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Bill Gates, computers for kids and why telling a single story is risky

African gaming

Creating solutions for one population base in a society does not mean that the others don’t exist. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gave a great TED Talk, where she said, “There’s a danger in telling a single story.” She warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

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I have three example narratives to explore this through:

  • When the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) program first came out there were a lot of critics. Rather than try and get a bunch of primary school kids on computers, it seemed you could do more good with that money. There were more pressing needs, like clean water and better healthcare.
  • Kenya is putting one million laptops into the hands of first graders this year, as it was part of the presidential campaign by Uhuru Kenyatta. There are a lot of critics. Rather than getting a bunch of first graders on computers, it seems you could do more with that money (approx US$600-million). There are more pressing needs, like better teacher pay and facilities.
  • Google is trying moonshot ideas to get more people connected across the emerging markets, like putting broadband balloons into the air. Bill Gates thinks that rather than getting a bunch of poor people internet connectivity, it seems Google could do more with that money. There are more pressing needs, like solving the problems of malaria and diarrhea in Africa.

There are valid points within each of these three stories, however we know that most decisions have a trade-off in them. Inherent in these examples are two sub-narratives; first, that of short-term versus long-term goals, and second, blanket perceptions of a continent as poor, and all with the same needs.

Short versus long-term

My critique of the OLPC project is the same as that of the Kenyan primary school computers; that is that I don’t care about them for the same reasons most others do — they’re mostly marketing fluff and you certainly leave a lot of short-term needs in the lurch when you do them. I care about them because anytime you get computers into the hands of millions of children, a simple percentage numbers game tells you that you’ll have a lot more curiosity and exploration, and therefore more interesting stuff happening in 10 years time. Many of the best computer engineers start young, and I’d like to have more quality computer engineers in Africa.

Is there a “right” answer for whether we give kids computers early (or not at all), or spend large amounts of money on seemingly crazy ideas for internet connectivity (or on malaria meds)? Probably not, but we too easily fall into the trap of discussing them as if only a single solution will work.

We need more people to try things that move us beyond the status quo and legacy systems that we see globally for education, healthcare, agriculture, business, money, connectivity, etc. Seemingly crazy have their place too.

The blanket perception of Africa as poor

There are more than poor people in poor parts of the world. The story is not as black and white as Bill Gates paints it, he is creating a false dichotomy when he pits a diarrhetic child against internet connectivity needs. We have a middle-class, we have businesses and we have people progressing faster because of their ability to connect to the rest of the world through the internet.

Paul Collier states it best:

“The dysfunction of Africa has become a part of business folk memory that keeps western multinationals from doing anything, but the Africa of the 80s and 90s is not the Africa of today.”

This simplistic narrative is possibly the most frustrating of all, because it’s foisted on Africa by others. It undermines Africa’s ability on the international level to show how it is progressing by boxing us into the old memories of famines in Ethiopia from three decades ago.

Yes, we need solutions for malaria and we need better teacher training (and pay) and school buildings. Yes, we need kids on computers earlier and we need better internet connectivity across the continent. We can explore both without damning the other side for trying.

[Sidenote: I realize that Gates was also digging at Page and Brin for the way that Google.org has shifted focus over the last five years. His statement positions their work as a negative thing, that because they’re not focusing on healthcare or education needs for the very poorest countries, that what they’re doing is less valuable. Working on connectivity for poor countries is not better, it’s not worse, it’s different — and I would suggest equally valuable.]


This article by Erik Hersman originally appeared on White African, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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