A few years ago, the Guardian ran a story about an Indian man who put a PC in a street, and waited to see what the local children would make of it.
approached and began learning how to operate the computer," says Sugata
Mitra, director of research and development at NIIT. "No one showed
them how to use it. They came on their own, because they were curious,
and learnt by a process of trial and error." Within an hour they had
learnt how to manipulate the mouse through the touch pad. Mitra had set
up the web browser pointing at www.altavista.com and moments later they
worked out "almost by accident" how to click and surf the web.
Grown-ups showed no interest. But, despite their lack of education,
groups of children aged 6-12 swarmed around the machine all day.
Most slum children do
not go to school, are very poor and speak only Hindi. Many did not even
know what the computer was – they just called it ‘the thing’. Yet
through Mitra’s lassez-faire approach, they taught themselves how to
use a mouse, browse the net, play games and even download and play
Hindi music files.
For us, that raises an obvious question: if computers are so intuitively easy to use that illiterate children who have never seen one before can teach themselves, why do we assume that the digital divide has to be such a big problem in a much more literate and technically advanced society like ours? Of course, ability to use computers is only one aspect of the problem – and equally obviously, the very fact that the children in India have no idea that it might be thought to be difficult must make it easier for them. Even in the Indian context, it seems significant that it is children who use the computers and learn by doing to – there’s nothing about the scheme which stops adults from being in the vanguard. So the question is a deliberately naive one, but it’s another example of how institutionally, we tend to assume that the future is a simple extrapolation of the past – and tend to ignore the wider issues of social exclusion altogether.