Anonymous on Sat Apr 21 00:07:23 2001


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I was most attracted to Rehmi Post's $50 handheld Linux computer. It was a
brilliant mix of very low cost but functional computing and networking
components (100 kb/sec 900 Mhz radio, Linux os, stacked circuit boards,
innovative interface with jacks for keyboard and output to a television
monitor). He considered every important issue that a technologist from a
developing country would raise, including power consumption. It uses a very
efficient Motorola chip that draws an incredibly low amount of power which
could be supplied from the grid, a battery, solar panel or through a windup
mechanism. He was surrounded by people from Mexico, South America, and
Vietnam. For more information see
http://rehmi.www.media.mit.edu/~rehmi/pengachu.html or write to
pengachu@media.mit.edu

Another project of immediate use is the telecenter cost estimator developed
by Hani Shakeel. He had a complete set of data for costs in the LINCOS
projects in Costa Rica, and used that in the model. Once the data has been
inputted for equipment, staff, connectivity costs the planner can play with
configurations to match the expected budget. Naturally, if you are doing
this for South Africa or South Carolina, you will need a different set of
costs. The software is available for free download at
www.media.mit.edu/~hshakeel but you will need various MS applications to use
it.

One of the guiding principles of much of the design that might be the most
relevant was to make it inexpensive. In the last decade when I interacted
with the Lab from within the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, the high
costs of prototyping and research did not matter. Equipment with adequate
computing power was not cheap, and nobody expected the prototypes to be low
cost, but the problems in developing countries are so pressing, that early
cost reductions are an important part of the design process for Digital
Nations.

Following the open house, Jeffrey Sachs gave his pitch on development and
ICT. He acknowledged the hype but said the promises of ICT are real and
"could be a real driver for those left behind." He claimed we are all part
of the global economy, but many places, especially Africa, are stuck in the
production of primary commodities (oil, tungsten, diamonds, uranium,
foodstuffs). He explained how any business with clients in other countries
will need the Internet or they will lose out to those that do. He also
claimed that ICT will help society mobilize against corruption in
government, and I thought of the clever ways a recently deposed president
used ICT to hide the money he stole from a World Bank loan before he moved
to the United States. Still, Sachs was echoing the message that concerned
academics like Manual Castells have been writing about for five years.

In the last three years, ever since the Global Knowledge conference in
Toronto in 1997, there has been a rush to stake a claim as a leader in
technology and development. This has been intensified by the activities
centered on countering what some people call the digital divide. Others,
while agreeing that serious disparities exist, find this buzzword a very
poor expression of the suite of problems and power imbalances that exist in
society in 2000. The efforts by the Media Lab and Harvard are two more
institutions (along with the U.S. government, United Nations, numerous
foundations, non-profits, the G7 and a long line of corporations) striving
to plant their flags on the hill overlooking the digital divide.

However, in the wake of low tech/no tech problems of communal, ethnic, and
religious strife, global warming and over-population, some skeptics in the
development field (I really must avoid debasing the word "community" any
further than it has been by AOL and others) would state their doubts in this
way:

"After the Y2K non-event where billions were expended by companies and
nations around the world, much of the noise and the calls to action being
made to invest in information technology and networking infrastructure is
being seen as just another ploy to sell U.S. equipment and services. The
fear-uncertainty-doubt techniques used in 1999 to shift budget resources to
fight the Y2K bug are now being used to encourage lavish spending to 'bridge
the digital divide' to 'leapfrog into the 21st century.' Why should we
believe the companies, writers, and consultants now any more than we did for
the Y2K fiasco? Other pressing problems call for solutions that have little
to do with networking technology."

This will be the dilemma for some of the digital nations candidates, and it
will be up to the Lab to make the connection between the technology
solutions and those other pressing problems where ICT can be part of answer.
Should a poor nation spend a good chunk of money on version 1.0 of Digital
Nations or wait for an incremental release, or even version 2.0, after all
the bugs are worked out? At the close of the conference I heard from two
country and one state representative who expressed interest in joining.

eDevelopment: Enabling communities to shape their future

eDevelopment was back-to-back with the Digital Nations kickoff event, and
many of the same people who presented on Wednesday, continued to share the
stage during this conference: the Media Lab folks, Jeffrey Sachs, and Josť
Maria Figueres. It's commendable that this meeting was free, once you got to
Boston, and the food and wine were unmatched by any other gathering I have
attended. There was an overlap with the Digital Nations roster, with
attendees from 35 countries, and quite a few young people from Nation1.org
and the Lab. One of the problems with making conferences free is that many
people sign up and do not show up. The meeting was over-subscribed, but at
the end of the conference more than 200 name tags had not been claimed. This
is one reason why airlines have sophisticated overbooking strategies in
order to fill the available seats.

