Message: 48
Date: 6.1.97
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>


There is a new force in the world: the growth of cyberspace. Inherent in this force is a breakdown of barriers. Everyone talks about crossing barriers of geography, gender, and culture. But the most important barrier is perhaps the least appreciated: the barrier of age. Empowering kids is a double whammy because they're the ones who will most effectively break down the other barriers as well. The children of the world are critical to achieving a united world.

Those of us who grew up in multiracial societies are likely to be more racially unprejudiced than our parents. I see the same difference in people younger than me, who grew up in a more gender-enlightened era; many just cannot understand how much of an issue gender was in my time. I bet the kids of tomorrow will have the same feeling about nationalistic thinking. In fact, we are looking at a generation that will feel about culture the way most of us today feel about race and gender - identity and unity, being individual and plural at the same time.

What's wrong with this picture is that more than 50 percent of the 1.2 billion children ages 6 to 11 have never even placed a phone call. Yet the suggestion to give the kids of the world access to technology raises an obvious question: What sense is there in providing computers and Internet access to children in nations where there is inadequate food, clothing, and medicine?

The short answer: lots.

Déjà vu
In 1981, French president François Mitterand gave author Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber the mandate to establish a World Center for Computation and Human Development. The idea was based on Servan-Schreiber's book The World Challenge. Simply stated, developing nations should and could leapfrog the industrialization process and jump into the trade of bits, instead of atoms.

What gave this idea substance and credibility was the work of Seymour Papert, who had just published Mindstorms. Papert's theme of "teaching children thinking" was a natural complement to The World Challenge. And, with the initial backing of the then-wealthy OPEC, these crazy ideas started to make sense. Saudi leader Ahmed Zaki Yamani delivered a powerful address on human development that fall in Vienna. Paraphrased, he said, don't give a poor man fish, give him a fishing rod. The leap from a fishing rod to a personal computer was, for some of us, easy.

The center's work focused on the use of computers for primary education in developing nations. The first site was a school outside Dakar, Senegal. This small experiment was just terrific; the kids had most fun teaching the principal. Kids from the jungle learned faster than kids from the city.

The second location was Colombia; it had the full personal commitment of President Belisario Betancur Cuartas. For a short period, this outrageously bold idea looked like it was going to be the beginning of something very big and important.

It was not. Within months, the original mission was pushed aside in favor of addressing more immediate needs in France, where, after all, the center was based. Within less than six months, the "world challenge" was replaced with "France’s need" - installing a national fiber-optic system.

The 1981 Paris initiative was way ahead of its time. Even if it had not unraveled for other reasons, it would have failed because of the absence of global telecommunications and the rarity of personal computers. The IBM PC had not even been introduced in Europe.

Today, the timing is right. Two major forces fuel this timeliness: worldwide awareness and use of the Internet and the spread of personal computers into the lives of children - at school and at home.

Because of these forces, a group of us has created a nonprofit organization called 2B1, whose purpose is to bring the digital world to kids in those places least likely to provide access to it. The idea is not to go country by country, but to target the world as a whole. Sounds cuckoo, but it isn't, because the Net itself and the children using it now are very much part of the solution.

In parallel, the MIT Media Lab is also focusing on children, learning, and human development. The scientific and technical questions it faces range from language translation to storytelling to cultural understanding to the roles of nonverbal language.

Developing digerati
On July 17, MIT and 2B1 are cohosting a five-day workshop that will bring together people who have taken bold initiatives in bringing computers to children who live in technologically isolated places. For example, teachers who have defied the logic that you need to provide more chalk before you bring a computer into a primary classroom. Or social activists who have brought computers to street children who don't have schools at all. But especially those who have found ways even more imaginative to bring children into cyberspace.

Check out www.2b1.org/. We will pay travel, room, and board expenses for as many people as we can afford, with a strong priority given to getting at least one or two individuals from every developing nation. Do you know somebody who should attend?

Our goals for the meeting include developing a 2B1 plan of action, collaborating with existing groups, and establishing a major granting program of hardware, telecommunications systems, and know-how. Feels big? You bet it does. But just like the distributed Internet, this too can grow. In fact, the Net is the encouraging force. It is both global and popular - and what we did not have in 1981.

2B1 is a nonprofit foundation, whose president is Peter Cawley (peter@2b1.org), vice chair and chief scientist is Seymour Papert (seymour@2b1.org), and director of product development and interface design is Dimitri Negroponte (dimitri@2b1.org). Other participants include myself, Saj Nicole Joni, Tom Grant, Rodrigo Arboleda Halaby, and others mentioned at the Web site.

Next Issue: Digital Obesity

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