Letter from Cambridge: Digital Nations and eDevelopment meetings
First Monday

Letter from Cambridge: Digital Nations and eDevelopment meetings

At a time when the concept of nationhood is being questioned by political scientists, forecasting firms, online visionaries, and political dissidents, the Media Lab at MIT in Massachusetts held a kickoff event October 18, 2000, for a new program entitled "Digital Nations." William Mitchell, whose book City of Bits was one of the first full text works on the World Wide Web, welcomed a group of several hundred consultants, educators, technocrats, government representatives, and company representatives to the Lab, whose director Nicholas Negroponte was recovering from a recent accident in Dublin, Ireland. Mitchell said that the fundamental paradox of technology was that the people, groups, and nations that benefited most were those that were the best educated, most affluent, and most powerful. The technology adopted, whether it is an industrial process, deadly military hardware, or information systems, give even more power to the groups and nations of privilege. Mitchell asked if we can design our way out of this problem? What are the kinds of policies and institutional structures that are needed? And what kind of technologies do we need?

The strength of MIT's Media Lab has been technology but also the way that commercial sponsors have been able to take part in the process of experimentation, prototyping, and user studies. The Lab has teamed up with a group at Harvard whose expertise is not technology but policy and community development. The Center for International Development, under the direction of Jeffrey Sachs, worked with the Lab to organize the eDevelopment seminar which followed the Digital Nations event, and José Maria Figueres of the Entebbe Foundation in Costa Rica, together with Sachs and Negroponte, constitute the Digital Nations board of advisors.

This first meeting was free, but like a "free" visit to a time-share resort, a certain percentage of the attendees were expected to join the MIT program at a cost of $250,000 per year for five years up to $750,000 per year. It was not a hard sell, but it was sustained. At the same time they recognize that the nations may need this kind of collaboration the most may be the most destitute, and they have established a Digital Nations fund to raise money from other sources to pay for membership for 10 countries for five years. What do they get for their money?

The staff of the Lab, including Sandy Pentland, Mitch Resnick, and other faculty and grad students answered that by the presentations they made during the day. This was interspersed with outstanding food, drinks including some very good French Burgundies and California reds, and an atmosphere where they hoped prospective members could feel at home and connected with the excitement of a world class development environment. Pentland emphasized the importance of "face time" between Digital Nations members, other corporate sponsors, and MIT staff. Most of us present were not going to join, but the Lab recognized that convening such a varied group was a tangible value to those who would join.

Pentland made a good case for the importance to Digital Nations of low-cost sensors and wireless devices (combined with standard ICT) for use in sustainable agriculture, medical care (where the user uses this technology to analyze and care for himself), and community development. Working with the LINCOS project in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, the Lab staff is working to test and introduce, as well as develop, some of the more promising technology. Pentland showed a Japanese consumer device that uses the very popular iMode protocol and costs $34 and explained how a $1 sensor might make this toy for affluent Japanese kids into a powerful medical device that could be distributed to everybody and cost "less than the average IMF bailout." He touted cheap wireless devices like the 802.11 cards as a key to cheap, high speed connectivity for villages. I think he glossed over the attendant costs in making the proposed network functional for a group of villagers, but the idea has already been done by community activists in London and in some developing countries. In some circles, including the Lab, there is a premium afforded technologies that are "disruptive" because they shake up sclerotic institutions and hopefully bring something better in their wake. Pentland believes that the index that tracks the number of billionaires created by a new technology is a good measure of success, rather than a powerful lesson about the technology paradox that William Mitchell stated at the start of the day.

