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You’re Not My E-Type

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We’ve all heard of the digital divide. It’s a concept that gets applied globally and locally.

On the world stage, you can broadly say that the industrialised nations are on one side, the unindustrialised on the other. On the local scale, things are more complex. Let’s start with the big picture, though.

Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 laptop is an example of a technology designed to help deal with the global problem. Negroponte announced his initiative in Switzerland last January, and since then he and colleagues have worked hard to turn vision into reality. One Laptop Per Child, a Not for Profit association, has been set up to foster the programme.

The laptop, called 2B1, will be Linux-based. It’ll have a 500MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, 500MB of flash memory, no hard disk, four USB ports and wireless broadband that among other things, means it can be part of a mesh network creating an ad hoc local area network. There will be a wind-up element to the power supply. The display will cleverly offer both colour and black and white options (different systems for different conditions).

Component costs have been kept as low as possible, and there will be an economy of scale delivered by mass production. It is expected to be ready for shipping by the end of this year, and discussions have been held with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand.

The initiative has met with all kinds of responses. Why provide laptops when the basics of life – food, water, shelter might be a better place to concentrate efforts? Laptops are empowering, especially for children, and can show them, and help them participate in, the big wide world.

But I don’t want to get deep into the arguments here, the point is about digital divides, and efforts to address them.

Which brings me back to the local situation here in the UK. Our government has been talking about our own digital divide for ages. To give just one example, in March last year the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit and the Department of Trade and Industry produced a paper called Connecting the UK: The Digital Strategy

This report looks at various aspects of our digital lives, sets out some thoughts on taking things forward, and talks a lot about overcoming barriers to take up of different ‘Information and Communications Technologies’. It is as concerned about the economy and our place in the world as it is about education (at schools and beyond), about access to local authority services, and about our general wellbeing and individual involvement in communities.

It can be difficult to work out how initiatives from government are best implemented at a local level - the move from strategy to real world is fraught with difficulties all the way. There are always ‘hard to reach’ people who are, by definition, difficult to find and can be challenging to help; and even in the best cases it can take a while before real effects are seen on the ground.

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