeply wrong.

When I first came across this project, I have to say it did surprise me somewhat. In conversations about the need for IT in impoverished rural Africa, I do tend to favour the one-computer-per-village approach. This has its flaws (feminists tend to have a lot to say here), but it does mean that communications can be enhanced and developed, and information can be shared. If good quality, relevant information is available, then a basic web-connection would be useful to farmers, equipment makers and medics in these societies (sadly, there’s very little on wikipedia to improve anyone’s crop planting technique!).

But to move away from One Per Village to One Per Child presents new issues. First, there’s a real risk of generational issues here. My Mum really doesn’t understand computers and so she misses out on a lot of stuff, and relies on Dad or my Sister (or myself when around) to send emails. If Dad was similarly illiterate, my parents would be in a situation where they had to rely entirely on the goodwill of their children to communicate in what has become a very socially significant method. As these children get older, so their parents will be sidelined in an even more stark way perhaps, becoming a forgotten stone-age generation with computer-age kids who have no need for contact with them.

We are then teaching a reliance on technology which might not be entirely beneficial. ICT has already irrevocably altered inter-human relations in the west, and this hasn’t always been a good shift. Maybe the existence of such a project should call us to a realisation that we can no longer look at Africa without our own materialism getting in the way of an objective judgement for what needs to be done. We see computerless poor people, and we think “give them a computer”, because any improvement in their wellbeing will be meaningless without such a device. The basic human necessities of Drinking Water, Food, Shelter, and Healthcare have been joined by ICT access, as if we cannot live without it.

There might be an argument that says providing laptops for state schooling will prevent a technological apartheid between richest and poorest, but this smacks of the kind of grand scheme which has created national debt crises in many places: the ruler wants to make his country modern, so he contracts for goods and construction projects which might be suitable in 25 years time, once intermediate steps have been taken, and so either the project is half-completed or it is completed and either way, the population at large suffers.

However, this isn’t quite the same, its an educational project and not a hydro-electric dam, underground railway or 3-lane highway like some of the more devastating projects of the past, and we can, of course, just be thankful they’re not spending the cash on arms. In time, the simple ability to understand the means by which an increasing number carry out their employment might well put the recipients of these machines on a level footing with the rest of the world. And from the outset, if these children can download free textbooks and worksheets, this could save millions for a countries education system.

As to the current announcement (that people in the West will be able to order a machine and thus donate a second to Africa), I’m left wondering if this is really the best way for people to be donating anyway. We’re talking about the amount of money needed to feed someone for a year in some countries; wouldn’t that be a better use of the money? Or building schools in places where even schools have yet to exist, let alone IT lessons. Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves?

Or maybe we’re just getting out of touch. Maybe we see computers as more of a basic necessity than food, and maybe that says something truly terrible about ourselves, our gratitude and our values. If we are to live simply, so that others may simply live, maybe we need less computers. But maybe, if we’re careful with how we use the Earth’s resources, there might be enough computers to go round everyone and maybe this idea isn’t such a pipe-dream.


Entry filed under: Africa, Culture, Development, Education, Materialism, Sustainability, Technology.

Party conferences: less democracy, more glitz Pipe Dreams

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kaerast  |  Tuesday, 25th September 2007 at 10:07 UTC

    On a purely technical standpoint, the one laptop per child laptop is exactly the laptop I need – indesctructable, fantastic battery life, ability to charge without mains power, running Linux (even if it is Redhat). It wouldn’t have been built had some people not decided to give them to Africans.

    Moving on from that, it’s all about appropriate technology. If it will run fine in an African village without Westerners coming in and running it, or selling replacement parts all the time, then I’m happy with it. Do they need one laptop per child? Perhaps not, do they need ways of communicating between villages – definitely, and perhaps I’m being naive but I’d hope the laptop will allow for this. There was a scheme in India (I think) providing mobile phones to each village. Not because we thought “those poor people don’t have mobiles”, but because we thought “if we could improve communications between villages it’d make their lives much easier”.

    Why do we need one laptop per child rather than one laptop per village? Simple, we’re causing so much immigration to the UK that it makes sense to train these people before they arrive…

  • 2. Duck  |  Tuesday, 25th September 2007 at 12:53 UTC

    I’m trying to remember which NGO it was which was giving mobile phones to AIDS widows & orphans. Actually an effective way for them to earn income by hiring it to other villagers, & provided useful practical information on things like market prices & weather forecasts. This also made it harder for middlemen to screw around with pricing once they knew what price other people could get for selling on what they grew.

    I do take your point about basic nutrition being more useful than a laptop. But – I’m also not sure it’s useful only to aspire to the basic ‘1500 calories a day for survival’ level.

    I’d also point out that in large chunks of Africa the average age at death is – depressing. There aren’t many old people, & with AIDS there are increasingly few middle-aged people. Getting reliable, useful information out about AIDS & other diseases literally saves lives.

    Education saves lives & improves people’s life chances. More educated women typically have fewer children, are more likely to use effective contraception, can access information on safer childbirth, take steps to improve their own & family’s health & opportunities. A bit of training for traditional childbirth attendants, even on simple things like not cutting the umbilical cord with a dirty knife, can make a huge difference to the survival of women & children. Information is lifesaving.