Mitchel Resnick runs the Lifelong Kindergarten research group. His interest is in the new ways that people learn, think, and design. He stressed the need to people in a Digital Nation to be fluent with the technologies, in the same way that a native speaker can use language for many purposes, not just very basic communication. His comments revealed his sensitivity to cultural issues relating to the introduction of new technology in developing countries, and he described how Costa Rican teachers appropriated technology for their own use once it was introduced by Lab staff working in country. The DN projects will focus on children, seniors, underserved communities, and whole nations. Once the program is rolling they expect that a project in rural Thailand will cross-pollinate with one in the Caribbean or Africa. Of course, this is going on already through other bilateral arrangements, existing online affinity groups on telecenters, telemedicine, and K-12 education, but the Lab can add technological value if they can translate the voice and the needs expressed by poor clients into lower cost, less complex tools for the target audiences.

From a pure technology standpoint many of the attendees were drawn to the open house rather than the presentations. The grad students were showcasing their projects for us, and the messy, complex lab environment complete with lathes, fab devices, clean room facilities, provided an atmosphere for the non-technical visitor that may have been more powerful than some of the actual research. Students were faced with the challenge of explaining a long-term project to a non-technical visitor in the space of a few minutes or however long an attention span the visitor had. The openness of the Lab to sponsors and patrons has been an advertised strength, but it can make it hard for some workers to concentrate on their projects without being interrupted. I imagine that the students still go by the old Lab adage, "Demo or Die," i.e. lose corporate sponsorship.

I was most attracted to Rehmi Post's $50 handheld Linux computer. It was a brilliant mix of very low cost but functional computing and networking components (100 kb/sec 900 Mhz radio, Linux os, stacked circuit boards, innovative interface with jacks for keyboard and output to a television monitor). He considered every important issue that a technologist from a developing country would raise, including power consumption. It uses a very efficient Motorola chip that draws an incredibly low amount of power which could be supplied from the grid, a battery, solar panel or through a windup mechanism. He was surrounded by people from Mexico, South America, and Vietnam. For more information see http://rehmi.www.media.mit.edu/~rehmi/pengachu.html or write to pengachu@media.mit.edu

Another project of immediate use is the telecenter cost estimator developed by Hani Shakeel. He had a complete set of data for costs in the LINCOS projects in Costa Rica, and used that in the model. Once the data has been inputted for equipment, staff, connectivity costs the planner can play with configurations to match the expected budget. Naturally, if you are doing this for South Africa or South Carolina, you will need a different set of costs. The software is available for free download at www.media.mit.edu/~hshakeel but you will need various MS applications to use it.

One of the guiding principles of much of the design that might be the most relevant was to make it inexpensive. In the last decade when I interacted with the Lab from within the Advanced Technology Group at Apple, the high costs of prototyping and research did not matter. Equipment with adequate computing power was not cheap, and nobody expected the prototypes to be low cost, but the problems in developing countries are so pressing, that early cost reductions are an important part of the design process for Digital Nations.

Following the open house, Jeffrey Sachs gave his pitch on development and ICT. He acknowledged the hype but said the promises of ICT are real and "could be a real driver for those left behind." He claimed we are all part of the global economy, but many places, especially Africa, are stuck in the production of primary commodities (oil, tungsten, diamonds, uranium, foodstuffs). He explained how any business with clients in other countries will need the Internet or they will lose out to those that do. He also claimed that ICT will help society mobilize against corruption in government, and I thought of the clever ways a recently deposed president used ICT to hide the money he stole from a World Bank loan before he moved to the United States. Still, Sachs was echoing the message that concerned academics like Manual Castells have been writing about for five years.

In the last three years, ever since the Global Knowledge conference in Toronto in 1997, there has been a rush to stake a claim as a leader in technology and development. This has been intensified by the activities centered on countering what some people call the digital divide. Others, while agreeing that serious disparities exist, find this buzzword a very poor expression of the suite of problems and power imbalances that exist in society in 2000. The efforts by the Media Lab and Harvard are two more institutions (along with the U.S. government, United Nations, numerous foundations, non-profits, the G7 and a long line of corporations) striving to plant their flags on the hill overlooking the digital divide.

