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07.24.03:    |    July 2003    |    08.05.03:
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watson proposal
July 25, 2003
submitted to the Watson Foundation as part of the fellowship application
integrating technology into unexposed communities
China, South Africa, Cape Verde, Argentina, Costa Rica
With my Watson Fellowship, I will investigate the impact that the Internet and computers are having on technologically underdeveloped communities around the world. Over the course of the year I hope to begin to understand, on a broad level, the way that technology affects societies -- for better and for worse. I will focus on programs that give computers and training to communities with little previous exposure to such technology. The goal of these "digital divide initiatives" is to reduce the technology gap; these programs deal with the interface between technology and society in a very raw and accessible form. The majority of my year will be spent in small communities where initiatives are already underway; in such places I hope to learn the specific needs that computer technology is and should be addressing. I will balance this local perspective by interviewing policy-makers and program architects; from these people I will learn about the broader issues and implication of each country's digital divide.

Quite a bit has been written about the digital divide, and there are some remarkable statistics to be found: there are more phone lines in Manhattan than in all of sub-Saharan Africa; a personal computer costs three times the annual salary of a schoolteacher in Calcutta; between sixty and eighty percent of the world's population has never made a telephone call. Although computers and the Internet have the potential to catalyze social change and empower otherwise neglected communities around the world, access is far from ubiquitous. Digital divide initiatives aim to rectify this situation by disseminating technology to relatively underserved areas. Their intentions are noble, but I'm concerned that current efforts are too limited in their approach. The "cookie cutter" solution of installing an internet station and Microsoft Office could potentially ignore the priorities and perceptions of the people it is intended to benefit. Perhaps people in rural Africa will reap the same benefits from this technology as we in the Western world do; perhaps not. There is a certain amount of cultural ideology bundled with the software and these initiatives run the risk of proselytizing technology instead of merely teaching it.

During my wanderjahr, I will visit small communities that are, have been, and will be the subject of a digital divide initiative. I will try and untangle the needs and desires of the "beneficiaries" in the community from the agenda of the "benefactors" who design and work for the initiatives.

Although it will be challenging to understand the technological needs of a person unfamiliar with technology, I will ask many questions aimed at how and why people are using (and not using) the computers. The specific line of questioning I pursue will depend on the person and community, but in general I want to assess the relevance of the technology to the people it is intended to benefit. Are people in relatively isolated places now considering using online forums to communicate, make friends, express political views or initiate social change? Is the Internet providing them with useful information? How are schools and businesses taking advantage of the computer labs? How do older and younger generations' perspectives differ? I will place myself in a position where it will be natural for me to ask these and other questions: as a visiting scientist, as a participant observer with the initiative or simply as a guest of a local citizen. I will talk to the beneficiaries themselves, as well as the local elites who are in constant contact with the community (local officials, community organizers, business owners, etc). Through personal interaction, I hope to experience the ways in which communities use and benefit from the technology, in practice instead of on paper.

This community-level perspective is at the core of my project; however, I also want to understand the perspective of the benefactors - the movers and shakers in positions to affect the digital divide at the national level. I have been in contact with many such people, including ambassadors, members of parliament, program directors, ministers of education and development, managers at telecommunications companies and academics involved in policy research. Some of these people are mentioned below; a complete listing of their names and titles can be found in the addendum, "List of Contacts." Through formal interviews and academic dialogue I will learn which issues these dignitaries perceive to be most critical in the creation and resolution of the digital divide. Why does the divide exist as it does, what needs to be done, what are the obstacles to doing it, and how do they make informed decisions?

I will visit the following five countries: China (15 weeks: 7/9-10/21); South Africa (11 weeks: 10/22-1/6); Cape Verde (8 weeks: 1/7-3/2); Argentina (10 weeks: 3/3-5/11); and Costa Rica (8 weeks: 5/12-7/7). I am conversationally fluent in Portuguese (Cape Verde) and Spanish (Costa Rica and Argentina), and English is the primary language spoken in the areas of South Africa that I will visit. Though I have taken courses in Mandarin and have a working knowledge of the language, it is important that I be able to be able to converse naturally, and consequently I plan on spending the first four weeks of my year in an intensive language program at Tsinghua University's Language Academy.

I will start in Beijing, China. In China, partially due to the progressive national plan to disproportionately develop five "Economic Zones," the gap between technology haves and have-nots is perhaps larger than it is in any other country in the world. While studying at the language program in Beijing, I will have the opportunity to discuss China's policy and predicament with the faculty at Tsinghua University's Institute of Scientific Technology and Social Developments where Dr. Sheng-Lun has spoken to various professors on my behalf. Leaving Beijing, there are many rural initiatives I have the option to observe. Dr. Sheng-Lun has offered to arrange for me to take a week-long "field trip" to rural Hubei, where the Institute runs a pilot program. Alternatively, four hundred miles east of Beijing, in Dalian, Microsoft coordinates a program to teach basic computer skills to unemployed workers. Dr. James Gray, a director of research, has assured me of their cooperation. I also intend to visit the interior Sichuan province, where Coca-Cola's Project Hope is working to move technology into select elementary schools. Dr. Chen Dapeng lives in the capital and has offered me his home and assistance in meeting local elected officials.

