Computers for kids means democracy

First published: November 10, 2005

Ensuring millions of children in developing countries can use a laptops would appear to be a silly idea. Even more crazy would be a plan by the Canadian federal government to put computers in homeless shelters. Yet, last week both these ideas made front-page news.

One of the founding fathers of the Internet, Nicholas Negroponte, chairman and founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs, announced his designs for a sub-$100 PC. Fifteen million of these tough, durable computers, with a hand crank for anywhere without electricity, are going to children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand and South Africa. It is part of the combined efforts of the One Laptop Per Child group, a consortium of computer companies and big business, headed by Negroponte. The prototype will be on display at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia later this month.

Only a few days later, Joe Fontana, minister of Labour and Housing, along with Mike Parkhill from Microsoft Canada, Michael Sears from TelecomPioneers, and representatives from Industry Canada’s Computers for Schools program, held a press conference to announce $250,000 will be spent on computer hardware and software for homeless shelters.

Some people will certainly argue the insanity behind any idea like these, especially when there are so many hungry, sick, impoverished people who would more likely benefit from a decent meal, shelter and a good paying job than a computer hooked up to the Internet.

True enough. But there is a deeper idea at work. One that is not so crazy after all.

Negroponte is a huge proponent of the Internet as a tool for democracy. In 1999, he said the World Wide Web could be an instrument of peace. He has also said access to the Internet by kids should be like breathing clean air because he views it as such a fundamental right. For him, digital literacy is as important as other basic forms of education.

Certainly, both these announcements address one of the most fundamental concerns in modern society, the growing digital divide between those who can access Internet technology and those who can’t. In Northumberland County, we are fortunate to have free access computers in our libraries. And there are government programs that sponsor several local locations where free access is available.

Critics will argue it is not necessary. But, the Internet is an extremely powerful tool. The ability to access all kinds of information is astounding. Sure, there will always be those who see the dark side of the technology: the pornography and handbooks on bomb making. Still, one can look at the original Dead Sea Scrolls; learn basic mathematics; use an encyclopedia; watch movies of sea turtles swimming; and so on.

So what good would it do for these kids to have those laptops? Well, they would suddenly have access to all this incredible information. They might also have the ability to send an email to those in power, saying, “I’m hungry”.

Before rolling eyes get stuck in the back of anyone’s head in disbelief, this is not so far fetched. Social movements and powerful protests have taken place on the Internet. The last American presidential election was fought as hard on the Internet as the campaign trail. Toward the end, mass email strategies, along with online commentaries on blogs (a type of web diary) from across the country were targeting key states in an effort to sway votes. Believe it or not, the Internet is a serious place for democracy.

Far too often, these incredible tools are either underutilized or dumbed down to a point where they are virtually useless. No doubt, it is great to send friends an email or check prices on e-Bay or chat endlessly with friends on MSN. But think for a moment. What if, instead of sending email to a friend, it was sent to a politician – a local councillor or mayor? Sure, they can press the delete button. Still, if another was sent. And another. And yet another one. It wouldn’t take long until the message got through. Just think how little effort this would take compared to the hoops local municipal councils are putting citizens through these days. With the new restrictive policies, it is much easier to send an email over and over.

And isn’t that really the point. Right now it is far too hard to be recognized in our current democracy. We rarely, if ever, get heard. A cynic might say this is the way those in power wish it. The illusion of democracy. Process over people. Dialogue only on the terms of those in charge. Rules from rulers.

Yet, with a few simple words (Great job; or, You suck!!!) citizen voices can be directly expressed. No time limits or lengthy preparations or advance notice. It would be worth a try. And, that is what Negroponte and the Canadian government are really doing. It is an expression of faith as much as anything else. Given the tools, these children and the homeless will find a way to communicate and that might lead to a revolution of sorts. A single grain of rice can tip the balance of a scale.

So if we can have this much faith in a child and a computer, why don’t you give it a try?

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