However, in the wake of low tech/no tech problems of communal, ethnic, and religious strife, global warming and over-population, some skeptics in the development field (I really must avoid debasing the word "community" any further than it has been by AOL and others) would state their doubts in this way:

"After the Y2K non-event where billions were expended by companies and nations around the world, much of the noise and the calls to action being made to invest in information technology and networking infrastructure is being seen as just another ploy to sell U.S. equipment and services. The fear-uncertainty-doubt techniques used in 1999 to shift budget resources to fight the Y2K bug are now being used to encourage lavish spending to 'bridge the digital divide' to 'leapfrog into the 21st century.' Why should we believe the companies, writers, and consultants now any more than we did for the Y2K fiasco? Other pressing problems call for solutions that have little to do with networking technology."

This will be the dilemma for some of the digital nations candidates, and it will be up to the Lab to make the connection between the technology solutions and those other pressing problems where ICT can be part of answer. Should a poor nation spend a good chunk of money on version 1.0 of Digital Nations or wait for an incremental release, or even version 2.0, after all the bugs are worked out? At the close of the conference I heard from two country and one state representative who expressed interest in joining.

eDevelopment: Enabling communities to shape their future

eDevelopment was back-to-back with the Digital Nations kickoff event, and many of the same people who presented on Wednesday, continued to share the stage during this conference: the Media Lab folks, Jeffrey Sachs, and José Maria Figueres. It's commendable that this meeting was free, once you got to Boston, and the food and wine were unmatched by any other gathering I have attended. There was an overlap with the Digital Nations roster, with attendees from 35 countries, and quite a few young people from Nation1.org and the Lab. One of the problems with making conferences free is that many people sign up and do not show up. The meeting was over-subscribed, but at the end of the conference more than 200 name tags had not been claimed. This is one reason why airlines have sophisticated overbooking strategies in order to fill the available seats.

The first session was greatly enhanced the moderator, Hiawatha Bray, the feisty and critical journalist from the Boston Globe. He began by citing the evidence in the latest Department of Commerce report "I'm falling through the net, and I can't get up!" that seemed to show that the problem of the so-called digital divide was solving itself in the United States. William Mitchell pointed out that a computer network's usefulness is not self-evident whereas a water supply system is immediately useful. This might help us make sense of the Pew study that shows that 57% of those Americans not online have no interest in doing so. Seymour Papert pointed out that only 10% of computer users will use the device to learn (and it need not be connected to the Internet - which might even be a distraction and negative force).

Bray asked how do we deal with the huge connectivity problems in Africa. There was a discussion of the AfricaOne cable project and all the problems it has encountered. Everyone agrees that the need is there, but addressing the needs and rules in such a huge and fragmented market has been a hindrance. Sachs talked about the tendency for state agencies and monopolies to put their own welfare over that of the country, and this reluctance to change policies in many African countries was one reason it was so hard to interest investors. Toyin omo Adelakun, an ex-pat Nigerian from the UK and head of Afrodigital said he thought the problems were too many languages and too many countries. He said he did not intend to try and do business in his home country because of conditions there! Instead, he has chosen six countries where it will be easier to do business.

Bray asked provocatively if we should address the inequity of access by shoving laptops in parachutes out of the back of C-130's flying over Africa. Papert remarked that the industry kept a high price point for the average computer sold by adding more features instead of aiming for much, much lower priced machines. He spent a lot of time talking about the sad state of the education system around the world and how a good computer with the right software could offset the damage done by government ministries with a fetish for standardized testing.

In the technology panel Gabriel Accascina of the UNDP spoke about his infrastructure projects which have been in some of the most remote parts of Asia and the Pacific: Tuvalu, Bhutan, Laos. His program had just received the prestigious Stockholm Award, formerly known as the Bangemann Challenge.

