Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Technology is Beautiful?

Around the world, people are praising the Internet as a great force for social change. They say that it decentralizes power, taking it away from its traditional enforcers (governments, corporations, international organizations, etc.) by empowering people with information. Internet links people from all corners of the globe through e-mail and social networks, including our favorite network Facebook, and allows them to campaign for social justice, equality, political freedoms, and the abomination of the Facebook newsfeed (because doesn’t it just suck?). Internet puts information at the tip of your fingertips. The open source movement is an excellent example. Open source software that can be modified and improved by any user defies the power of technology monopolies, such as Microsoft and Apple. These companies force users to pay high prices for newer versions of software that offer limited improvements, are loaded with bugs, and are incompatible with previous versions. People cite the all-powerful Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that provides millions of articles in hundreds of languages, each of which can be edited by readers, as an example of levelling the information playing-field. They also mention blogs and online news sources. Internet, the Great Equalizer.

What we too often gloss over is giant disparities in Internet usage. 26.6% of the world’s people have access to Internet. (“Internet Usage Statistics”) That means that 73.4%, or three-fourths of the world’s population, does not. Even within the U.S., they are wide gaps between the upper/middle classes and lower classes. 78% of schools in affluent communities have access to Internet as contrasted to 50% of schools low-income areas. (Kennard, William E., “Equality in the Information Age”) As many as three-fourths of Black high school and college students do not have computers. (Kennard) Those privileged few of us who use the Internet on a daily basis forget that the most impoverished people in the world, those most in need in Internet, do not have access to Internet.

The sad thing is that despite limited access across the world, high-skilled, well-paid jobs everywhere demand knowledge of computers and telecommunications. Take Paraguay for example. Many of my town’s youth travel an hour away, spending large quantities of money on transportation out of town, to take computer classes. It it rains, they’re stuck and they miss their weekly class. The classes themselves are over-priced and poorly taught. After a year of paying expensive monthly tuitions, most of the students still have no clue how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft Excel, let alone more complicated electronic applications. At the same time, they insist on attending classes because they can ask for salary raises or find higher-paid employment.

One thing that drives me up the wall is the school teachers’ obsession with Internet. A teacher once proposed her “brilliant” idea to me: all students should pay a 5 mil additional monthly fee so that the teachers could pay for Internet. What??? Why did she want Internet I asked. “With Internet we can do research and better teach the students,” she responded. I had several problems with this. One, she was not proposing building a center equipped with Internet-enabled computers where all the students could work; she wanted Internet for one computer only, the teachers’ computer. Two, in a country where parents already complain about the school fees (which are abysmally low by American standards by the way, but education not being value, that’s another story), she wanted to increase them. Three, if the teachers didn’t know how to use the computers, how did they plan to do “research?” If they didn’t know what e-mail or a search engine is, how could they utilize the billions of resources available on the Internet. I was not about to spend my time assisting a project that would guarantee the teachers a constant source of porn downloads (which is what the majority of Paraguayans, like Americans, use the Internet for). Four, the amount of information available on different subjects depends on the number of users that are interested in those topics. In a country where only 1.7% of the 6 million people have access to Internet, there is a dearth of articles about Paraguay. (“Telecommunications in Paraguay”) Finally, if the students didn’t know how to use computers, how could they complete Internet-based research projects? Despite the numerous warnings I gave them, the teachers are assigning more and more homework that necessitates the Internet, leaving the students in a giant rut.

My initial project was working with a community radio, the members of whom were convinced by the previous volunteer that Internet would solve my town’s problems of limited access to news. By accessing alternative online media via the Internet, they could broadcast social justice news stories to the whole town. The intentions were noble and I respected them, yet the practice would have been flawed. For one thing, no one knew how to use a computer or the Internet. As the volunteer in town, I could have helped capacitate the members. The second problem, however, was that the radio was in serious debt. To that debt they wanted to add sky-high monthly fees for Internet services. And no matter how many times I said “let us look over your finances and do a feasibility study,” they did not have the least inclination to do so, let alone raise the money necessary to sustain the project over the next couple of years. Not to mention the fact that in my town, we have no landlines. My cellphone signal is practically nonexistent (a huge problem whenever Mom tries calling me).

This is not just the case in Paraguay, here’s a parallel example from Africa:

Many reports you read will sing the praises of the mobile networks and how the leapfrogging of landlines has helped Africa. That’s true, and I’m one of those people. However, it comes with a catch, and that catch is that the lack of landlines in Africa means that it’s a lot harder to get fixed-line broadband penetration, whether ADSL or otherwise. This keeps prices high and primarily availability is only in urban areas. (“Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World”)

In South Africa in fact, an IT company did an experiment to test the connection speed. It was a 60-mile data transmission race between a carrying pigeon with a 4GB USB drive attached to its leg and the ADSL service from the country’s biggest web firm. Winston, the pigeon, took two hours to carry the data 60 miles, during which the ADSL had managed to send 4% of the data. (“In South Africa, carrier pigeon faster than broadband”)

The Peace Corps derives its philosophy of action from the book Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher, in which the author proposes the application of “intermediate technologies” in developing countries. International banks and the U.S. government promote large-scale development projects that depend on the latest technology. As developing countries don’t have the technical expertise to construct these facilities, they have to contract U.S. companies. If parts break in the future, as they inevitably will, they will not know how to fix them. Therefore, after construction, they have to keep these companies around for maintenance. Schumacher instead advocates the adoption of an intermediate technology more suitable – and therefore more likely to be effectively utilized – in developing countries. In my town, where hardly anyone knows how to use a computer, do they need the most advanced, most expensive model on the market? They could save tons of money by acquiring a donated, “outdated” model from the U.S. (where even if it functions, if it’s more than a few years old it’s got to go). In fact, the most successful projects I have undertaken have involved outdated, no-name computers without Internet connections and the most basic computer programs.

For more information about Internet usage in Paraguay, check out “Internet Access? What About Just a Telephone?”

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