    Have a look at the ITDG ( Lots of examples of how education, appropriate technology, information, can really change people’s lives.
    Simple example – cooking stoves. Better designs of cooking stoves can make them much more efficient, leading to less time spent gathering wood, environmental benefits, sometimes wood-gathering may carry other hazards (eg in Darfur many women are raped leaving refugee camps to gather cooking wood). Better design can make stoves less smoky, improving health – particularly of women & children. The WHO puts smoke from cooking stoves as the fourth biggest cause of lost DALYS (disability-adjusted life-years – standard measure of health outcomes) worldwide. As it’s usually women who do the cooking & spend time indoors, it’s often a ‘hidden’ problem – so how about computers are used to share information on the problem and how to change it?
    for more on cooking stoves – & yes, I have spent far too much time being talked to by Tim about this).

    Education is important. Take health information. You give people access to up-to-date information on HIV – a child brough up knowing what HIV actually is is less likely to grow up believing that raping a virgin will cure AIDS, will be able to challenge a government which says that beetroot & oranges are better than AZT (incidentally, if you’ve not read: you should). Having this information & knowing how to evaluate it is *important*, maybe as important as vaccines, because they tell you why they are important, how to get them, and can help you fight your Government if they are being bloody stupid about it.

    Frankly I think it not a little patronising to say that the *only* thing people need is calories-per-day. You aren’t giving people computers – you are giving tools to share information and communicate. I’m sure there will be plenty on Wikipedia about crop rotation when people who do it are able to share information. Information is *important*. Communication is *important*. When someone working for 12p an hour in a sweatshop in China making schoolclothes for Tesco can post on Tesco’s website for ‘mums’, that changes things. when they can find out for themselves what legal protections they should have without needing to be told, that changes things. When they can find out what the health risks of the dyes they are being told to work with really are, that changes things.
    If the people who actually made your university hoodies were on Facebook, how long do you think it would be ’till every single person at uni agreed that it was worth paying them a living wage?

    Here Endeth the Rant – sorry.

  • 3. Peter  |  Tuesday, 25th September 2007 at 19:34 UTC

    Take a look at this lecture by Negroponte on the project – has tons of great lectures.

    Why is this important?

    Because one of the main sources of global inequality is informational. In the Western world, we have freedom of speech and instant access to information. This is the greatest protection against corruption, injustice and abuse of power.

    One laptop per village would simply entrench existing power inequalities in traditional societies.
    One per child really goes some way to addressing global inequality of access to information. It would enable so many links to be forged at a truly grassroots level which otherwise simply cannot be made.

    $100 is about £50 – that’s nothing. It’s absolutely affordable, and it’s an investment in the future, because it will provide an entire step change in how kids are educated and can access information. Education is so precious in many parts of the world, and there’s so little access to it.

    I don’t understand your concern about generational inequality, Graham. Is global information inequality for all generations preferable to lesser technological inequality between generations?
    I’m sure that in most cases, the whole family would benefit from the computer, not just the kid.

    Finally, this is very appropriate technology. You don’t need electricity wired up to every house for the laptop to work.

  • 4. Greg  |  Tuesday, 25th September 2007 at 21:55 UTC

    Remember, though, that in many parts of Africa (at least in Kenya which I’ve visited, and I believe in many other parts), families are still very large; the argument that the whole household will benefit starts to wear thin at their third or fourth laptop.

  • 5. Graham Martin  |  Wednesday, 26th September 2007 at 4:21 UTC

    I see the advantage of one per child over one per village as far as power structures goes, but this could be a diversion from the real need. Duck, I really wasn’t saying that access to information and education through the internet wasn’t needed in Africa, it was more the extent to which each child, rather than each Educator or Health Worker needed one.
    The generational thing was more from personal experience, and how tech is splitting off one generation of my family from the other, and yes, Mum really does rely on others to be her gateway on the world (internet-wise, but then there’s not much of hard-reality left in some aspects of British life), which is a really annoying situation.
    Rich, while I understand some of your argument, there’s a whole raft of arguments I could make back, including brain-drain and educate-to-exploit based arguments.
    I guess the question comes down to whether this is appropriate technology (intermediate technology as ITDG put it), whether this is too much of the technology and whether the investment by the governments into the project is worthwhile/the best they can do with the money.
    There’s also the more broad question of whether the current level of penetration of computers into our lives is (a) worthwhile and (b) sustainable. As I’m sat in front of my computer for the 4th consecutive hour and its now 5.20am, I’m off to bed, safe in the knowledge that my life would currently be better without this thing. Damn me for being a luddite I guess.

  • 6. Duck  |  Wednesday, 26th September 2007 at 13:04 UTC

    Equip each child with access to information & the skills for using it, & you need fewer specially-trained ‘health workers’. You are effectively providing resources for people to educate themselves without having to rely on outsiders. Again for example, a fairly minimal training programme for traditional birth attendants can dramatically reduce maternal morbidity & mortality. Imagine every young person growing up able to access that sort of information – better information can make a difference to everyone, not just a select few.

    Generation gap – well, every time I am at parents, Mum has a list of websites that I have to print out so she can look at them. But I don’t see that as being an argument for not training younger people, any more than poor adult literacy is an argument against aspiring to universal primary education for this generation.

    Costs – take your point, but actually it doesn’t have to be either/or. Europe spends enough on ice-cream to give everyone safe drinking water. Even in the context of limited resources, providing unlimited information & communication has a lot to recommend it – not least as a way to empower people to demand & access further resources.

    Are computers really that wonderful – well, you are using about the same argument there that I have with recreational substance use, except that instant access to potentially unlimited, up-to-date information has more upsides than giving yourself temporary brain damage.


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