The first session was greatly enhanced the moderator, Hiawatha Bray, the
feisty and critical journalist from the Boston Globe. He began by citing the
evidence in the latest Department of Commerce report "I'm falling through
the net, and I can't get up!" that seemed to show that the problem of the
so-called digital divide was solving itself in the United States. William
Mitchell pointed out that a computer network's usefulness is not
self-evident whereas a water supply system is immediately useful. This might
help us make sense of the Pew study that shows that 57% of those Americans
not online have no interest in doing so. Seymour Papert pointed out that
only 10% of computer users will use the device to learn (and it need not be
connected to the Internet - which might even be a distraction and negative
force).

Bray asked how do we deal with the huge connectivity problems in Africa.
There was a discussion of the AfricaOne cable project and all the problems
it has encountered. Everyone agrees that the need is there, but addressing
the needs and rules in such a huge and fragmented market has been a
hindrance. Sachs talked about the tendency for state agencies and monopolies
to put their own welfare over that of the country, and this reluctance to
change policies in many African countries was one reason it was so hard to
interest investors. Toyin omo Adelakun, an ex-pat Nigerian from the UK and
head of Afrodigital said he thought the problems were too many languages and
too many countries. He said he did not intend to try and do business in his
home country because of conditions there! Instead, he has chosen six
countries where it will be easier to do business.

Bray asked provocatively if we should address the inequity of access by
shoving laptops in parachutes out of the back of C-130's flying over Africa.
Papert remarked that the industry kept a high price point for the average
computer sold by adding more features instead of aiming for much, much lower
priced machines. He spent a lot of time talking about the sad state of the
education system around the world and how a good computer with the right
software could offset the damage done by government ministries with a fetish
for standardized testing.

In the technology panel Gabriel Accascina of the UNDP spoke about his
infrastructure projects which have been in some of the most remote parts of
Asia and the Pacific: Tuvalu, Bhutan, Laos. His program had just received
the prestigious Stockholm Award, formerly known as the Bangemann Challenge.

The breakout sessions where there was more chance to interact with other
attendees were a major part of Day One. The topics were varied: Nation1: the
first online nation; MediaLab Europe, a new MIT venture in Dublin, Ireland;
unequal access in Cambodia; a primer on global e-commerce; eight imperatives
for a networked world; technology and community building; smart sourcing;
village area networks in Alaska; empowering youth; open source and
eDevelopment; PIE, Playful Invention and Exploration - a museum project;
digitally empowering the poor; IT manpower development in India; learning
hubs; intellectual property and development; IT for medical care and
telemedicine; lessons from India's digital divide programs; Junior Journal;
literacy and e-literacy; IT for activism; leadership and politics in
eDevelopment; listservs, connecting for change; the power of e-partnerships;
rural connectivity, the first mile, and community knowledge-global
collaboration.

This last one was presented by Derrick Cogburn from University of Michigan.
It took about 15 minutes to get the Windows machine running with Placeware,
a conferencing software suite that uses the metaphor of the lecture hall
with slides, voice over IP for lectures, whiteboard and chat. After
Cogburn's lecture, we discussed the software, the environment, and
alternatives (something cheaper, simpler, and perhaps open source). Cogburn
has used this effectively with seminars in his home country of South Africa
as well as Korea.

I led a discussion of telecenters. After a five-minute intro to this very
fuzzy topic, many of the participants (divided between the experienced and
the curious) asked questions and told their own stories of what is happening
or not happening in the field. High marks were given to Peter Benjamin of
South Africa who was not present, but those who had read his evaluation of
centers in that country were impressed. Some felt it was impossible to work
with governments; others thought corporations might dominate the scene after
learning what they could from the early funders and activists. Though we had
less than an hour, we skimmed over a lot of ground, and several of us noted
the difference in this session from the lackluster participation in various
telecenter mailing lists. I tried to emphasize the importance of place:
physical telecenters and meetings such as this, over exclusively online
services and online affinity groups. In a latter session Dennis Gilhooley,
an Irish journalist, policy guy, who is said to possess a Very Large
Rolodex, dismissed telecenters as "hackneyed" and "dysfunctional" without
elaborating. There are some who say these centers are a desperate attempt to
bring the benefits of ICT to the masses, but that it is not working: return
on investment has been poor for some of the big ones, and continuity in
management has not been a strongpoint, according to critics.

