Bridging the Digital Divide: right intentions, wrong solution

I probably shouldn’t criticize Raj Reddy before I even get started at CMU, but TechDirt picked up on a NY Times article on his new PCtvt, “a $250 wirelessly networked personal computer intended for the four billion people around the world who live on less than $2,000 a year.” While I admire people who want to help less fortunate people around the world, the PCtvt is just another example of how misguided the effort to bridge the digital divide is. The popular approach to addressing the digital divide is this:

Problem: poor people, usually those who are traditionally disadvantaged because of race or ethnicity, can’t afford computers and therefore, can’t compete in today’s job market or digital world in general.

Solution: give computers to said poor people or make cheaper computers/make computers cheaper so poor people can afford them.

Case in point: the PCtvt. (Let’s put aside for the moment that a $250 computer for a person making, at the most, $2000 per year is still over ten percent of his annual income.) By bundling television, DVD player, telephone and videophone capabilities into this computer, Reddy hopes to finally bring “computing and communications to populations that until now have been excluded from the digital world.” That’s all fine and good– he’s admirably trying to bring three decades worth of technology to these communities all at once– but the thing that really drives home my point is something he points out himself: because it can be controlled by a simple remote control, it will be beneficial particularly in places with large populations of people who cannot read. Reddy says he thought about what somebody on the other side of the digital divide would really want and the answer he came up with was entertainment.

Doesn’t anybody else see how messed up this is? Hello, have you met some people on the other side of the digital divide? They may want entertainment and be willing to pay more than five percent of their annual income to get it, but is this really where we want to be putting our money and effort when it comes to helping those less fortunate? There are large populations of people who can’t read and our biggest concern right now is providing them with cheap home entertainment centers? Instead of trying to bridge the digital divide, how about bridging this reading divide? And while we’re at it, why don’t we bridge the math divide, the housing divide, the health care divide, the food divide? Why don’t we help people get better housing, have better schools, live healthier? Maybe then they can have both the time and the money to own and use computers and participate in the digital world. Even if people are giving away computers to disadvantaged communities– as some are as part of their effort to bridge this gap– it doesn’t really help the fact that I’m worried about buying food next week or paying my rent. Even if I have a computer– PCtvt or Dell Dimension– it doesn’t really help me because I can’t eat it, wear it or live in it.

You want to bridge the digital divide? Bridge all of those more basic divides and you’ll see the digital divide grow smaller all by itself.