Image c/o

If you watch the documentary “Urbanized” (now streaming on Netflix) you will eventually see an interview with the man pictured above. His name is Enrique Peñalosa and he is the former mayor of Bogotá, Columbia. During his tenure as mayor he instituted several major changes to the city’s physical and social character. His signature accomplishment was a major  bus rapid transit system that is widely regarded by urban planners as one of the most advanced in the world. (See video after the jump.) While the physical changes are no small feat, characterizing his work as simply in the domain of transit or even environmental conservation, would be missing the larger picture. Peñalosa sees urban planning, and specifically access to transportation, as a moral issue. Constitutional rights must extend beyond the juridical or the legalistic sense and into the very physical manifestations of governance. His vision can be summed up in a simple, bumpersticker-ready quote: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.” In this brief essay I will apply this rationale to networked computing both in the American context and the developing world.

I like Peñalosa’s thinking because it totally inverts the development narrative. It treats the American way of life as just one possible development strategy, albiet an economically, environmentally, and socially unsustainable one. Peñalosa recognizes that trying to emulate the American way of life means charting a 300 year course of dirty industry and deplorable working conditions. A middle class based on individualistic consumerism and free market capitalism requires the exploitation of people and natural resources. Its about changing everyone’s idea of success so that it is more horizontal and attainable for more people.

Murray Bookchin’s “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” published by AK Press

In 1971, Murray Bookchin, wrote: “In almost every period since the Renaissance the development of revolutionary thought has been heavily influenced by a branch of science often in conjunction with a school of philosophy.” He goes on to define a theory of social ecology, in which he states that environmental degradation is based in social inequality. In other words, a just allocation of resources to all living humans is a prerequisite for anything that could be called “environmental sustainability.” You can reduce a factory’s carbon footprint with as many technological fixes as you can find, but so long as the capitalist logics of scarcity and rival consumption, natural resources will be extracted in ab unsustainable manner.

How can we use these ideas to think about computing platforms? Or, more precisely, access to devices that connect us to each other and data resources.  How do we finish the sentence: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have computers. It’s where the rich use X.” Immediately my mind jumps to cell phones. They are cheap, they can arguably do more than a desktop or laptop and are better adapted to the unreliable electrical grids in urban areas and the outdoor environments in rural areas. But they work best when everyone has their own phone. Smart phones are built to have a relationship with only one person. Obviously their sole purpose is to connect you to other people, but the prevailing design logic is one person, one phone. This might be the right direction, but it is not the solution.

We can challenge the very notion that getting everyone online is an admirable, justifiable, or productive goal. The UN might have declared Internet access a human right but such a declaration is more about censorship than increasing access. Most of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression” [PDF] is spent outlining and condemning censorship and active internet restriction by states. It also recognizes that expanding internet access is a priority and outlines UN-supported policies and programs that will expand internet access in “marginalized groups and developing States.” One such program is the One Laptop Per Child initiative:

Another initiative to spread the availability of ICTs in developing countries is the “One Laptop Per Child” project that has been supported by the United Nations Development Programme. This project distributes affordable laptops that are specifically customized for the learning environment of children. Since this project was mentioned in the previous mandate holder’s report in 2006, 2.4 million laptops have been distributed to children and teachers worldwide. In Uruguay, the project has reached 480,000 children, amounting to almost all children enrolled in primary school. States in Africa lag behind, but in Rwanda, over 56,000 laptops have been distributed, with plans for the figure to reach 100,000 by June 2011.

The OLPC is well-intentioned, but ultimately and fundamentally flawed.

This program come from a place of good intentions, but to quote the cultural historian Rayvon Fouché: “These programs driven by the ‘if only they had…’ mantra, sadly, though not purposefully construct the receivers of these technological tools as empty vessels into which Western technological knowledge must be poured.” [Source] Fouché goes on to describe the OLPC as yet another product of the West’s “messianic vision” that savior technology can right past wrongs, ignoring Phillip Vannini’s observation that “technology itself is the product and outcome of social organization.” We cannot deliver laptops as if it were food relief- a temporary stopgap measure that will alleviate a problem characterized as a fundamental lack of a certain resource.

It seems as though nothing short of a second digital revolution is necessary in the Global South. Perhaps the answer lies in, as Ron Eglash suggests, constructing a “Two-Way Bridge” [Chronicle paywall] between the people that are commonly characterized as the “haves” and the “have nots.” Eglash writes: “Whether we are talking about technology, health, education, or jobs, we can create problems if we talk only about absence — that is, if we reduce one side to have-nots. At the same time, we must not ignore the social causes of such absence. Thinking in terms of two-way bridges allows us to combine social critique with an appreciation of cultural resources.”  The key lies in developing local capacities that are specially suited to the unique historical, economic, and sociotechnical realities of marginalized groups both in the United States and abroad. Such approaches are in their infancy (compared to massive UN-backed deficit-model interventions) but the possibilities seem exciting. It isn’t nearly as elegant as the original Peñalosa quote, but perhaps this is the only way to finish that sentence is with a utopian (and admittedly, somewhat naïve) conclusion: A developed country is not a place where the poor have computers. It’s where the rich stop trying to save the poor and start working with them to eliminate that disparity all-together.