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The Longest Now

Kenya’s laptop dream: reaching for the firmament, and rote naysaying
Saturday July 13th 2013, 11:51 am
Filed under: Blogroll,ideonomy,international,knowledge

Over at ZeroGeography, Mark Graham shares a prepub version of an essay he wrote for the Guardian, about the new Kenyan drive to provide laptops to its primary students. Firstly, thank you to the author for posting your thoughts on his blog as well.

The argument that “this [money] could be better spent“, however, is a bit stale.  I don’t generally go in for critical theory and analysis (despite the obvious rightness of tvtropes!), but sometimes patterns show up so strongly in someone’s writing or argument that they are clearly part of a larger social norm and can be understood as such.

This essay is one part imperialist critique of developing countries investing in new tools, one part assumption of bad implementation, and one part missed context.

Graham worries that Kenya’s new e-learning plan — which extends recent efforts to make laptops available to older students, to all primary schools — is not part of a larger strategy; though the budget speech he cites describes such a strategy.  He makes assumptions about how much of the national budget goes to different basic needs which don’t seem to be accurate.

The central argument is one I hear often about why underdeveloped regions should slow down technological & educational change.  It runs something like this:

A) don’t introduce new things, fix old things first.
B) come up with a strategy addressing all possible issues before including modern tech.
C) if your country is poorer than mine, there must be something basic and low-tech you need more.
D) technology amplifies existing skills.  it is wasteful to subsidize it for the less privileged, who can’t use it properly anyway.

These arguments don’t stand up to a second look.  Sure, it would be ideal to fix “all the things” — various underlying inequalities, inadequacies of the existing system of experts and mentors and teachers, gaps in the quality of textbooks and in local job opportunities for better-educated youth. But no single effort will do all of that.  If you are lacking many things, your primary long-term bottleneck is often your ability to develop new solutions: you need more seed corn, not more ugali.   Outside of an immediate crisis, you need knowledge, tools, factories, and other local capacity, so you can go on to invest in your own community while resolving other problems, basic and complex.

And lastly, the idea of not offering a powerful opportunity to those less privileged, because it might take them some time to make the best use of it… that sort of argument is not even wrong.  In the short term, any opportunity would be used ‘more thoroughly’ by the already-privileged.  But they have usually had that opportunity to begin with; government programs simply subsidize it for those without.  Comparing who could “use it better” is a fallacy.

By definition, when you start bootstrapping you don’t have a lot; you get there step by step.  And every individual and community deserves access to bootstrapping tools: Blackboards, electricity, glasses, phones, bikes, computers, and other technology.  Not necessarily for free, sometimes requiring sweat and barnraising by the community, but as part of a civil campaign to make this part of society everywhere.  These are all generative technologies, catalysing other new work, returning far more than their cost in what they enable.  This is true three times over for computers: they are communication devices, creative tools for making and sharing, and factories for new tools. So the results of a community learning to use them includes trying and discovering new things not currently imagined.

Graham does make the following excellent point in his essay:

There is a long history of people and states framing information and communication technologies as a solution to economic, social, political, and even environmental problems.

So there is.  Kenya should be clear that having tools, capacity, knowledge, stronger social networks, and access to more markets and jobs is not the same as solving specific problems.  This will make it easier to solve some problems; it will create others; it will add to the general standard of living and also the expectations that come with it.  It will empower people to do both good and bad things. It will be a boon to gamers and activists and gambling and muckraking and cottage industry and artists and pornography and transparency.

But it will surely prepare the country’s youth to be an active part of the internetworked world in which we live, and to help design its future.

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