cisler on 12 Nov 2000 16:34:55 -0000


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[Nettime-bold] Digital Nations & eDevelopment meetings


Letter from Cambridge: Digital Nations and eDevelopment meetings
 by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 5, number 11 (November 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_11/cisler/index.html


At a time when the concept of nationhood is being questioned by political
scientists, forecasting firms, online visionaries, and political dissidents,
the Media Lab at MIT in Massachusetts held a kickoff event October 18, 2000,
for a new program entitled "Digital Nations." William Mitchell, whose book
City of Bits was one of the first full text works on the World Wide Web,
welcomed a group of several hundred consultants, educators, technocrats,
government representatives, and company representatives to the Lab, whose
director Nicholas Negroponte was recovering from a recent accident in
Dublin, Ireland. Mitchell said that the fundamental paradox of technology
was that the people, groups, and nations that benefited most were those that
were the best educated, most affluent, and most powerful. The technology
adopted, whether it is an industrial process, deadly military hardware, or
information systems, give even more power to the groups and nations of
privilege. Mitchell asked if we can design our way out of this problem? What
are the kinds of policies and institutional structures that are needed? And
what kind of technologies do we need?

The strength of MIT's Media Lab has been technology but also the way that
commercial sponsors have been able to take part in the process of
experimentation, prototyping, and user studies. The Lab has teamed up with a
group at Harvard whose expertise is not technology but policy and community
development. The Center for International Development, under the direction
of Jeffrey Sachs, worked with the Lab to organize the eDevelopment seminar
which followed the Digital Nations event, and Josť Maria Figueres of the
Entebbe Foundation in Costa Rica, together with Sachs and Negroponte,
constitute the Digital Nations board of advisors.

This first meeting was free, but like a "free" visit to a time-share resort,
a certain percentage of the attendees were expected to join the MIT program
at a cost of $250,000 per year for five years up to $750,000 per year. It
was not a hard sell, but it was sustained. At the same time they recognize
that the nations may need this kind of collaboration the most may be the
most destitute, and they have established a Digital Nations fund to raise
money from other sources to pay for membership for 10 countries for five
years. What do they get for their money?

The staff of the Lab, including Sandy Pentland, Mitch Resnick, and other
faculty and grad students answered that by the presentations they made
during the day. This was interspersed with outstanding food, drinks
including some very good French Burgundies and California reds, and an
atmosphere where they hoped prospective members could feel at home and
connected with the excitement of a world class development environment.
Pentland emphasized the importance of "face time" between Digital Nations
members, other corporate sponsors, and MIT staff. Most of us present were
not going to join, but the Lab recognized that convening such a varied group
was a tangible value to those who would join.

Pentland made a good case for the importance to Digital Nations of low-cost
sensors and wireless devices (combined with standard ICT) for use in
sustainable agriculture, medical care (where the user uses this technology
to analyze and care for himself), and community development. Working with
the LINCOS project in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, the Lab staff
is working to test and introduce, as well as develop, some of the more
promising technology. Pentland showed a Japanese consumer device that uses
the very popular iMode protocol and costs $34 and explained how a $1 sensor
might make this toy for affluent Japanese kids into a powerful medical
device that could be distributed to everybody and cost "less than the
average IMF bailout." He touted cheap wireless devices like the 802.11 cards
as a key to cheap, high speed connectivity for villages. I think he glossed
over the attendant costs in making the proposed network functional for a
group of villagers, but the idea has already been done by community
activists in London and in some developing countries. In some circles,
including the Lab, there is a premium afforded technologies that are
"disruptive" because they shake up sclerotic institutions and hopefully
bring something better in their wake. Pentland believes that the index that
tracks the number of billionaires created by a new technology is a good
measure of success, rather than a powerful lesson about the technology
paradox that William Mitchell stated at the start of the day.

Mitchel Resnick runs the Lifelong Kindergarten research group. His interest
is in the new ways that people learn, think, and design. He stressed the
need to people in a Digital Nation to be fluent with the technologies, in
the same way that a native speaker can use language for many purposes, not
just very basic communication. His comments revealed his sensitivity to
cultural issues relating to the introduction of new technology in developing
countries, and he described how Costa Rican teachers appropriated technology
for their own use once it was introduced by Lab staff working in country.
The DN projects will focus on children, seniors, underserved communities,
and whole nations. Once the program is rolling they expect that a project in
rural Thailand will cross-pollinate with one in the Caribbean or Africa. Of
course, this is going on already through other bilateral arrangements,
existing online affinity groups on telecenters, telemedicine, and K-12
education, but the Lab can add technological value if they can translate the
voice and the needs expressed by poor clients into lower cost, less complex
tools for the target audiences.