After lunch there were sessions on Latin America and "community." I must
have hit some kind of limit to my tolerance of jargon, hype, and boosterism
in the afternoon. As a kid I sometimes repeated a word over and over until
it lost meaning and sounded like nonsense, and this began to happen that
afternoon. I could not sit through the session where a consultant treated
two ex-presidents of Latin American countries as if they were precious
celebrities. The speakers were not at fault, though. I did hear Figueras
make the analogy (which I'm sure he uses in every talk) that the arrival of
the Intel plant in Costa Rica - where he had been president - is analogous
to removing the VW beetle engine from that modest little car and dropping an
aircraft engine in the back. He said the country could not be sure it was
always in control of this great force, but it sure was not the same car. He
also made a pitch for raising standards and attracting a better class of
investor rather than the much publicized 'race to the bottom' of labor and
environmental standards for countries hoping to attract sweatshops and dirty
industries (not that chip manufacturing is clean: in Silicon Valley we have
some of the worst pollution and ground water problems of the whole country,
and some of that is traced to the semi-conductor industry). When I hear all
the talk of Intel, it seems Costa Rica has replaced two monocultures
(coffee/bananas) with another: PC chips. If they can grow the peripheral IT
industries around Intel, they will certainly succeed in the same way that
Seattle now has a vibrant IT sector that can survive even if Microsoft is
not doing well.

Sherry Turkle spoke about the inadequate metaphors in technology (the
digital divide is one example) and how technology is changing culture. She
first looked at the disconnect between the utopian view of computer
enthusiasts in the 1980s and the reality that these machines were not going
to effect the kinds of changes they envisioned. Another danger was the
fantasy that gender, race, and age matter less online because you cannot see
most other users. She was able to deliver a rich set of ideas in a very
short time, but I really felt I needed to read them before hearing her
discuss them.

Alan Shaw, whom I had met when he spoke at a community network conference I
organzed in 1994, gave an update on the same project, Linking Up Villages,
which has been tried in the Boston area, New Jersey, and Jackson,
Mississippi. Using computers to link up single mothers in one project, these
women began to organize, use the tools to get more control of their lives,
and more importantly, to think differently about who they were and what they
could do. One woman who had never been on a plane, organized a trip to
Newark airport to show kids (and other adults) what went on there and to go
inside a passenger compartment. These were compelling stories, but I worried
that it took computers and networks to begin this transformation. My hunch
is that the concern and attention afforded these women by Shaw and his wife
were a good part of that catalytic process. Perhaps the computer
communication made it easier for the women to show concern for each other.

The evening was a special time. Isaac Hayes, the composer who won an Oscar
for the theme from Shaft many years ago, has been working with a young
Ghanaian woman to build Neko Tech, a school in Ade, in southeast Ghana near
the border of Togo. They showed a PAL format video on a U.S. machine that
distorted the images of Ghanian village life, Hayes' honorary coronation,
and the opening of the school and lab this year. However, the video effects
caused me to pay more attention to make sense of what was on the screen. The
villages looked no different from my visit there 35 years ago, but the lab
looked as sharp as a new Bureau of Indian Affairs school in some distant
reservation in America or the primary school in Silicon Valley where my wife
works. Hayes said other celebrities, including Denzel Washington, Tom
Cruise, and John Travolta, had helped with the project. Though he made no
overt mention of the Church of Scientology being involved in the project,
one foundation has declined to assist them once that link was made clear.
Hayes is considered a spokesman for the Church.

Hayes performed for the crowd, singing and playing on his synthesizer,
before rushing to catch a plane, and the second act was by a remarkable
hiphop artist known as DJ Spookey (Paul Miller). He gave an erudite
explanation of what he was exploring in his performances and did an amazing
mix of an old Marshall McLuhan vinyl recording, Isaac Hayes music, and his
own scratching and bass accompaniment. It was masterful.

October 20

The final day took place at Harvard Law School where the Berkman Center for
Internet & Society is located. Director Charles Nesson welcomed us and
outlined some of the challenges of the Internet: Notions of property and
privacy: can the property interests tolerate an open network (recording
industry vs. Napster)? Are we building a surveillance network? How do we
build on top of the technology, the needed layers of education, business,
and law to make it function for the benefit of society (and not just the
most powerful interests)?

Erik Saltzman of the Berkman Center used the metaphor that some nations felt
the Internet was the last ticket on the last train leaving the station, as
if there will not be any chances for some countries if they don't take
advantage of the opportunities. Robert Kaplan would argue that other forces
have already rendered that a moot issue in some troubled areas of the world
(Sierra Leone, the Caucasus, Afghanistan).

The panel on government included the top anti-corruption official for India,
Mr. N. Vittal, Central Vigilance Commissioner; Claudio Orrego Larrain a
Chilean minister of city planning who had a background in social programs in
urban barrios, and Dennis Gilhooley. Orrego is a good example of a modern,
techno-savvy public servant/politician who's willing to challenge his peers
as well as the business community in order to make this technology work for
the people. Orrego put his own financial holdings on his department web
page, though all the others for his colleagues are in a paper document
hidden away in a public agency where it takes a concerted effort to visit
and extract the data. This was in the wake of a government scandal about
severance pay for high level government employees in Chile.

