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India's $35 Tablet Computer: A Pill for Poverty?

Antonio Lambino's picture

Recently featured in the news was a 35 USD version of Apple’s iPad that the Indian government hopes to mass produce by 2011.  India also hopes to bring the unit price down to around 10 USD.  If successful, this initiative could bring an affordable, mobile, multiple application device within reach of lower income families in poor countries.  CNN’s Fareed Zakaria expressed the opinion that a fully-functioning 10 USD computer “could change the world” similar to the way in which satellite dishes and mobile phones have in the past.  I think implicit in Zakaria’s point is the belief that information and communication revolutions have the potential to increase productivity and enhance human development.  But this potential rarely leads to an actual breakthrough.  Due to a host of factors in addition to price (see, for instance, Michael Trucano's post), what might perhaps be called “socio-technological epidemics” tend to be few and far between, especially in poor countries.  There is a difference, of course, between a predominantly commercial success and one that really contributes to development results.

A flurry of responses, ranging from skeptical to supportive, followed India’s announcement.  Worthy on note is a statement issued by Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and director of the MIT Media Lab and founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child Foundation.  Negroponte offers the Indian government two things: collaboration and some advice, gleaned from years of struggling to get as many XO laptops as possible into the hands of poor children in developing countries.

Just in case the Indian tablet computer turns out to be one of those socio-technological epidemics and/or a commercial triumph, a few of Negroponte’s points bear restating, as they can be instructive toward helping the innovation also become a success story in terms of human development:

• Focus on children and (non-rote) learning.
• Focus on enabling users to make things, not to simply consume media.
• Make sure that hardware is fit for the physical environment, especially that of a developing country.
• Make sure that the software allows for collaboration and participation.
• Make the product “desirable, lovable, and fun to own” and put the best design teams behind it

Incidentally, I noticed that Negroponte's core messages can very well be applied to a wide variety of development initiatives.  We’ve all heard, perhaps ad nauseam, of the need to work toward longer time horizons, empowering citizens, enabling meaningful participation, and respecting local preferences and realities.  But in so doing lies our best hope in making development processes and outcomes more “desirable, lovable (why not?), and fun to own”! 

Photo credit: Flickr user Frerieke

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Comments

Submitted by Tin Aquino on
It has always been easy to get lost in almost-blind optimism when it comes to gauging the impact of technology on people's lives (in the same way that it's easy to blame the "big, bad media" for botching up our body clocks, for allowing our descent into consumerism, etc.) While tools such as computers CAN enhance people's lives, the story is hardly straightforward. One of the strongest arguments against discourses of technological determinism still holds true today--context and environment plays a big role in the what, when, where, how and why of media consumption, and whether people consume (certain) media at all. In cases such as the tablet computer in India, a host of other issues--mostly resources such as time, Internet connection, digital literacy--inevitably factor into the equation. In using technology for development gains, we should guard against these attempts ending up as just another story of hegemonic imposition. An assessment of current needs is necessary, aside from the inquiry into the potential of technologies.

Submitted by BottomOfThePyramid on
".....we should guard against these attempts ending up as just another story of hegemonic imposition." Yes, there is a significant, if small, movement in India that works in the field of education using free and open source software. It involves CDs and open source educational software. Teachers are trained first. As far as I know, this can be a largely internet-free exercise. The state of Kerala in India has led the way with a project called IT@School: http://itschool.gov.in/ictschoolscheme.php (It's worth mentioning that some basic school and physical infrastructure is a must for this)

Submitted by BottomOfThePyramid on
"we should guard against these attempts ending up as just another story of hegemonic imposition" Yes, there is a significant movement in India that works in the field of primary education using free and open source software. It involves CDs and free and open source software distributed among school children. Teachers are trained first to use these learning aids. Thence, pools of talent are created. This can be a largely internet-free exercise as far as I understand. The state of Kerala in India has led the way for developing countries with its project called IT@School: http://itschool.gov.in/ictschoolscheme.php (Worth mentioning that some basic school and physical infrastructure is a must for such projects)

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