Through an announcement from the I-School at UC Berkeley, I was alerted to an essay in the online magazine Bidoun. The essay, by Binyavanga Wainaina, forces one to rethink and reconsider how technology might be truly transformative by placing the emphasis on how people actually live their lives, leveraging how information is already used and shared. It is easy to redesign in one’s mind how people interact with society, but that is too often in its culmination a failing of respect and understanding.
The essay is on the One Laptop Per Child initiative.
You can buy a mobile phone for thirty dollars in Nairobi. There is a nationwide network. But more importantly, there is a nationwide industry of small suppliers that has sprung up to service that network and those phones. Handymen can fix the most broken of casings; streetside entrepreneurs offer you the use of their phone for a few shillings; tens of thousands of tiny booths sell airtime. A guy called Njoroge has a business in Nairobi’s industrial area called “Lord of the Ringtones.” They digitalize and sell ringtones, 220,000 of them a month. Cellphones are the biggest business in Kenya.
And they are transforming culture, even as they spawn new markets. In Nairobi, a student paper caters to kids from across the city’s high schools; submissions are sent in by text message, with articles written in textesewords broken into their smallest possible lucid components. Every few months or so, rumors circulate, breaking some code or other and giving free airtime or texts. Some people have learned to communicate for free with their regular clients or family by coding their ringing: one ring, I am on my way; two rings, I have picked up the kids; three rings, I love you.
If you walk into any African market, you see chaos. Things tend not to cross over from the formal side of an African city to the informal side. The two speak very different languages. Often, the formal side, out of its good nature or its panicked guilt, out of a feeling that the giant world of the urban poor is too pathetic to tolerate, pins its hopes and dreams on some revolutionary product. Biogas. A windup radio. A magic laptop. These pure products are meant to solve everything.
They almost always fail, but they satisfy the giver. To the recipients, the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities. … Whereas a pure product presents itself as a complete solution; a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them.
There are few useful “development models” for genuinely selfstarting people. I am sure the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects. The IMF will smile. Mr Negroponte will win a prize or two or ten. There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a village in Cambodia; in a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together to play minesweeper. There will be many laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them.