The value of low-cost computing

Categories: Africa, Articles

Recently on my blog, I mentioned JCR Licklider, who wrote the 1950s about the revolution that low-cost computing could bring, particularly to politics:

The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted was that technological progress would save humanity. The political process was a favorite example of his. In a McLuhanesque view of the power of electronic media, Lick saw a future in which, thanks in large part to the reach of computers, most citizens would be “informed about, and interested in, and involved in, the process of government.” He imagined what he called “home computer consoles” and television sets linked together in a massive network. “The political process,” he wrote, “would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups, and voters. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console and a good network to a good computer.” (from Where Wizards Stay Up Late)

That’s a powerful vision, and one that has not been realised in Africa even sixty years after Licklider wrote it down. Computing is just too expensive. So I’m very excited to see a large-scale commercial venture (that is, beyond the wonderful and worthy OLPC project) bringing down the price of computing, along with providing 3G web access. Simon Dingle posted about it today:

Telecommunications group Vodacom has launched its Linkbook into the SA market – a super-low price netbook that will go for R199 per month on a two-year contract, including a monthly bandwidth bundle of 300MB. The Linkbook is running a customised Linux distribution based on Ubuntu, and ships with OpenOffice, some games and other applications. It has 2 USB ports, WiFi, a 8.9″ screen, 16GB of embedded flash storage, integrated 3G modem, webcam and a microphone.

The R199-per-month is about $27, and represents about a day’s wages for an entry-level job in South Africa. Till now, content creators in South Africa have only been able to deliver rich media or long-form content to two or three million people, a fraction of South Africa’s population of 50 million. This device is likely to be the first of many that that will explode that market size. And if you think like JCR Licklider, the Gov 2.0 possibilities are even more exciting.

(Thanks to Michelle Matthews at Trialogue for pointing me to the news.)


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