Giving Technology Away

This morning I read of the Brazilian government’s plan to make $200 pc’s available to its people. There are too many variables involved for me to say that this is an unconditionally good idea for Brazil. First off, a cursory comparison between the level of poverty that exists in Brazil vs. the poverty that exists in America, makes it pretty clear that even $200US for a PC is probably too much for all but a small fraction of Brazil’s poor. That case would likely be pretty different in the US. Secondly, who will provide connectivity to the internet for these machines? Government sponsored internet access seems dubious at best.

But this is not to say that the intent to offer them is a bad thing. Something like this in America would do much to alleviate the oft discussed but rarely addressed “digital divide.” 

I wonder if the Brazilian government is taking a cash hit on these PCs? It’s hard to tell since I had a tough time making it through the press release with my limited knowledge of Portuguese (babelfish wouldn’t translate the url and only partially translated the text of the PR). Certainly, shipping them with Linux is a good starting point on shaving some cost off the PC.

What good would distributing cheap PCs to the poor in America serve?

First off, I think it’s important to note that these aren’t really PC’s in the traditional sense. Rather, they are closer to internet appliances. There is a big difference between a PC and a net appliance. A PC is a tool that requires skill and training to use efficiently and effectively. A net appliance reduces the learning curve but with a corresponding reduction in usefulness. 

While it would certainly be a good thing if everyone were trained in the basics of using of a PC as a tool, I know that this is a biased perspective. I work with computers and they are my tools. I’m sure a mechanic or carpenter would feel that it would be a good thing if everyone knew how to change the oil in his or her car or find a stud in a wall. But this isn’t likely to happen given the fact that our education system trains us to be consumers and not providers of products or services.

So the net appliance is a good, easier to learn tool for people to gain access to the internet. It’s difficult for me to evaluate the benefit of universal net access given my bias. But try as I may, it’s hard for me to imagine a scenario where easy access to the information stored on the web would be a bad thingÑprovided, of course, that said access is unfettered by the hands of commerce and unfiltered by the hands of government. Anything that allows an individual to have unregulated access to different viewpoints, perspectives or opinions is going to be of value. As such, it would be difficult to argue that distributing cheap net appliances to the poor is a bad thing.

So why aren’t we doing it?

It would be easy to point to some conspiracy of Microsoft and the US government. But that’s likely not the case. (Though after seeing Abbey Lincoln on Ken Burns’ PBS Jazz documentary point to The Beatles as a government conspiracy to crush Jazz, I’m sure there are people out there who think so. Nothing surprises me.) 

But what I think is closer to the truth is that there is no mass vocalization of the need for this. Either too few people think it is worth pursuing, or those who do think it is important are not doing enough to vocalize the need.

Two people that could make this happen tomorrow are Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. Bill Gates has already made a few steps towards this end with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’ve done work for two libraries that have received very nice, full-fledged PCs from this foundation. Libraries are a great starting point for universal access to the internet. Although, there are a few issues involved that keep it from being the best possible situation: 

First off, libraries are ill-equipped to deal with public-access technology. In my experience (your mileage may vary), libraries do not have enough money to pay a staff that deals with the technology used in the exchange of traditional library materials and another, seperate staff that deals with public-access technology. The training and skills required by these two very different elements are too diverse to be handled by a single group. But because of ignorance or budget constraints, libraries generally try to address the situation by forcing staff that are already overwhelmed by poorly designed library automation technology to deal with public-access technology. So while Gates did a good thing when providing the PCs to libraries, he did them a disservice by not simultaneously providing some means to support and maintain the PCs. It is a mistake to think that any PC (though, particularly a PC running MS Windows) would not need some regular maintenance. The Gates Foundation, unfortunately, operates under this assumption. The skills required to troubleshoot and maintain a Windows-based network are an additional burden on a staff already contending with troublesome library automation technology. Which leads to the second drawback of assuming that libraries are the answer to universal net access:

Libraries’ contempt for the public. The first library I worked at was in New Jersey. I was fifteen years-old. Since then, I’ve worked at four other libraries in a variety of capacities. While there are certainly exceptions (New Jersey’s Division of Motor Vehicles, for example), I can think a few places funded by tax dollars where there is a larger contempt for the general public. To be fair, this contempt is most notable in the area of public-access technology and I think it stems from the previous point; namely, that staff are overwhelmed because they do not have the resources to simultaneously provide traditional library services alongside the public-access technology services currently in demand. 

As a tool that requires training to use, PCs in public libraries present an additional burden to staff above and beyond simple troubleshooting and maintenance. Staff members are generally expected to assist users in tasks that are trivial to an experienced PC user. Such assistance is a breeding ground for the aforementioned contempt. One solution would be to make sure that libraries have enough funds to pay two sets of technology staff: one to handle library automation and another to handle public-access technology. This is not likely to happen given the gross under appreciation American’s have for the gift that is the public library. Another solution would be to offer technology in such a manner that it requires little troubleshooting and maintenance and also requires less initial knowledge to use. The network appliance fits this role.

Which leads us to Larry Ellison. This is a man who is consistently on the short list of who’s the richest man in the richest country on the planet. Recently he started a company that sells something called the New Internet Computer (NIC). One of the libraries I work for has purchased several of these to address the issues of maintenance and learning curve. It has met with some success. With some tedious modifications to the Linux-based OS that runs off of a cd-rom, the NIC becomes an appliance that allows access to the Internet and little else. In the library environment, this seems to be the best possible compromise. Where the Gate’s PCs allow the user to access the tools of a mostly full-blown PC (word processing, spreadsheets, children’s games), they do so at the expense of an already stressed staff. The NIC’s, while offering less functionality (much less), do so with little additional budget or time constraints on the staff, both in terms of maintenance, training and initial purchase costs.

If we want to provide access to technology at a library it needs to be offered in such an environment that allows the public to use it without being made to feel ignorant or inferior because they can’t use the tools. It is a mistake to think that simply putting the tools out there is enough. No one would think of lending a table saw to someone without first making sure that the borrower knew how to use it. If the person doing the lending did not have the time or inclination to show the borrower how to use it, it should simply not be offered. He should just lend a plain hand saw instead. While this may be construed as arrogance, I’d think it closer to prudence. 

If libraries are not to receive the necessary funding to train their patrons in the use of the tools they offer–in an environment devoid of contempt–then they should offer tools that are easier to use. As such, the compromise of trading access to the tools of a PC for the limited functionality of a network appliance seems to be a good starting point. 

Still though, even if libraries were to somehow address these various issues, it would not compensate for the fact that having access to the internet from home for all Americans is the best possible situation. Having a net appliance in the home connected by a private (read: non-government) connection, would be an almost trouble/maintenance-free way of achieving this goal. Proximity breeds familiarity. Who could argue that universal familiarity with the internet would be bad thing? Ellison’s NIC is cheap and something similar could no doubt be easily distributed. It seems, superficially at least, that there simply aren’t enough people who think it would be a good idea who are vocalizing the need for it.