Not the digital divide

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.

"Straightaway children
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 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.

I was reminded of it, because the BBC is running a story and a Radio 4  programme about the same scheme, which also has its own site, with a lot more detail.

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.


  1. I agree Stefan and for me the big question is an “emotional” rather than “intelligent” one. If the IT is easy to use and learn then what is it that holds the adults back? And for this I think we do have to at least consider the past and what has shaped this emotional / cultural response in the adults.

  2. A significant contributor to the Digital Divide is entry and ongoing costs for PC’s and service providers. When PC’s and access have been provided free or almost free in peoples houses, to residents in East Manchester for instance – usage has been very high.

  3. Ken – I am not familiar with your example: do you know of any data which makes the comparison?

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