Friday, June 26, 2009

Variable Tech Indices

Once again, my pal Aaron has inspired me with a recent post on his blog (Anecdotal Evidence: One Laptop Per Child: Vision vs. Reality) about the One Child, One Laptop movement and its problems (see this link for the original article in the Communications of the ACM).

For me, the thrust of the article boils down to this key point: even if you could GIVE AWAY laptops, one per child, in developing countries, you cannot ensure that they will result in the same educational benefits in developing that having every kid in a middle class suburban American classroom equipped with a laptop might achieve, much less the educational revolution envisioned by the OCOL's founders.

The problems are manifold, but they center on lack of technical and pedagogical training, insufficient infrastructure, and institutional inertia. To wit:
  • Teachers need to know how to use the computers and the accompanying software themselves before they can guide students effectively in its use or TRUST students to use it properly. This means they need to be trained, which means you need the money, facilities, and educators required to train them.
  • Even free computers need technical support. Again, this requires skilled IT personnel or a training program to produce them.
  • Someone has to supply the software. Emerging markets often lack the indigenous technical experts and coders needed to create the software locally. This means they have to find outside sources. That means either dealing with licenses for proprietary software or using shareware. Shareware tends to require some technical expertise to get the most out of it, plus it isn't being produced in the local languages of the kids in developing countries.
  • You need other physical infrastructure to surround the computer. This can be as simple as needing a printer (and being able to repair and resupply it) or as complex as securing adequate internet connections in remote regions.
  • Teachers need to see the computers as tools, not threats to their authority. You can't just get large government ministries to accept the validity of the project's goals; you need the teachers in the classroom to see the laptops or other technologies as means of empowerment that improve their ability to do their jobs rather than simply complicating their lives.
  • Brands have considerable power in emerging markets. In other words, if the locals are only familiar with certain very well known versions of high-tech products (the kinds used by the wealthy in their countries), are they going to trust that shareware and off-label brands will provide them with the knowledge and experience they need to integrate into the global marketplace? And might they be right to be concerned about this point?
The real world struggles of the OCOL reminded me of the situation in the veteran science fiction roleplaying game Traveller. In Traveller, you have a bunch of worlds with really high technological indexes, capable of building and maintaining some truly staggering technological inventions.

And within a week or two of travel distance you've got planets that are practically preindustrial, where the citizens may use high-tech devices when they can get ahold of them, but they can't build or repair them.

The examples of Africa and to a lesser degree Central and South America seem to bear out the likelihood of this model existing to a greater degree than many people once thought.

I wonder if the introduction of new technologies like the Fab Labs will mitigate this situation to some degree by providing communities in emerging markets with highly flexible, localized, small-scale manufacturing and repair capabilities. But I suspect that what will happen will be somewhat different.

Instead of being able to build or fix the equivalents of current generation technologies in the developed world, locals will be able to buy, copy, and repair outdated bits of tech as well as developing their own innovations (based perhaps on technical specs that are obsolete in the developed world). Over time they might kludge together some very useful but very unique technologies that will be severely lacking in standardization and compatibility but will serve their immediate needs admirably.

But that would still leave a significant divide between the tech used by the dominant cultures and markets and that used by the emerging markets. You'd be much more likely to find really unusual stuff being made by locals, stuff that you'd have to have some talent to fix because it would be a mish-mash of parts. And that would be interesting from a story perspective.

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