In my last post, I talked about practical, viable ways to deliver Internet connectivity to nations with very poor infrastructure – ways that can actually make a business case for themselves. As an Estonian, it is natural for me to focus on this, because IT lies at the core of the new Estonian creation myth, the story of us climbing out of poverty and destitution in the early 90s – when we were simultaneously the world’s largest exporter of (smuggled) rare-earth metals and one of Europe’s murder capitals. It only took us a decade of investment in digital infrastructure, plus a lot of determination, some ingenuity, and never listening to those who told us something couldn’t be done, for Estonia to become an EU success story. And hey, we only squandered some of what we got on overpriced real-estate and flashy cars.
But let’s assume I got my wish: the Recently Democratic Republic of Digistan was approached by a First World superpower. An impressive sum of European taxpayer money was briefly channeled into foreign-aid accounts, in order to provide jobs for the factories of Siemens, Nokia and Alcatel. Flashy new WiMax base stations sprung up all over the countryside, China flooded the market with cheap USB dongles, and Estonia’s IT commandos deployed a turnkey system of electronic government.
What can the population do with all this newfound connectivity?
First, they can find out about all the good work that the First World is doing for them. They could tune in to The Naked Scientists, a radio show that is also available as a weekly podcast download. In this vaguely BBC-affiliated production, hosts with very posh British voices talk about the most interesting new scientific developments, and their practical applications. I love the show because I understand what they are talking about, and I only have a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. The people of RDR Digistan will love it because it will tell them about things like drought- and pest-resistant crops, with increased yields and better commercial value. And you, the Th!nk3 reader, will love it because you don’t need to go to the website and wade through a lot of information to get to the interesting bits: click here, download the file and put it on your phone or music player. Then listen to it on the bus.
The relevant point of the Internet is that it is a force multiplier. The ability to connect directly to people on the ground – those most motivated to improve their conditions, and those best suited to make lasting, significant changes – increases the practical benefit of direct action immensely. I’ve already talked about microfinancing, but the impressive increases in impact can come about in other fields as well.
So here’s your second link of the day: the Khan Academy. It is the work of a single person, a brilliant man of South Asian descent, with the best First World education and track record of success in the world of business. It is a collection of over a thousand short videos explaining the basic concepts of math, chemistry, physics, biology – as well as history, economics, finance, etc. Salman Khan has taken his natural intelligence, augmented by the world’s finest tuition, and he is bringing it to anyone, anywhere in the world – as long as they have an Internet connection. Thirty years ago, he might have become a teacher in an African village, and that would have been eminently noble, and worthy of the utmost respect. Today, there is a Salman Khan in every classroom with an OLPC. Just take a moment to consider the significance of this – the significance of providing outstanding education to the developing world, at a trivial cost.
You have probably heard about the story of a boy from Malawi who used spare parts from some farm machinery and various other garbage to build a wind-powered electricity generator for his home and his village. The boy was trotted out on CNN, The Daily Show, all the big media outlets; his story was supposed to be extraordinary, inspirational. It always struck me as fundamentally wrong: I was born in the Soviet Union, where (for all its many, many problems) just about any kid learned enough by sixth grade to build a generator or a radio out of scrap. While the First World has developed away from the need for such hands-on knowledge, it is still there, in our history – it’s what got us this far. We don’t need to tell the poor nations of the world how inspirational and uplifting the story of the Malawian is – we need to give them a high school textbook on electromagnetism. They can find their own roll of copper wire.
Years from now, when the Secretary General of the United Nations will finally declare that the Millennium Development Goals have been accomplished, he will be standing on the shoulders of people like Norman Borlaug and Salman Khan.