A lot of buzz at the Tunis meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (organized by UNESCO and the ITU in 2005) was generated by a presentation by Nicholas Negroponte about an MIT project to design and implement an inexpensive, hand-cranked laptop which could be marketed (sic) to poor countries to "bridge the digital divide". The "unveiling" of the device brought out a crush of TV journalists, radio reporters and eager bloggers. At the time, a Kenyan communication specialist remarked privately,"The project is so "American"." He explained that the whole notion of INDIVIDUAL (or as they are called PERSONAL) computers is a concept that is not necessarily the best solution to information problems in places like his country. He mentioned the successful community telecenters where technology and skills are SHARED as being a model for the more practical immediate needs, and of course the over-ridding need for backbone infrastructure access. He also scoffed at the trials of the machines--mainly done with MIT grad students not in the dusty environment of an African village. Without any basic trials, Negroponte seemed to imply that they would go into massive production of several million and that orders were in place from Brazil and India. That would be without even trying a larger test of, say, several hundred in a variety of situations-- urban barrios, villages, etc.
Last week, with similar hoop-la, Negroponte presided over a UN event for the lap tops. After being questioned by skeptics in the discussion period Negroponte admitted that the massive orders had fallen through, but that they were going ahead with production on a large scale. A useful accounting of the UN event is at http://taz.de/blogs/netizenblog/2007/10/24/one-laptop-per-child-can-it-become-a-reality/ The questions posed in that article are quite striking. For example, why would the UN sponsor this presentation by a single company/institution without opening up a broader discussion of the various problems with connectivity in developing countries? Why was there no discussion of the infrastructure needed to provide broadband? Or, for that matter, no discussion of the real divide: the stark poverty of townships in Africa compared with the shiny commodity-filled malls of Cambridge and Boston (and Sandton in RSA and the YaYa Center in Nairobi).