The Digital Doorway: the social computer

Kids and Digital Doorway

Kids and Digital Doorway

Grant Cambridge, who is one of the very clever engineers with a social justice bent has been spending some time with my colleagues and I in Australia in order to develop interest in promoting this robust of mass-computer experience for remote communities.  It’s the complete opposite, it seems to the One Lap Top per Child (OLPC) philosophy. For more about the DD, see the DD website, and some of the papers on the site you are looking at.

Unlike the OLPC (or the general thrust of computing):

  • its not about individuals for either use or ownership in most of the world. People are simply too poor, don’t have electricity, or have  other priorities than owning a  computer.  They often don’t even have a safe place to put a laptop, or it might get sold or stolen.
  • to those who say then, well why should be develop or impose a computer upon such poor people, we can say ’so should we deprive them of an opportunity for self-empowerment and  learning’?  If the relative cost becomes quite low for supplying a few DD to hundreds or thousands of kids, then the apparently high purchase cost in comparison to a OLPC or one of the spin-off lightweight minicomputer is that justified by the documented very large use, robustness of the system (they don’t break), and that kids learn and older people gain confidence to have a go.
  • The DD is NOT connected to the internet. That’s the best way of stopping porn or other undesirable content that frightens off the engagement of traditionally-oriented communities.   It’s been a big problem in indigenous communities in Australia.
  • However, the DD can mimic a lot of internet content through caching  and remote administration /GPS or satellite content and software grades (or a secure USB) that gives school kids a very good internet-like experience to help with their school experience.  And if they can create and share content between a DD network-  such as films and music– then it becomes a safe form of intranet.  This to me, does not seem to be a limit on free speech from a civil liberties perspective because it is about protecting vulnerable children and building community confidence and capacity.

But it’s also an argument that is wrapped up in the fetishism of commodities at a political level.  The DD isn’t pretty:  it’s designed for weather extremes and thousand of users and the occasional vandal.  But it is still hard to ’sell’ that practicality  to bureaucrats and politicians who are an easy catch for well-heeled vendors of the latest  shiny gadget which is great for secure middle class people, but not so great in unsafe environments.

I think the best way of explaining the DD is that it’s a contemporary form of the phone box: tough as nails, and available to many people for whom the personal computer is a luxury and a practical impossibility for the foreseeable future.   And even if broadband and wireless networks are set in place in remote Australia, the is still a need for computer systems that are ‘gold plated’ for their reliability.

If the right mix of off-line and online can be developed (for example to various educational or social support channels) can be put in place, in conjunction with content and access options as preferred by communities themselves, then there could be a lot of potential in very poor and isolated parts of Australia and the region for increasing the range of content and services that it offers.

But its point of ‘capture’ as a tool for the community is that it has got to be desired by a community and particularly its leadership (however complex such structures and relationships are), and as Grant has said, putting in a Doorway is easy: it’s the community buy-in that is the tough and ambigous nut to crack and this can take many months. This of course, is familiar in community development, but not something that politicians or planner and technologists often have much patience for.

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