The breakout sessions where there was more chance to interact with other attendees were a major part of Day One. The topics were varied: Nation1: the first online nation; MediaLab Europe, a new MIT venture in Dublin, Ireland; unequal access in Cambodia; a primer on global e-commerce; eight imperatives for a networked world; technology and community building; smart sourcing; village area networks in Alaska; empowering youth; open source and eDevelopment; PIE, Playful Invention and Exploration - a museum project; digitally empowering the poor; IT manpower development in India; learning hubs; intellectual property and development; IT for medical care and telemedicine; lessons from India's digital divide programs; Junior Journal; literacy and e-literacy; IT for activism; leadership and politics in eDevelopment; listservs, connecting for change; the power of e-partnerships; rural connectivity, the first mile, and community knowledge-global collaboration.

This last one was presented by Derrick Cogburn from University of Michigan. It took about 15 minutes to get the Windows machine running with Placeware, a conferencing software suite that uses the metaphor of the lecture hall with slides, voice over IP for lectures, whiteboard and chat. After Cogburn's lecture, we discussed the software, the environment, and alternatives (something cheaper, simpler, and perhaps open source). Cogburn has used this effectively with seminars in his home country of South Africa as well as Korea.

I led a discussion of telecenters. After a five-minute intro to this very fuzzy topic, many of the participants (divided between the experienced and the curious) asked questions and told their own stories of what is happening or not happening in the field. High marks were given to Peter Benjamin of South Africa who was not present, but those who had read his evaluation of centers in that country were impressed. Some felt it was impossible to work with governments; others thought corporations might dominate the scene after learning what they could from the early funders and activists. Though we had less than an hour, we skimmed over a lot of ground, and several of us noted the difference in this session from the lackluster participation in various telecenter mailing lists. I tried to emphasize the importance of place: physical telecenters and meetings such as this, over exclusively online services and online affinity groups. In a latter session Dennis Gilhooley, an Irish journalist, policy guy, who is said to possess a Very Large Rolodex, dismissed telecenters as "hackneyed" and "dysfunctional" without elaborating. There are some who say these centers are a desperate attempt to bring the benefits of ICT to the masses, but that it is not working: return on investment has been poor for some of the big ones, and continuity in management has not been a strongpoint, according to critics.

After lunch there were sessions on Latin America and "community." I must have hit some kind of limit to my tolerance of jargon, hype, and boosterism in the afternoon. As a kid I sometimes repeated a word over and over until it lost meaning and sounded like nonsense, and this began to happen that afternoon. I could not sit through the session where a consultant treated two ex-presidents of Latin American countries as if they were precious celebrities. The speakers were not at fault, though. I did hear Figueras make the analogy (which I'm sure he uses in every talk) that the arrival of the Intel plant in Costa Rica - where he had been president - is analogous to removing the VW beetle engine from that modest little car and dropping an aircraft engine in the back. He said the country could not be sure it was always in control of this great force, but it sure was not the same car. He also made a pitch for raising standards and attracting a better class of investor rather than the much publicized 'race to the bottom' of labor and environmental standards for countries hoping to attract sweatshops and dirty industries (not that chip manufacturing is clean: in Silicon Valley we have some of the worst pollution and ground water problems of the whole country, and some of that is traced to the semi-conductor industry). When I hear all the talk of Intel, it seems Costa Rica has replaced two monocultures (coffee/bananas) with another: PC chips. If they can grow the peripheral IT industries around Intel, they will certainly succeed in the same way that Seattle now has a vibrant IT sector that can survive even if Microsoft is not doing well.

Sherry Turkle spoke about the inadequate metaphors in technology (the digital divide is one example) and how technology is changing culture. She first looked at the disconnect between the utopian view of computer enthusiasts in the 1980s and the reality that these machines were not going to effect the kinds of changes they envisioned. Another danger was the fantasy that gender, race, and age matter less online because you cannot see most other users. She was able to deliver a rich set of ideas in a very short time, but I really felt I needed to read them before hearing her discuss them.

