Friday, November 21, 2003
Fortunately, when we go out to create Simputer projects we are not starting from scratch. For example, Schools Online has placed thousands of computers and trained teachers to use them in schools in underserved parts of the U.S. since 1996, and has turned its attention to placing computers and training teachers in the underserved parts of the rest of the world. I recommend them to the attention of any reader, and we in the Simputer movement look forward to a long and fruitful relationship with them.
Although this program has done substantial good, it has suffered in the past from the problem of all programs to help the poor with technology, since it depends on continuing gifts from the well-off. In a word, it is not sustainable.
The key aim of the Simputer is sustainable programs for the poor, where the first few computers produce enough economic benefits to allow a village, or individuals in the village, to buy more, and to create further growth, and so on in a virtuous circle. We don't have data yet on precisely what it takes to create such a virtuous circle for computers, but we do have data on how it can be done without our latest technology.
An excellent case study is America's Founding Secret: What the Scottish Enlightenment Taught Our Founding Fathers, by by Robert W. Galvin. The essential point is that, starting from the Protestant program to allow every Christian to read the Bible, Scotland was the first country to attempt universal public education, and that Scots moving to the American colonies brought this policy with them. Not only did Scotland lead the way in public schooling, but it promoted home schooling as well. In the United States, this led to nearly universal literacy in the Free states. Nearly every home had a Bible, and nearly every child learned to read it. A secondary result was that Scotland, and then America, attained record levels of higher education and high-level employment. Scotland produced so many doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals that it had to export most of them. These expatriates spread the ideas that produced them all around the world.
The Scottish Enlightenment depended on the Protestant Reformation for its drive and its aims, and the Renaissance for much of its content. The Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance in turn depended on the printing press and movable type, the ultimate high information technology of the 15th century.
High tech has enormous value, but without users and goals it accomplishes nothing, or sometimes worse than nothing. We need low-cost high tech, such as the Simputer, to create sustainable development for the poor today. We also need a culture that supports development. Not the culture of the developed world, which takes its past for granted, and not a mythical static traditional culture, but a culture created by its members to achieve worthy goals and to make the best use of the available tools, as many cultures have striven to do.
What might a worthy goal be? How about this: to enable the poor of the world to take part in the discussion about their future, and decide for themselves what other worthy goals to pursue. After all, they know better than anybody else what problems they face, and what they would like to accomplish. Clearly, in order to have a fruitful conversation, the poor need access to the ideas and the information of the world at large. As E. F. Schumacher said in
So a large part of the program is to get the literature of the world into forms that the poor can access, and this means using the current high-tech replacements for the printing press—CD-ROM presses and burners, and the Internet. The Internet is not a problem. Google counts 3 billion pages and growing. What we need is a way to get literature on CD-ROMs to the poor, and let them create their own libraries on rewritable media. This means religious literature, philosophy, poetry, novels, science, politics—whatever, in whatever languages. We have made a good start on this in our Information Age, with Project Gutenberg leading the way. It offers thousands of works in English and some in other languages. There are similar collections in a number of languages, more than I could list here. Many scientific journals are converting to online publication, and some even allow free public access. The Web was actually invented by a physicist, Tim Bernerns-Lee, for sharing preprint versions of scientific papers.
So now we have riches that users of the ancient libraries of Alexandria, Abbasid Baghdad, or the Chinese empire could never have dreamed of.
And that brings us back to Schools Online. Now we can give schools not just a computer, but immediate access to huge chunks of the literature of the world, and let people make their own collections. Not just one culture, but all recorded cultures, and all the ideas for new ones. As the Constitutional Convention in the United States considered republics and constitutions from Greece, Rome, medieval Italian city-states, and Native Americans, now the world can consider those and the experience of China, India, Africa, and everywhere else in deciding where they want to go next.
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