Monday, February 20, 2006

Internet and development

Looks like Nicholas Negroponte has left the MIT Media Lab to concentrate on his One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative.

I've been following the story of OLPC's $100 laptop and while I'm not 100% convinced that the $100 laptop is all it is cracked up to be (can't really picture kids in school hand-cranking these things all day) I think the project is interesting because it opens up the debate on what sort of tools are needed to bring the benefits of networking technology to developing countries.

Mobile phone companies are a leading voice in this debate as they have been rolling out low-cost versions of their products with great success. But mobile phones are just one part of the equation. In terms of basic communication and some functions, they are fine, but for more complex applications, I feel you need some sort of PC device just because the interface is easier. Even if the PC-like device is completely dumb and reliant on the network, the fact that is have a bigger screen and a more easy to manage keyboard makes it the right format for uses such as education and information kiosks set up in villages.

But the common refrain is, when people are dying of diseases and don’t have access to clean drinking water, why on earth do they need the Internet? That is a totally valid question and the answer is that like food and water, communication is a basic human need. I spoke the other day to Cisco’s Jim Forster who is currently working on a project to help people learn to set up wireless networks in in developing countries and he highlighted that people in these countries often walk for days from one village to the next just to inquire about family members or find out what has happened to friends and relatives. Social and family bonds are important and people with very little in the world often pay a premium in time and effort just to maintain those bonds. If the Internet could save people from making a day’s trek just o find out simple information, and they could then use that gained day to find another way to better their lot, then it seems to me that the Internet has a key role to play in development.

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