Digital Life

This Week’s Topic: Your Smart Phone Is Dumb

African textile with cell phones
Textile from the exhibition "Africa [Dot] Com: Drums 2 Digital", Museum of African Diaspora (San Francisco, USA)
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

Web We Want’s newsletter highlights one important topic every week and tells you what you need to know in 3 minutes or less.


What’s Going On?

With more smartphones everywhere, the push for computers in developing countries has waned. After all, no one cares what device is used, as long as people connect to the Internet. Right? Wrong! The device may not matter, but the true potential of the Web to transform societies can only be unlocked if you create your own content and applications. For that, you will usually need a monitor and a keyboard.

Unfortunately, the question of phones vs. computers in the context of development is often framed as an either/or question. We need both. With limited resources, questions like ‘Should we fight malaria or buy computers?’ distract from the fact that both are key. Especially considering information technology makes it easier to fight malaria.

Does the ubiquity of mobile phones mean we don’t need computers anymore?
Comparing phones and computers is like comparing apples and oranges, because it all depends on what you wish to achieve with connectivity. Mobility is preferable for some applications, while computers are still required for more sophisticated uses. Even the simplest phones with SMS can be incredibly useful, but that doesn’t replace the need for computers when applying for jobs or writing essays for school.

A little bit of Internet on a mobile phone may be preferable to none at all, but we should reject any notion that poor people should settle for an inferior version of the Web. Without the ability to create content on websites, blogs or Wikipedia, new Internet users may find very little of value to them, and the Internet will simply become another one-way medium like TV.

Who’s Doing Something?

Digital divides are bridged within countries and internationally through philanthropic, government, and civic initiatives. Even the richest countries have populations that need help getting online. What could people from marginalised communities possibly create? See the Rising Voices initiative of Global Voices for dozens of examples.

Computers may cost more than phones, but they can also deliver cheaper and faster Internet access in cafés or hubs. Keepod aims to make computing in poor communities a reality with a $7 USB stick that loads a personal Android operating system on any shared machine.

Computer Aid International in the United Kingdom and Project Reboot in Washington DC are two examples of organisations that refurbish and donate computers to people in need.

For education, there are hardware and software initiatives like One Laptop Per Child, Aakash in India and Mozilla that focus on getting devices, e-books and coding lessons to students.

With more commercial ambitions, Andela is a company that pays bright people in Africa to study programming and employs them to work remotely for technology companies abroad.

What Should I Do?

 Donate your used computers and phones so someone less fortunate can enjoy them.

 Support initiatives for high speed internet and real computers for people in marginalised communities (as well as for mobile internet).

 When you talk to friends and colleagues, reject notions that poor people should be satisfied by limited versions of the Internet.

 Use your computer to create content in your local language, and volunteer to teach people who are not yet digitally literate.

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.

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