Thursday, July 03, 2003

Divisio Digitalis delenda est

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Article 19.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 26.

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

The Bangalore Declaration

Impact of Information Technology

  1. I.T. [Information Technology] holds a unique promise for women in developing countries to empower them to move beyond their traditionally assigned roles, and to help them to take their rightful place in society by active participation in all areas of the economy.

  2. Timely access to appropriate information and knowledge is the key to development, for both the individual and society.

  3. I.T. must be used to strengthen the role of the media in making democratic structures more participatory and transparent.

  4. The priority application of I.T. should be in the following three broad areas, namely, information access, communication and economic transactions, a few examples of which are given below:

    1. agriculture on a priority basis,

    2. improved access to primary and reproductive health care,

    3. access to reliable data for effective planning and administration at all levels, and

    4. low-cost communication to enable cooperation between people everywhere.

Among these rights, a lot has been done on education and free speech, but not as much on seeking and receiving information. This is what we have called the Digital Divide. You hear a lot about bridging the Digital Divide, but I don't like to think in those terms. We can't fulill the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Bangalore Declaration unless we obliterate the Digital Divide from the landscape and from our minds. If you have followed my drift in earlier postings, you will see that the economics of the Simputer allow us to do just that.

Certainly we can't do it all at once. Nobody could pay out a trillion dollars to give everybody on Earth a computer and net access, and even if we could raise the money, it would take a decade to build and install the equipment. Even then, we wouldn't have enough trained people to manage it all.

What can we do then? We can talk about putting one public-access computer into each of 100,000 villages at something under $1,000 each, including wireless connections, solar power, and some other necessary equipment. A program that costs $100,000,000 worldwide is well within the reach of many governments, several UN agencies, and a number of foundations. We know that it would be possible for microbanking organizations to do something similar, and in fact the Grameen Foundation's Village Computing Project is experimenting on this line. Expanding to the rest of the villages, however many of them there are, would then be straightforward. Those that couldn't get a land or local wireless connection could get satellite Internet for about $2,000 for a two-way, high-bandwidth dish and receiver.

Given a wireless network connecting most of the villages in the world, we can look at how to expand from there into the schools, the health system, government services, barking, and much more. We don't know how fast economic opportunities would grow to the point where people could buy their own computers, but we know that in many places it would happen, and that we would see a period of exponential growth in usage powered by expanding opportunities in education and jobs. How far forward that would carry the world economy, nobody can say. But we can foresee a point at which everybody who wants access to computers and the Internet can have it.

There will not be a day when we can hold the celebration for the demise of the Digital Divide around the world, any more than we have had such a day in any of the developed countries. In the US, for example, it just crept up on us, as a combination of increasing computer ownership, increasing geographic coverage by Internet services, and increasing public access to computers at libraries, employment offices, and other government services. Except for the most impoverished Indian reservations and the remotest rural communities, anybody in the US who wants to get on a computer can. It would be helpful to let people more people get on more of the time, especially in schools. With desktop Linux systems going for as little as $200, there is really no excuse any more for not providing them to all schoolchildren. So the remains of the Digital Divide, in the US at least, come down to politics rather than economics.

This political problem may well recur in other countries. But I'm not going to let that stop me. We know what to do now, so I've already started the celebration, and I'm just going to keep right on going. Care to join me?
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