George Sadowsky of the Internet Society said he dealt with countries which
have their head in the 20th century and their tail somewhere else. He
stressed that the opportunity costs of not investing in ICT needed to be
explained to the reluctant governments. One questioner said that it will be
a hard sell if you are saying that ICT will disintermediate "unneeded"
government workers and make the whole operation more transparent (i.e. less
corrupt). Having a government job where you can enjoy extra, perhaps illegal
benefits, is one reason this line of work is attractive in some places. Why
should they "get on the train?" Trying to convince some of these people to
get Internet religion is about as challenging as the U.S. foreign assistance
programs to encourage crop substitution for tropical farmers who are doing
quite well, thank you, partly because their global comparative advantage is
growing poppies or coca plants and not just growing more coffee or more
bananas. Why change because an outside consultant or advisor says they
should? In the case of coca, Apache gunships flying over and raining death
on the grower can be an added incentive to change crops. We don't expect
similar measures to be used on the ministries of telecommunications and
education.

An Indian spoke up and made a passionate plea to consider the corporate
agenda to influence governments and bring about policy changes to give them
even more power. He felt that governments needed to serve the people and not
just large companies. His was the first time anyone in the three days had
made any reference to this trend. Most of those present thought it was the
right trend or one that almost inevitable, but it would have been an
interesting discussion, had there been time. That is certainly what has
brought activists out in force at each World Economic Forum, at the Seattle
WTO wrestling matches, and of course at the World Bank IMF meeting in Prague
last month.

In the entrepreneurship panel Dennis Smith of Digital Partners said his firm
is starting a conversation between the corporations and the developing
countries about how to help these countries catch up. Smith sees the agenda
of the Internet philanthropists and the corporate affairs programs as a
useful part of this effort to connect the world. Others, of course, see it
as part of the broader corporate agenda. That is why the donations of the
Gates Foundation in the library connectivity program are seen both as a life
saver and the best program since Andrew Carnegie, or just an extension of a
plan to extend domination of personal computing.

Monique Maddy, Adesemi Communications, also on the entrepreneurship panel,
ended the conference with a rather sober assessment of doing business in
countries that everyone was so intent upon connecting to the Internet. A
Liberian by birth, she found that doing business was not a problem of
getting VC funds but of policy and business practices in Africa. "Deferred
Dream", her Harvard Business Review (May 2000, volume 78, p.57) piece on her
venture in Tanzania is a must-read. She also differentiated between the
funders who wanted to do good and those who wanted to do well (i.e. make
money), and the two camps did not mix well. For that reason she felt the
term social venture capital has an oxymoronic ring to it.

Before the Concordes were taken out of service, there were round the world
tours where a select group could fly in luxury, at high speeds and high
altitudes, touching down for fuel and visits in select locations. The three
days were much like one of these tours: we flew high and fast, covered a lot
of territory, with convivial company, good food, and pleasant surroundings.
Some of the speakers and many of the personal conversations helped ground us
in reality: David Cavallo talking about the successes and challenges in an
MIT Media Lab project in rural Thailand, Maddy's problems in Tanzania, and
Alan Shaw working with poor women in Jackson, Mississippi.

The topics were as varied as the attendees, and had there been an evaluation
form, the organizers might find out what topics they might focus on in a
subsequent meeting. Of course, one can find these conclaves going on
everywhere in the world: IIT in Madras connectivity solutions for developing
countries. FutureWorks in Newfoundland on telecenters; UNCTAD meetings on
ecommerce in developing countries. Just a few months ago Harvard hosted
three overlapping Internet conferences at the same time! Should there be a
followup to eDevelopment? Yes, but perhaps taking place closer to the target
audiences.

Will this allow Harvard C.I.D. and MIT Media Lab a place at the development
table? Of course, but success in the field will earn them respect above and
beyond the cachet of their famous institutions. Help the Fox government in
Mexico productize Pengachu, the $50 Linux box. Work with the National
Library of Medicine on AIDS and malarial telemedicine programs throughout
Africa. Show the masses in the street that privatizing national telephone
companies and water utilities will help the poor as much as it helps the
transnationals who are willing to invest. If good policies and technologies
emerge from expensive organizational membership and consulting fees,
publicize those as quickly as possible using other avenues than meetings for
members and clients. Find ways for any country, including those without
tickets, to get on the last train out of the station.

About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special
libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search
and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access
projects and community computing projects in the United States and
developing countries. He is currently working with Tachyon, Inc., an
Internet services carrier using Ku band satellite for high speed access. He
has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and
Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San Josť, California.
E-mail: cisler@pobox.com

Editorial history

Paper received 24 October 2000; accepted 1 November 2000.

Copyright ©2000, First Monday





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