Tuesday, January 30, 2007

'Third World': Expect spacejunk from Davos

Davos luminaries will soon be launching laptops to Africa's poorest, or so runs the current saviour complex of today's tech gurus. An article from yesterday's NY Times offered a revealing glimpse into the type of utopian fantasies circulating at this year's Davos World Econcomic Forum.
"How to Wire the Third World" describes how today's technology CEOs dream of global relevance via the salvation of the world's poor. Their debates over how to solve the global 'digital divide' bear the mark of all starry-eyed social engineering endeavors, with the world's digitally illiterate providing a conveniently captive set of guinea pigs. Lack of food, water, education and safety for many in the developing world apparently matter little when you can throw a $100 laptop at the problem.

[An MIT rep demonstrates the $100 laptop]

I'm not one to call the kettle black, for the international development and disaster relief business is rife with fantasies and funding dedicated to a 'better world' for the most destitute of the planet. But at Davos, where so many rich people and self-proclaimed visionaries mingle annually, one would expect their underlings to have researched what prior forms of literacy, infrastructure and knowledge are required if a computer is to mean anything other than spacejunk to an subsistence farmer, a former child soldier, or the third wife of a man with 27 children to feed.

I'm soon headed to northern Uganda to research violations against children by the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan National Army. I'll keep one eye skyward for any falling laptops--although such spacejunk is already common in rural Africa. I used to work with Dinka pastoralists in Southern Sudan who decorated their cattle by hanging discarded CDs from their horns. The CDs were recovered from the trash pits of international NGOs working to improve the lives of southerners during the war with Khartoum. Of course they had no idea what the CDs were, other than round reflective disks once used by foreigners. What would the Dinka do with laptops? Maybe trap wild game in the mighty jaws of the hinge mechanism connecting keyboard and screen.

No comments: