Saturday, July 15, 2006

Computers ARE part of the crazy utopia!

I spent two years studying Japanese at a university in Tokyo. Every day I spent around 5 hours with other students, doing reading comprehension and kanji exercises. We had spoken language classes as well. It was tough, exhausting but I think about the experience with warm feelings now that I have some distance to it.

A type of exercise I particularly enjoyed was having debates. I even attended an extra curricular debate club once, which was interesting because the debaters were all Japanese but they debated in English. They seemed so "in the zone" when doing the debating, forgetting about trying to speak perfect English but instead aggressively getting their point out. I decided not to join this club though as I felt I didn't need any more English exercise and because I'm not a club-attending personality.

Our in-class debate exercises had some great topics, nothing really controversial or anything, but interesting none the less. The university I was in is called ICU or "International Christian University", but some people liked to joke that it actually means "Isolated Crazy Utopia". It was surrounded by a small forest, which truly was crazy considering how tightly packed the area around it is. I'm seriously digressing here, but just look at the picture below. The green parts are the university and around it are very tightly packed houses.

Our debates were often about about kind of save-the-world utopistic stuff. As if we could actually save anything just by talking about it in class. Well I liked to take it seriously though, even if it was just language exercises it's that much more meaningful if you imagine that the debate is serious. One thing we debated about was what to do about poor people. And I suggested that computers could be the solution. I don't think they understood me at all. Instead of computers they need food and shelter. They were happy with that answer.

So let me continue the debate here. Computers can be part of the solution in my opinion. Not so that starving people can play Half-Life and watch videos on YouTube, but because with a computer almost anyone can become instantly employed. There are plenty of options for making money online and if you have modest expectations of what you can make, survival is possible through the net. Basically I believe that if I have an Internet connection then I will never go hungry. This happens to apply to me because I already have some skills which I can use to work over the net, such as programming and Japanese translation.

I'm not saying that we should fly over some starving country and drop iBooks with a satellite link to the net from an airplane. But even in poor countries not everyone is absolutely poor and there are people who are able to take chances. In India there are now some small companies which hire people to type in text. All you need to know is how to read and type. Materials are sent from abroad to be typed into digital form and then these people do the bulk work and send the results back over the net. This is a service for which there is a need as old archives and such get digitalized. Amazon's Mechanical Turk lets anyone make a few dollars through repetitive simple work. With RentACoder developers can compete to do programming work online.

Taking the digitalization as an example, not even a net connection is required to take part in the work, as the company takes care of that part. Then after acquiring a basic way of supporting oneself it becomes possible to advance to other skills and better pay. My explanation was a bit rambling, but the point is that through the Internet money can be made and your location doesn't matter. I really like the MIT Media Lab $100 laptop project, because through it more and more people can have basic skills on using a computer and take part in the global workspace. I've even personally hired some people through RentACoder. It works great!

So this is what I meant by computers being part of the solution for poverty, dear ICU debate teacher. Of course basic education is needed as well, but a computer is also a learning device. I'm sure many kids in developed countries have learned to read and write (or type) by using a computer. I personally learned English a lot through Sierra's adventure games and learned the basics of Japanese through material which I downloaded off the internet. With free laptops distributed by the millions for free to kids in developing countries they will have this chance as well. Based on what I've read a version of Wikipedia will be included with the computers, among other educational software. I hope they don't forget the games, they provide great motivation.