I always imagined that, somehow, technology was making the world a better place. I saw the high moral stance being taken by the sector and listened to its most successful corporations swear not to do evil. I thought that maybe this time round, big business was going to do things right. These days, I’m not so sure.
Take the long-running $100 laptop project, for example. An inspired idea that has been delayed time and time again by a raft of political and business issues. It may only be a coincidence, but it seems that the initiative is only finally gathering momentum now that other major manufacturers are poised ready to release a similar range of machines.
Over the decades we’ve seen everything from farming equipment to development loans trumpeted as a gift to the third world when the reality on the ground has seen them used as bribes, kickbacks or just another means to wring a few extra dollars out of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth.
Excuse me if this sounds a touch cynical, but my warning antennae start quivering whenever I hear about the next bold new initiative.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s vital that the developing world is dealt in to the digital age. New opportunities would emerge for local businesses, remote rural schools could access the very best educational resources the West has to offer and perhaps most importantly, the flow of information would ensure that nobody could hide from the truth about the deplorable conditions so many millions of people are forced to endure.
That, for me, is what the internet is all about.
It’s also the reason that this $100 laptop gizmo troubles me. I mean sure, I understand the concept behind manufacturing a basic machine that can be shipped at a price to suit the third world pocket, but when any European can walk into a shop and buy a fully-functional Asus laptop for £200 flat, then just how stripped-down does such a device have to be
Not very, if Silicon Valley is to be believed. Dell have just announced their intention to follow the example of Hewlett-Packard and Acer and produce a budget notebook aimed at the developing world, while Microsoft have just reduced the cost of an XP license for netbook machines to £14 for developing countries, a whopping £3 less than they charge in the UK.
While the original $100 laptop project was born out a desire to deliver poor people computing power at a price they could afford, it seems to me that the industry is actually working harder on providing something similar for as much as they can get. It’s not about corporate responsibility or a hand up – it’s about turning struggling regions into exploitable markets.
Once these guys in villages in Africa get their hands on a stripped-down notebook, they’re going to need a service provider to hook up to the net. The moment there’s enough demand you can bet your bottom dollar some major player will be staking their claim to the potential loot. Fast forward a bit, and when the same villager realises that he’s going to need more powerful kit to really compete, a veritable slick of salesmen will be treading the path to his door.
It’s simple really, and nothing particularly new. The West has been bleeding the developing world dry for centuries, plundering natural resources and returning the favour by selling the local workforce everything from powdered baby milk to opium in the raw, so when the high-tech brigade prepares to follow suit I shouldn’t be that surprised, but I am bloody disappointed.