Clean water first, then computing, but make sure they're not laptops

Many so-called IT evangelists seem to think that computing can solve all of the world's problems. Jonathan Schwartz is much more realistic.

In his blog earlier this week, he referred to a conference examining the impact of technology on developing nations. The argument was that the digital divide provides a barrier to development. And those without access can't participate.

Much more important for developing nations has to be more fundamental issues such as access to clean water, access to arable land, and access to world markets free from subsidy and trade barriers. In much of the developing world, mobile telephony provides the country's communications infrastructure rather than fixed line. In the same way that wireless has leapfrogged over fixed line telephony, these same countries need to move straight to thin client, lower cost computing - rather than fall into the trap of adopting standalone personal computing, each PC consuming large amounts of electricity and having unnecessary internally-installed processing power.

Maybe some of the ideas originally put forward by E F Schumpeter in 'Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered', first published in 1973 can now be applied to IT for developing countries. In his book, Schumpeter proposes a system of intermediate technology arguing that industrialised economies had developed advanced technologies that failed to efficiently meet the needs of the developing world.

More than perhaps any other machine invented, the PC running expensive proprietary software has evolved into a highly over-engineered system that remains idle, in terms of what it is designed for, virtually all of the time its switched on.

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