What some propose as the solution to the digital divide just may be the twenty-first century version of "let them eat cake" from the young and wealthy digital elite in the US, described in a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Two articles this week suggest limits to the vision that widespread distribution of personal computers are a solution to the world's problems, as represented by the push to develop a $100 laptop to distribute to kids in the developing world.
The New York Times (Winnie Hu) reports on school districts in the US that are dropping programs that gave every student their own laptop computer. Research has shown that laptops have no impact on academic performance, while the cost of maintenance of so many machine in the hands of kids is proving to be high. And (not surprisingly), the kids are using their laptops mostly for entertainment: surfing the Internet and playing video games.
One of the largest studies reported in the story is being conducted by the Texas Center for Educational Research (EIN 74-2504826 Form 990), which appears to be just a shell organization funded by the Texas Association of School Boards (EIN 74-2275519 Form 990). After the initial results of the study were reported, most schools have opted not to adopt a one-to-one laptop program.
While it doesn't specifically address the $100 laptop, a workshop at the recent conference on computer human interaction (CHI 2007) held in San Jose explored the relevance of concepts of user-based design (embodied in the personal computer) in developing countries. Concepts of community based design and deployment based design were proposed as better alternatives for developing technology that will be put to productive use. The workshop led one observer to go so far as to ask, "Can user centered design be harmful?" A number of the projects presented at the workshop were sponsored by the Bridging the Global Digitial Divide group of the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (government agency). This argues against a solution that focuses on putting computers in the hands of individuals first.
CHI 2007 is sponsored by the special interest group on computer-human interaction (SIGCHI) of the Association of Computing Machinery (EIN 13-1921358 Form 990).
But I think the interest in the $100 laptop in some tech circles is well explained by a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project (funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts EIN 56-2307147 Form 990). The study tries to characterize Americans by their comfort level and usage of new mobile and interactive technologies, ranging from those who embrace every new device to those who are off the grid completely.
They found that three in five in the US rarely or never use these technologies and many even find them annoying. About a quarter are heavy users because they have to be for work. And only one in twelve fall in the class of enthusiastic embacers. The demographics of the enthusiastics ones is noteworthy (page 62 of the report): they are predominantly young (18-29) and well off (income over $75,000 a year). These, I think, are the people who want the kids of the world to have a $100 laptop. They are mostly projecting their own enthusiasms.