Saturday, December 15, 2007

Results: Cell Phone, 2.0/Laptop, 0.0

When I visited Senegal last April, seeing West Africa for the first time in more than a decade, I was struck by two things. First, even in an area of the world where gum wrappers had once been saved and turned to other uses, the plastic bag was now both ubiquitous and worthless. There’s no value in stockpiling them for future use: they cover the roadsides. This sad fact made me despair for the future of humanity (and I’m not kidding). Second, cell phones were everywhere. Once again (as they had from bicycles to cassette players), Africans had seen a technology that they wanted—and weren’t letting poverty stand in the way of attaining it.

In an article recently republished by ePluribus Media, Bronwyn Hughes and I argue that the only way development assisted from the outside ever works is when the outsiders follow the lead of the locals. We wrote:

For a long time many people saw the developing world as an empty pit, pouring in skills, goods, and money to fill it. More and more, this pit appears bottomless, basic human conditions within it only worsening. Project benefits are not lasting. Little seems sustainable.

We shouldn’t have put that in the past tense, though those involved in on-the-ground development today do understand this (for the most part). The problem is that too many people sitting far away still believe they can solve the problems of the developing world through their superior thought, technology, and money.

In my recent book, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, I write about Nicholas Negroponte’s No Laptop Left Behind project (well… let’s be fair: he calls it One Laptop Per Child) and about why it is no solution for the developing world. I quote Binyavanga Wainaina, writing in Bidoun, who says that the message of artifacts like Negroponte’s laptop to Africans is “you are fucked.” Negroponte fell into the classic trap of thinking he could find a solution for the problems of someone else—without consulting that someone else.

The embrasure of the cell phone by Africans is a leapfrogging of the laptop, anyway. They have seen the future much more clearly than Negroponte, and have made the right choice. Writing in today’s The New York Times, Tim O’Reilly points out what he (and I, and millions of Africans, among others) has known for some time:

In the future, the cellphone and similar wireless devices, not the personal computer, will be the primary interface to the cloud of information services that we now call the Internet.

Not only that, but it will be the primary technological device for the classroom (see my diary and presentation on the subject) quite soon, replacing the PC even there. The “smart” classroom, along with personal devices, makes for flexible possibility far beyond anything a room filled with PCs can offer. And this is true for Africa as much as for Atlanta.

Like the phone companies that O’Reilly writes about in his piece today, schools have to open their minds to a more expansive view of the cell phone and its possibilities. Instead of banning them completely, as the New York City public schools do, ways need to be found for bringing in the cell phone in a non-disruptive manner. We college professors need to do the same thing.

Thursday, I walked into my last class of the semester for one of my Composition I sections—my new iPod Touch in hand (I’m too cheap to pay the monthly fees for the full iPhone). One of my students stared at it and marveled:

“I never saw someone so elderly with something like that.”

I told him he’d better shut up, if he expected to pass the course.


Sherman Dorn said...

At the end of the semester, some of my students in my Honors Arts/Humanities class discussed the way OLPC fed into narratives about technology, and some of them came to the same general conclusion as you did.

I'm neither as sanguine as Negroponte nor quite as cynical as you about the project. I don't think the XO will be distributed to the very poorest communities, in part because of the infrastructure difficulties. But it will become available to millions, and that might be dramatically important in building up educated groups in various countries.

For example, I suspect one significant group of ADULTS whose lives will be dramatically changed by XO will be teachers. Among other things, the XO is a remarkable e-book reader, and even minimal internet access will give teachers enormous access to materials.

AaronBarlow said...

Believe it or not, I agree with you. And I think Wainaina would, as well.

My problem with the OLPC project is not that there is no value to it, but that its purported goal is ill-conceived.

In his article, Wainaina writes about where technologies such as that of OLPC will prove useful (though he's being a little tongue-in-cheek). As one who always believes in (relishes, in fact) the unexpected result, I do think positive will result from OLPC--just not in the area where it was first aimed.