Message: 36
Date: 6.1.96
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Who Will the Next Billion Users Be?

The question I'm asked most often is "Will the information rich get richer while the information poor get poorer?" My answer is "No." But that reply may be too quick and simple.

If you agree that the Net will have a billion users by the turn of the century, you probably have also assumed that the majority of these users will be in developed nations. After all, of the roughly 10 million host machines that exist today, more than half are in the United States. Many of the rest are in G7 nations. In fact, the 50 least-developed countries of the world - those with less than US$500 per capita GDP - currently sport 23 host machines. (Curiously, 19 are in Nepal.) My point is that the information rich today are indeed rich and the information poor are indeed poor.

But this will change. Consider a country like Malaysia, where the people value education, and the government, albeit slightly despotic, promotes development in a grand way. At the moment, there are 20,000 Internet users in Kuala Lumpur, a number that is growing by 20 percent each month. At this rate, all of Malaysia (some 19.1 million people) will be online by 2000. So far, we haven't been counting these people in our billion users calculation. And Malaysia is not the only country growing at this rate.

Consider the most gung-ho person in your neighborhood, the one who enthusiastically embraces trash collection, babysitting, and a host of other local civic projects. The neighbor who comes to mind is probably the newest arrival. Said another way, the most devout among us are frequently those who have most recently converted. We're all familiar with new email users who go berserk and swamp us with interminably long and chatty messages. This can happen on a global scale and is something to ponder when you realize that India and China represent more than 2 billion people. But the difference between using computers for email and, for example, primary education is that the former may be an infatuation while the latter can provide an everlasting square meal of digital nutrition.

In general I'm very optimistic, especially about the developing world rapidly "becoming digital." Almost half of the populations of developing nations are under 20, in contrast to less than a third in developed countries. Typically, this youth corps is considered a liability. But given the existing base of people, a large youth population is an asset as nations move forward, particularly in countries where older members of society are less literate.

We all know that kids take to computers as they do to language, and that given the chance, they will jump into the digital world with passion, delight, and abandon. When PCs were only "personal computers," educational opportunities - especially in the developing world - were limited by the amount of software "second guessed" to be appropriate. With the Internet, this changes dramatically. It's no longer necessary to plot every step in advance. Kids can teach other kids around the world. Reasons for being able to read and write will become obvious.

Two fixable problems
You're probably saying, Sure, Nicholas, we love the idea of developing countries jumping into the digital age, but what about the problems of communications and cost? In developing countries the telephone systems are not just dilapidated, scarce, and poorly run, they're also outrageously expensive monopolies that, in almost every instance, are state owned. It is often difficult to tell if a lousy system is a result of a shabby infrastructure, an inefficient - even corrupt - civil service, or both.

For these reasons, it would be great to pull away from such earthly flaws and use a grid of low-orbiting satellites - like Iridium or Teledesic - to link the schools of the developing world. At least it is possible - without digging up Africa or managing 100 different phone companies.

Access to low-cost computers seems more difficult. As we press machines into harder duty and make them more sophisticated, we sometimes forget that for some people simple equipment is much better than none at all. A 386 laptop - perfectly serviceable for Net connections, wordprocessing, and graphics - can be built today for under $250. That's important. And backing away from hardware expectations is not the only issue; trimming our operating systems is even more vital. Windows 95 makes no sense in most of Africa. A svelte, stripped-down version is needed so that memory demand, among other things, is modest. When that happens, the next billion users may not be composed of our digitally homeless middle-class relatives; rather, a totally new group of young, eager minds from "elsewhere" may emerge.

A call for a school corps
We now need at least 500,000 young men and women from developed nations who are willing to spend a year in the developing world as part of a school corps - like the Peace Corps. These young people would be a resource for more than 100 children each (a conservative figure) within the 48 countries considered by Unesco as the "least developed." Universities would be wise to support such an initiative by offering academic credit for a new kind of junior year abroad. Believe me, most students would gain far more from teaching 6-year-olds in Africa than in the classroom at home.

Running such an effort would cost about as much as a few F-15s. The problem is not money, but how to do it. Under whose aegis? Unesco is too politicized, and the World Bank would want its money back. It may be time to create a new United Nations for cyberspace, an organization with a five-year half-life to make the digital world immediately available to everyone. It cannot be done country by country - governments move so slowly, and most are run by the digitally homeless, anyway.

Something very new is needed. If you have a good idea, speak up. Use the email address above. Seriously.

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