The proliferation of the personal computer is staggering. Within the space of two generations computers have gone from being giant room filling engines with less computing power than a Gameboy, to the modern state where a well equipped geek can have enough processing power in his pocket to calculate pi to millions of places over the course of his coffee break. But while it is easy to look at this spread of life-enriching technology as a great success, naturally this is not the story in the rest of the world. Computers, the web and all the goodies they bring remain the trappings of the wealthy, with even basic technology like telephones and radio yet to truly embed themselves in all parts of the developing world.
This phenomenon, known as ‘the digital divide’, is becoming more pronounced. Whilst the percentage of those enjoying access to a PC for work, research and gaming in the developed world is increasing year on year, the less developed nations of the world are falling further behind.
A geographical representation of the digital divide, courtesy cybergeography.org
On one hand it can be argued that bridging the digital divide to the less developed world is something of a superficial move. After all what good is internet access when you’re starving to death, fighting a civil war or dying of a heady mix of AIDS and malaria? Bill Gates has certainly adopted this philosophy, contributing massive financial aid to fighting malaria but steering noticeably clear of the digital divide issue. On the other hand, it’s impossible to argue against the power of the internet to give people a voice. If the cause of helping the less developed nations is to be championed, then who better to do it than the people themselves, and what better tool to do so than the Internet?
The most direct approach to tackling the digital divide has been a succession of plans to bring PCs to the children of less developed nations, partly to familiarise them with computers but also to assist them in their education in general.
There are many problems inherent to this plan, however. PCs are great - we all love them - but they, like their owners in most cases, are Westernised. Just like us they are delicate, unsuited to heat or dust or rigorous travel, and without access to a stable, continual electricity supply or means to connect to the world via (at the very least) a phone line, they won’t last long or be very helpful. Simply distributing reconditioned or outdated hardware from the developed world would rapidly turn into little more than an exercise in international waste disposal.
What is needed for the developing world is a new kind of computer. Something durable, able to stand long journeys over poor or even non-existent road systems. A computer that can get a working supply of electricity without needing a stable power infrastructure. A system that can offer networking, web access and all the trappings of a modern western workstation using only free software. Most importantly it has to be a system that can be built from scratch for as little money as possible, with the magic number being touted as only $100 US, meaning that countries can afford to buy them.
Hardly the easiest design brief in the world, but then if building a PC for that sort of money was easy we’d all have one.