Alan Shaw, whom I had met when he spoke at a community network conference I organzed in 1994, gave an update on the same project, Linking Up Villages, which has been tried in the Boston area, New Jersey, and Jackson, Mississippi. Using computers to link up single mothers in one project, these women began to organize, use the tools to get more control of their lives, and more importantly, to think differently about who they were and what they could do. One woman who had never been on a plane, organized a trip to Newark airport to show kids (and other adults) what went on there and to go inside a passenger compartment. These were compelling stories, but I worried that it took computers and networks to begin this transformation. My hunch is that the concern and attention afforded these women by Shaw and his wife were a good part of that catalytic process. Perhaps the computer communication made it easier for the women to show concern for each other.

The evening was a special time. Isaac Hayes, the composer who won an Oscar for the theme from Shaft many years ago, has been working with a young Ghanaian woman to build Neko Tech, a school in Ade, in southeast Ghana near the border of Togo. They showed a PAL format video on a U.S. machine that distorted the images of Ghanian village life, Hayes' honorary coronation, and the opening of the school and lab this year. However, the video effects caused me to pay more attention to make sense of what was on the screen. The villages looked no different from my visit there 35 years ago, but the lab looked as sharp as a new Bureau of Indian Affairs school in some distant reservation in America or the primary school in Silicon Valley where my wife works. Hayes said other celebrities, including Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, and John Travolta, had helped with the project. Though he made no overt mention of the Church of Scientology being involved in the project, one foundation has declined to assist them once that link was made clear. Hayes is considered a spokesman for the Church.

Hayes performed for the crowd, singing and playing on his synthesizer, before rushing to catch a plane, and the second act was by a remarkable hiphop artist known as DJ Spookey (Paul Miller). He gave an erudite explanation of what he was exploring in his performances and did an amazing mix of an old Marshall McLuhan vinyl recording, Isaac Hayes music, and his own scratching and bass accompaniment. It was masterful.

October 20

The final day took place at Harvard Law School where the Berkman Center for Internet & Society is located. Director Charles Nesson welcomed us and outlined some of the challenges of the Internet: Notions of property and privacy: can the property interests tolerate an open network (recording industry vs. Napster)? Are we building a surveillance network? How do we build on top of the technology, the needed layers of education, business, and law to make it function for the benefit of society (and not just the most powerful interests)?

Erik Saltzman of the Berkman Center used the metaphor that some nations felt the Internet was the last ticket on the last train leaving the station, as if there will not be any chances for some countries if they don't take advantage of the opportunities. Robert Kaplan would argue that other forces have already rendered that a moot issue in some troubled areas of the world (Sierra Leone, the Caucasus, Afghanistan).

The panel on government included the top anti-corruption official for India, Mr. N. Vittal, Central Vigilance Commissioner; Claudio Orrego Larrain a Chilean minister of city planning who had a background in social programs in urban barrios, and Dennis Gilhooley. Orrego is a good example of a modern, techno-savvy public servant/politician who's willing to challenge his peers as well as the business community in order to make this technology work for the people. Orrego put his own financial holdings on his department web page, though all the others for his colleagues are in a paper document hidden away in a public agency where it takes a concerted effort to visit and extract the data. This was in the wake of a government scandal about severance pay for high level government employees in Chile.

George Sadowsky of the Internet Society said he dealt with countries which have their head in the 20th century and their tail somewhere else. He stressed that the opportunity costs of not investing in ICT needed to be explained to the reluctant governments. One questioner said that it will be a hard sell if you are saying that ICT will disintermediate "unneeded" government workers and make the whole operation more transparent (i.e. less corrupt). Having a government job where you can enjoy extra, perhaps illegal benefits, is one reason this line of work is attractive in some places. Why should they "get on the train?" Trying to convince some of these people to get Internet religion is about as challenging as the U.S. foreign assistance programs to encourage crop substitution for tropical farmers who are doing quite well, thank you, partly because their global comparative advantage is growing poppies or coca plants and not just growing more coffee or more bananas. Why change because an outside consultant or advisor says they should? In the case of coca, Apache gunships flying over and raining death on the grower can be an added incentive to change crops. We don't expect similar measures to be used on the ministries of telecommunications and education.