From China I will go to South Africa, a country whose digital divide has attracted a disproportionate amount of international attention. Perhaps because of the recent shift from apartheid, the ongoing deregulation of the telecom sector or the government's progressive attitude toward education, South Africa is extensively discussed in the policy literature and I expect to hear contradictory arguments from the various people in power. Cape Town will be my entry point, where Chengiah Ragaven and Louis Bialy, both well-connected expatriates, will connect me to members of parliament and set me up with housing. On a community level, I will focus on the Digital Villages project, which are funded by HP's billion-dollar e-inclusion initiative and coordinated by South African NGO's. Digital Villages aim to "provide communities with basic computer, Internet and business skills to improve their chances of getting work." I currently plan on visiting two such communities, in Dikhatole (near Johannesbug) and Umtata (near Soweto). Given time, I will also travel to Athlone (near Durban on the Wild Coast), where The Shuttleworth Foundation operates the Linux Lab Pilot Project. In contrast to the heavily-funded digital villages, the Linux Lab is run by two people and focuses on a single elementary school.

Roughly six hundred kilometers off the coast of Senegal lies Cape Verde, an Afro-Portuguese archipelago with 460,000 inhabitants, fewer than two percent of whom have access to a computer. The lack of international attention and undeveloped telecommunications infrastructure make Cape Verde the ideal place to observe information and communications technology in its most embryonic stages. Unfortunately, these factors have also made it extremely difficult to find relevant information on the country; most of the information I have found comes from a series of conversations I have had with Michael Metelits, the recently-retired ambassador to Cape Verde, and Ambassador Jose Brito, Cape Verde's current ambassador to the United States. Both ambassadors have been supportive of my project and are willing to introduce me to the people and organizations I need to find. Dr. Metelits informed me of an unpublicized effort to establish Internet-ready community centers on each of Cape Verde's nine islands, sponsored by the Capeverdian government, the US Embassy, the US Department of Defense, the European Command and ForChildren, a US-based NGO. Dr. Metelits was one of the founders of the program; in addition to giving me physical access to the centers, he can introduce me to the other principal architects.

From Cape Verde I will fly to Argentina, one of the most developed, wealthy and literate countries in Latin America. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis has dried up government and international funding for technology development, and at least three initiatives have floundered in the last two years. As a result, the information gap in Argentina is quickly widening; the educated elite in universities and urban areas continue to acquire state-of-the-art technology while rural communities are still using the computers given to them in the economic boom of the 1990s. Many government officials and academics are concerned with this widening divide; I will to listen to their perspective and recommendations. Dr. Claudio Delrieux has confirmed support for my project from politicians and professors in Buenos Aires, Bahia Blanca and Patagonia. In Rosario, two hundred kilometers outside of Buenos Aires, I will visit what remains of TAU's Enredando program, which "sets up self sustaining community computer centers in poor neighborhoods." In 1999 TAU received funding to pay three of the five volunteers to work part-time; this funding no longer exists. New computers for the centers, which were previously donated by local businesses, have stopped rolling in, and the centers are now run by compassionate university students. Aside from TAU, I will have the opportunity to work for three weeks as a participant observer with Centro de Estudios e Investigación de la Mujer, a digital divide program that focuses on helping women in rural Argentina.

The last country I visit will be Costa Rica, in many ways the exemplar of progressive national policy. Costa Rica is relatively wealthy, and the government devotes considerable funds toward the integration of technology into education. Since 1987 the national government has implemented policy through the Ministry of Public Education and the Omar Dengo Foundation, a private NGO. Currently, one out of every two children in public elementary school uses computers supplied by the Foundation. Miguel Jaramillo, Peru's former Vice Minister of Economic and Social Development, is helping me establish inroads into the Ministry of Public Education. At Omar Dengo my contacts are being facilitated by Larry Wolff, a manager at the Inter-American Development Bank who recently worked with the director of the Foundation. Through these two people I hope to be able to observe the program's implementation in Quepos and/or Tortuguero. Additionally, fifty kilometers outside of Quepos the MIT Media Lab has established a self-sustainable digital community center as part of their LINCOS project. For a nominal fee, they will give me full access to the facility.

In each of the five countries above, there are multiple communities which I have the option to visit. However, if I find that it takes two months to gain the trust and confidence of the people I meet, I will adjust accordingly. At the same time, I'm not interested in doing a case study of the digital divide in a single community. My goal is to understand the digital divide and the affected communities on a very broad level. I want to learn how they can benefit from technology, how closely one community's needs resemble another's, and how effectively these needs are being addressed. I believe it is possible to holistically integrate our technology into developing communities; I want to learn the best way to do it.

Posted by senorjosh at July 25, 2003 09:59 AM | TrackBack
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