In an interesting post, that we recommend you read in full, Micheal Gurstein makes the case for telecenters despite the Nenasala debacle of the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka.
Here is his key question:
Or to put the question another way—what do we lose if we (or rural Sri Lankans) only have mobile communications with optional access to the Internet and we by-pass the personal computer completely? What happens if that becomes the communications paradigm for a range of countries such as Sri Lanka who, having not managed to effectively respond to the digital divide to this point, decide basically to give up the fight and leave it all to the ambitions and creativity of the mobile operators.
We can say more, much more (and have, with more evidence than casual observation), but here is the comment I left on his blog:
“Give up the fight and leave it all to the ambition and creativity of the mobile operators?”
Well, isn’t that a smooth rhetorical move? Ceasing to repeat a futile and wasteful act is giving up the fight, and who would want to be labeled a wimp? And which of the critics of the telecenters said anything about the ambition and creativity of mobile operators as being the only alternative?
To talk of mobile networks connecting people to each other and to information and giving them the ability to engage in transactions and remote computing is not to limit the discussion to mobile handsets. The extraordinary takeup of mobile dongles in the developing world suggests that the mobile networks will be used to connect to the Internet by users from various devices: Chanuka has documented that telecenters that do not connect through dongles affixed to desktop computers are throwing money away. Netbooks on the one hand and smartphones on the other are converging the functionalities of computers and mobile phones while also bringing down the costs of connectivity to levels unimaginable just a few years ago. The creativity of more actors than the mobile operators is at play here.
The mistake that is being made is to imagine a highly constricted version of mobile-based connectivity when the manner by which one connects to the Internet via mobile networks is changing very rapidly. This is like trying to discuss travel on an expressway solely in terms of what is feasible on a dirt road.
The other sleight of hand is to say that the aspects of computer use that are not dependent on the Internet (such as typing up resumes) will all be irretrievably lost should the government-subsidized telecenters shut down. Peter Benjamin showed years ago that indeed most S African telecenters ended up as disconnected computer training shops. If there is a demand for resume preparation or whatever, the market will meet it, using subsidized or other computers. And has the writer not heard of OLPC and other low-cost computer solutions that will allow young people to use computers more normally than in virus infested common use settings?
It is highly wasteful to keep pouring millions into subsidized telecenters that people do not use, simply to ensure that young people have the opportunity to type up resumes. If the writer had kept his eye on the roadside signboards in Sri Lanka more closely he would have seen the proliferation of computer skills training centers and courses. Do these establishments not have computers? Do they not allow those computers to be used for a fee?
The opposite of “giving up the fight” is to continue to pour money into telecenters. Seems to me that Einstein describes this behavior well: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Join the debate. Here or on Gurstein’s blog. Those whose children will have to repay the loans taken to subsidize telecenters (low interest or other) are especially welcome.