An Indian spoke up and made a passionate plea to consider the corporate agenda to influence governments and bring about policy changes to give them even more power. He felt that governments needed to serve the people and not just large companies. His was the first time anyone in the three days had made any reference to this trend. Most of those present thought it was the right trend or one that almost inevitable, but it would have been an interesting discussion, had there been time. That is certainly what has brought activists out in force at each World Economic Forum, at the Seattle WTO wrestling matches, and of course at the World Bank IMF meeting in Prague last month.

In the entrepreneurship panel Dennis Smith of Digital Partners said his firm is starting a conversation between the corporations and the developing countries about how to help these countries catch up. Smith sees the agenda of the Internet philanthropists and the corporate affairs programs as a useful part of this effort to connect the world. Others, of course, see it as part of the broader corporate agenda. That is why the donations of the Gates Foundation in the library connectivity program are seen both as a life saver and the best program since Andrew Carnegie, or just an extension of a plan to extend domination of personal computing.

Monique Maddy, Adesemi Communications, also on the entrepreneurship panel, ended the conference with a rather sober assessment of doing business in countries that everyone was so intent upon connecting to the Internet. A Liberian by birth, she found that doing business was not a problem of getting VC funds but of policy and business practices in Africa. "Deferred Dream", her Harvard Business Review (May 2000, volume 78, p.57) piece on her venture in Tanzania is a must-read. She also differentiated between the funders who wanted to do good and those who wanted to do well (i.e. make money), and the two camps did not mix well. For that reason she felt the term social venture capital has an oxymoronic ring to it.

Before the Concordes were taken out of service, there were round the world tours where a select group could fly in luxury, at high speeds and high altitudes, touching down for fuel and visits in select locations. The three days were much like one of these tours: we flew high and fast, covered a lot of territory, with convivial company, good food, and pleasant surroundings. Some of the speakers and many of the personal conversations helped ground us in reality: David Cavallo talking about the successes and challenges in an MIT Media Lab project in rural Thailand, Maddy's problems in Tanzania, and Alan Shaw working with poor women in Jackson, Mississippi.

The topics were as varied as the attendees, and had there been an evaluation form, the organizers might find out what topics they might focus on in a subsequent meeting. Of course, one can find these conclaves going on everywhere in the world: IIT in Madras connectivity solutions for developing countries. FutureWorks in Newfoundland on telecenters; UNCTAD meetings on ecommerce in developing countries. Just a few months ago Harvard hosted three overlapping Internet conferences at the same time! Should there be a followup to eDevelopment? Yes, but perhaps taking place closer to the target audiences.

Will this allow Harvard C.I.D. and MIT Media Lab a place at the development table? Of course, but success in the field will earn them respect above and beyond the cachet of their famous institutions. Help the Fox government in Mexico productize Pengachu, the $50 Linux box. Work with the National Library of Medicine on AIDS and malarial telemedicine programs throughout Africa. Show the masses in the street that privatizing national telephone companies and water utilities will help the poor as much as it helps the transnationals who are willing to invest. If good policies and technologies emerge from expensive organizational membership and consulting fees, publicize those as quickly as possible using other avenues than meetings for members and clients. Find ways for any country, including those without tickets, to get on the last train out of the station.End of article


About the Author

Steve Cisler is a consultant whose background is in public and special libraries. He has been a teacher in the Peace Corps, a wine maker and search and rescue coordinator in the Coast Guard. Now he focuses on public access projects and community computing projects in the United States and developing countries. He is currently working with Tachyon, Inc., an Internet services carrier using Ku band satellite for high speed access. He has written for Online, Database, American Libraries, Library Journal, and Wired. Steve has two sons and lives with his wife in San José, California.
E-mail: cisler@pobox.com

Editorial history

Paper received 24 October 2000; accepted 1 November 2000.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Letter from Cambridge: Digital Nations and eDevelopment meetings by Steve Cisler
First Monday, volume 5, number 11 (November 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_11/cisler/index.html

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