Bridging the Digital Divide: right intentions, wrong solution, Part 2

I just wanted to respond to a comment on my previous post on the PCtvt. I don’t mean any ill will towards the PCtvt people, including Raj Reddy, but the way the NY Times article reported on the device is really what set me off on my rant. Commenter Prasanna (and btw, thank you for commenting– I get very few legitimate comments) notes that after a three-year study in rural India, the PCtvt team came up with the device to help these rural communities get connectivity with the rest of the world and specifically, learn about important services, funds, etc. they could get from their government. While I still don’t necessarily think that the PCtvt is the best answer to this problem, I do agree that this problem of communication is a key component of the digital divide. The nature of the digital divide is, obviously, different in different communities– rural versus urban, American versus European versus Asian, etc. In urban US areas– where much American media attention focuses– the issue isn’t that people don’t know about valuable government services (those who pooh-pooh welfare might say they know too much about government services), but that there are much larger, systemic problems that can’t be solved by a device like the PCtvt.

But the NY Times correctly reports that the PCtvt is intended for people around the world who live on less than $2000 a year– certainly not the demographic of most Americans on the either side of the digital divide. And yes, I haven’t spent three years in rural India doing field research, so let’s say that communicating with these communities is a core problem. Then that’s what news coverage of the PCtvt should have focused on, instead of Reddy talking about how he can “find a market” among these populations and that he believes people would be willing to pay more than five, ten percent of their annual income for a device like this. And the effort to sell the idea of the PCtvt shouldn’t focus on its merits as an entertainment center– Berkeley’s Tom Kalil’s soundbite that includes the phrase “Entertainment is the killer app” just seems insensitive to the problems these communities face and diminishes the value that a device like the PCtvt could provide.

But at the end of the day, my problem with the whole concept of the digital divide is that we’re all trying to oversimplify the problem. Too many of us think that getting all of this technology out to those on the other side of the digital divide will somehow make up for years, decades, generations worth of living behind the curve. Of discrimination, of prejudice, of just pure disadvantage and poverty. Even if a computer is so easy to use that you don’t have to know how to read, we still need to teach people how to read. In fact, we have to teach them how to read well so that one day, using a computer– a medium that relies on the ability to read well– is not a burden. We have to teach people how to read, write, and countless other things, from the most basic to the most complex, so that they can not only participate in the industrialized and digital world, but also live longer and better.

As a technophile, I understand the great things that can be done with today’s technology– including things like using computers to improve farming techniques and increase production or bringing essentials like water, power, transportation, and more faster and easier to places that have been beyond our reach for so long. But I also believe that there are still very basic, very real problems that won’t be solved by technology and that just because we’re so excited about technology and this digital age doesn’t mean that everything should and must be seen through the window of computers. There were very real social problems before computers and there will continue to be social problems after them. Perhaps even more.