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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 10:27 GMT
How to rethink the digital divide
Bill Thompson likes cool toys as much as the next geek, but he wishes more attention was paid to the needs of the disconnected poor.

Child building sandcastles, PA
Throwing around ideas can result in novel solutions
I spent a happy afternoon on Thursday playing in a sandpit near Bath.

Sadly this one didn't have spades, diggers or toy trucks to bury, and my playmates weren't happily making sandcastles but trying to think of new ways to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor nations.

The sandpit was the culmination of an innovative attempt to plan research into ways to connect the developing world.

By the time it's over the thirty or so people taking part hope to have come up with a project that will get a million pounds of funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Normally this sort of funding would be allocated on the basis of written submissions and the academic researchers writing the proposals wouldn't talk to each other or have a chance to bounce ideas off one another.

Hi-tech talk

Bringing them together for two sessions, three days before Christmas and a final two days this week, forced the technologists and engineers to talk to the sociologists and ethnographers, and even though organiser Alan Blackwell admits that it was a bit fraught at times, they've come up with some fascinating proposals.

By the time I left they were trying to decide between a plan to use RFID tags to help Western consumers find out more about the fair trade products they buy; a proposal to help communities share stories with each other across geographical and cultural boundaries; research into ways to help co-operative groups learn from each others' experiences, and a system for local environmental monitoring that would help farmers increase yields and educate their children in new technologies.

At the end of the exercise they will have one proposal to go forward, and they will appoint a "lead researcher" to run the project and look after the EPSRC's money.

For some people, including the social theorist Will Davies, the "digital divide" is not a real issue, and the focus on getting people connected, or providing them with hardware, is just a way of misrepresenting what really matters - ensuring that everyone has fair access to the necessities of life in the networked world and overcoming wider problems of social exclusion.

Complex problem

But one of the strengths of the research being planned at the sandpit is that it recognises that a simplistic approach is not effective while acknowledging that we do have to deal with the problems of access and the availability of technology.

Bill Thompson
Perhaps we need to point out that a home media console that stays turned on all the time, requires a fast broadband connection to be of any use to anyone, and powers multiple screens that go largely unwatched is the technology equivalent of taking a gas-guzzling SUV on a short trip to the mail.
In the end, our thinking about what it means to "bridge" the divide has to be a lot more sophisticated than it has been so far.

This means that projects like One Laptop Per Child, who want governments to build $100 laptops and give them away to tens of millions of children, need to ensure that their advanced technology is used within a broader context of education and support so that the social infrastructure is in place as well as the technical.

Having spent most of the day thinking about this issue, I found it rather ironic that most of the technology news coverage this week was dominated by stories from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where power-hungry multimedia systems, home technologies that require fast and reliable networks and new programs that will only run on the fastest processors are the centre of attention.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates knows a lot about the problems of the developing world thanks to the healthcare work funded by the Gates Foundation.

Yet in a session chaired by chat show host Conan O'Brien he talked about the Xbox 360, complained that you have "five remote controls and you still can't get your music where you want it," and discussed the forthcoming Windows Vista.

Gas guzzler

While it is a little unfair to criticise him for not paying attention to the digital divide at an electronics show in the heart of the United States, it's symptomatic of the gulf that has to be crossed if we want to ensure that the network society is open to the developing world as well as the industralised countries.

Prototype for One Laptop Per Child project, PA
Simply providing hardware may not bridge the digital divide
Much as the people thronging the halls at CES can enjoy looking at the new toys and playing with the cool leading edge devices, if they don't start to think about the implications of having a US market dominated by the latest, fastest devices then we will never deal with the deeper issues.

Perhaps we need to point out that a home media console that stays turned on all the time, requires a fast broadband connection to be of any use to anyone, and powers multiple screens that go largely unwatched is the technology equivalent of taking a gas-guzzling SUV on a short trip to the mail.

Although given the US government's approach to global warming, this might only encourage them.

Back at the sandpit they are focused instead on appropriate technologies and energy efficiency, trying to refine their ideas and create a workable project that would not only provide solid research but also be sustainable after the funding runs out.

In the end only one project will get funded, and most of the people who spent their time working on the ideas will leave with no funding.

But unlike The Weakest Link they won't leave with nothing, because the contacts they have established, and the exposure to other ways of thinking and other academic disciplines will have a significant impact on their own approach to the issue in future.

After all, sometimes life-long friendships get forged in the sandpit at the playground, so why not in this one?

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital

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