The Myth of the Digital Divide and a $100 Laptop Holy Grail

MIT's $100 Laptop Recently the MIT Media Lab initiative, headed by Nicholas Negroponte, to develop a $100 laptop for distribution to schools and children in developing nations has been getting a lot of press. See articles at BBC News, the Wall Street Journal, and a Wired interview with Negroponte.

This $100 laptop initiative and similar projects before it, are based on the large assumption that there is a “digital divide” and that this divide needs to be closed by the UN, and those of us in first-world nations.

First of all, I agree that there is a literal “digital divide.” There are those of us in the world who have easy access to digital technology in our lives and there are those that don’t. But labeling such a difference as a divide, merely creates a new, surface-level problem, to cover over the underlying divides. As this Economist article states,

“…the digital divide is not a problem in itself, but a symptom of deeper, more important divides: of income, development and literacy. Fewer people in poor countries than in rich ones own computers and have access to the internet simply because they are too poor, are illiterate, or have other more pressing concerns, such as food, health care and security. …a computer is not useful if you have no food or electricity and cannot read.”

The article goes on to claim that mobile phones are a more practical approach in developing nations, but I fear that’s just as naive. What the “digital divide” really creates is a new project, with tangible goals, for the UN and first-world nations to concentrate on. It is easy to count computers or internet access points or mobile phones, and see the results of new technology projects. It also offers up a giant purse of international funds to companies, organizations, and initiatives galore. Contractors are just lining up for a piece of the action, and I’m sure the first thing on their mind is the welfare of the poor children.

The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative is decribed on MIT’s site as, “an independent, non-profit association… It is totally separate from MIT, with its own board, executives, location, and staff.” Following with, “Its founding members are AMD, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat, all of whom have funded both OLPC and the MIT Media Lab.” Independent, indeed.

The $100 laptop initiative suffers the same “digital divide” assumptions. Just reading the FAQ page on the MIT site exposes countless leaps of logic and over-simplifications. The second question and answer perhaps say it best:

Why do children in developing nations need laptops?
Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to “learn learning” through independent interaction and exploration.

Yes, laptops are indeed all of that, but why do children in developing nations need them? As mentioned above, there are many things they need before laptops.

Furthermore, giving $100 laptops to children, or filling schools with them, is rife with more basic problems: those of economics. I don’t have any concrete facts to back it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the value of a child’s life in many of these nations, is less than the future going-rate for one of the laptops on eBay. While the entrepreneurs, and techno-vangelists of the US are planning their $100 laptop distribution, I’m sure equally cunning entrepreneurs in these countries are planning their green crank-powered laptop resale business. Only $250 each?

I know it’s a pessimistic view to take, but I just don’t see laptops, internet access or mobile phones changing much of anything. This is the cultural divide. Our culture knows that technology and laptops help in education. Again from the MIT FAQ: “Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play.” Yes, in Maine, in the United States. Conclusions such as this do not directly translate to a different country and different culture. Early AIDS awareness and sexual health initiatives in Africa failed for precisely this reason. Successful tactics in our culture ran into unexpected barriers caused by fundamental cultural differences elsewhere.

On the other hand, if laptops turn out to be the information and education tool that can help solve many of the problems plaguing nations around the world, well, I would be thrilled to be wrong.

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