Netbooks: modern Tower of Babel

Tokens of success insufficient for bridging the technological divide.

by Ashley Dresser

By now, most of us have endured the irritating 2-3 days of disconnection from the internet that comes with moving house. Comcast rarely shows up when promised and if they do, youâÄôre inevitably missing âÄúthat black thingy that plugs into the whatchmacallit or whatever.âÄù Yet ours is a tiny inconvenience and ultimately survivable. Try moving to South Africa. Last week, South African tech company Unlimited IT hired a pigeon named Winston to carry a 4GB memory card from one branch of the company to another to make a poignant commentary on the unreliability of Telkom, one of the countryâÄôs biggest internet service providers. The result? Winston made the delivery in 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 57 seconds. Upon his arrival, TelkomâÄôs ADSL connection had only managed to download 100MB of data and was reporting an estimated 2 day total download time. South Africa is supposed to be a developed country, yet Africans pay a premium for some of the most inadequate internet sources in the world. Incidentally, âÄúhaving the internetâÄù does not translate into being technologically capable. You should know that âÄúhaving a laptopâÄù doesnâÄôt either. Critics have increased their cry of doubt over the much-famed One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program as of late, with one UN-based blog simply declaring: âÄúThe dream is over.âÄù Officially launched at the World Economic Forum in 2005, OLPC dazzled do-gooders around the world with their one-for-one model for low-cost laptops. For $400, you could donate one (trendy-looking) laptop to a child in need and receive one yourself. What could possibly go wrong, right? Well, you canâÄôt just hand a kid a guitar and expect him to be Jimi Hendrix and the same holds true for laptops. OLPC has been a failure because the program is not holistic enough. The training of locals on how to use laptops in the classroom and tech support remain extremely lacking, as frequently have the laptops themselves. American customers often experience delays in receiving their laptops and among delivery to those in need, several thousand orders have been reported lost or stolen. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, is quick to deliver his rebuttal: âÄúThe dream is not over. When OLPC started there were no low cost laptops. We created that category less than four years ago and it now represents almost on third of the world production of laptops.âÄù Yes, Nick, what you created was the worldâÄôs first netbook, the latest technology craze in the first, not third, world. You missed your target population entirely. This battle to bridge the technological divide is reminiscent of the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, in which man becomes so proud of the tower he has built that God, disgusted by manâÄôs short-sightedness, confounds his ability to communicate, multiplying the languages of the Earth. As developed countries like South Africa continue to achieve tokens of technological success such as a âÄúworkingâÄù internet connection, we are busy creating some 1,300 mindless iPhone applications and proudly parading our tech candy through all parts of the world. But before such behavior can become helpful, people need basic training in a format that they can understand. No oneâÄôs going to eat a Tootsie Roll if they donâÄôt know what a Tootsie Roll is. It looks like poop. A more appropriate program would have been One Trainer per Child. Technology training, not simple access to technology, should be the focus of similar initiatives in the future. Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected].