Monday, November 24, 2003

Give a Man a Chance

In Small is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered E. F. Schumacher extended the saying

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

His version was

Give a man fishing tackle, and you feed him until it breaks.
Teach a man to make fishing tackle, and you feed him for a lifetime.

If the fisherman is not part of a larger economy, this is the right plan. But if the fisherman can sell some of the fish and buy new tackle, he doesn't have to know how to make it all himself.

It is not possible to build billion dollar semiconductor fabs in the villages, so villagers will not be able to make Simputers from scratch. However, they will be able to do the hardware and software design, the assembly, the programming, the system administration, and the Web design and marketing, all of which will pay for the semiconductors, displays, boards, connectors, and cases. Villages cannot be totally self-sufficient in ICT hardware, but they can make a place for themselves in an integrated economy that brings them all the hardware they need to maintain and extend that place.

For villagers to take on the assembly work assumes a suitable level of education, suitable infrastructure such as roads, and suitable laws on commerce in general and import/export in particular, all of which is doable. At some point, villagers will be able to design their own chips and hire a fab to make them. Presumably it won't be people who grew up and got their education in the villages who do that first, but rather some design engineers who are tired of Silicon Valley or some other high-pressure high-tech center, who decide to move to the villages for quality of life. Then thay can train up new village engineers in a distributed village education system.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

World Summit on the Information Society

The announcement of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) says that the Summit will be held from 10 to 12 December in Geneva, with more than 6,000 delegates from government, intergovernmental organizations, civil society, the private sector and the media. The second phase will be held in Tunisia in 2005.

The Summit is being held under the patronage of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and is being organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN's specialized agency for telecommunications.

The draft action plan of the Summit proposes a commitment to connect all of the world's villages with information and communication technologies by 2015, and to connect at least half the world's inhabitants by that date.

I think that we should be able to do a lot better than that, but I admit that it is a challenge to organize and train enough people to make it happen. It is obviously not enough to install the hardware. We must at least create health, education, and other programs, and train the villagers to install, maintain, and administer their own equipment. Actually, we want to do much more than that. We want to tap the talent and special knowledge in the villages so that the villagers can deslign and roll out programs better suited to their needs than those designed by outsiders.

Friday, November 21, 2003

Schools Online

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 Small is Beautiful, you need ideas to think with. The ability to pass ideas and accumulated experience from one generation to another, or from one country to another, is the foundation of anything that could possibly be called progress.

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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

You Can Help

Everybody involved in aiding the poor, whether in developing countries or even in the US, needs to understand the battle between Micro$oft and Free Software, and why the Free Software movement creates better quality products.

Go to a Linux User Group meeting or a Linux install fest. You can put Linux on your computer without removing Windows.

Mac OS X users already have FreeBSD Unix and just need to install X Windows. FreeBSD is just as good as Linux, and some say better.

Try out Open Office (on Windows, if that's what you use), and see whether you really need Microsoft Office or Windows at all, and in particular whether you need to go on paying for Windows every few years.

Get your neighborhood school to try Linux and free Open Source textbooks. The User Groups would be delighted to install Linux in any school and provide basic Linux training for teachers.

We are going to set up sister-school relationships between the developed and developing parts of the world. We also plan to link to orphanages, refugee camps, and other suitable places.

Talk to your employer about Free Software. Talk to your church, mosque, synagogue, temple... Talk to any non-profit organizations you belong to.

Talk to me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Great Conversation

There are many important uses of Simputers, but the greatest impact will come from bringing four billion more people into the global conversation on their future.

After all, who knows better what the poor of this world need than the poor themselves? I guarantee that the poor aren't the ones asking for aid to build a bigger military, or for big foreign aid projects that do not provide education and jobs for local inhabitants. I have heard (though I don't have a link for this) that the poor, when you ask them, say that they want basic survival needs met first, meaning no war or oppression, and enough food. Then they want education and opportunity for their children. Health and everything else comes after that.

I must say that I'm glad somebody asked some poor people their opinion, but I would feel better if I could hear it from the poor themselves.

Just to get a hint of what I mean about people being able to talk to each other and to the rest of us, have a look at Vis a vis: Native Tongues from Native American Public Telecommunications, with Ningali Lawford, Australian Aborigine playwright and actress and James Luna, Native American performance artist. It is being shown on PBS television stations at various times throughout November, is being shown at several film festivals, and will be available as a recording soon, we are promised.

Here we have people from two traditional cultures who have been taking their messages to the wider world, and now to each other. Before this documentary was made, these two had not met and had not seen each others' work.

Then we have the villages that have not been able to form agricultural cooperatives because they have no way to communicate with each other, and the people in villages without telephones whose children have gone away to get jobs in the city or even in other countries, or the would-be village entrepreneurs who have no place to put up a Web site.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Good Source of information

The best place I know of to find out what's going on in global development is the Development Gateway. You can find out what is happening in poverty, human rights, malnutrition, and the other essential issues, and on the whole development process in various countries, especially Afghanistan and iraq. You can sign up for e-mail alerts whenever something is posted on your favorite topic. I found 24 hits today in their search engine on Simputers.

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