Don't send the developing world PCs: send them Kindles

21 Feb 2011

I was in India recently, spotting tigers in the jungle. I was about five hours north of Nagpur in Central India, which is a bit like pointing to the moon and telling somebody to take a left. There was no internet access, my mobile phone worked sporadically, and the nearest village was so poor there was a hint of Hollywood to it. You know, the kind of place where you start thinking “children in rags carrying water home from a well 3km away, I’m not falling for that.” Or “fifteen people living in a house with their cow and chickens, pull the other one.”

Nobody’s that poor, not really, because if they were that poor Bob Geldof would immediately start singing at them, and if that’s not reason enough to be upwardly mobile then nothing is – I mean, look at Ethiopia. The entire country gave up famine just to get him to bugger off.

So I’m waiting in this village for my lift to arrive, reading my Kindle to pass the time, and all of a sudden I look up to discover about 20 kids stood in a big group, just watching me: big eyes, curious expressions, ridiculously cute and all intent on the Kindle.

Now to be fair, I’m 6ft 2in and look like something a particularly stupid child would make out of Plasticine. I’ve travelled right around the world and been an object of fevered fascination almost everywhere I’ve visited. Having a daft face tends to draw the crowds, but these kids were enraptured by the gizmo in my hands, despite the fact that they couldn’t possibly know what it was.

I think a charity could do a lot worse than to load a few up with dictionaries, school books and novels and send them to some remote schools in developing nations

So I sat down on the kerb and showed them. Their reaction is the point of technology. It’s what every device maker should aim for, and what every owner wants to inspire in others. Their wonder reminded me just how much I loved it, and why. Just turning the page caused them to drag their friends over, and there’s no reality where changing the font size of your book should make you cooler than a Jimmy Hendrix guitar solo.

That was just the warm-up act though, it was the text-to-speech feature that pretty much made me the best friend of the entire village. Old men, young men, a few old woman, it was a trick they made me repeat half-a-dozen times, drawing a few more out of their homes with every mangled vowel.

After about ten minutes, I let one of the kids play with it, but instead of trying to mess with the bells and whistles, he just started reading aloud. I was wrong before: this is the point of technology. Debating the implications of eBook readers on education is an entire blog in itself, but I think a charity could do a lot worse than to load a few up with dictionaries, school books and novels and send them to some remote schools in developing nations.

There’s probably reams of soul-crushing statistics on why it wouldn’t do any good in the long run, but I’m sick of charities telling me that by not giving them £10 a month I’m indirectly clubbing poor children to death with dolphins. Show me something positive for once and just maybe I’ll open my wallet and break my long-held embargo on sending perfectly good cash to people I don’t trust to scratch a moral itch I don’t have.

I considered leaving my Kindle for them, I really did. There’s a ton of self-justifying reasons why I didn’t, but the truth is that I’m just not that nice a person and I was really enjoying the book I was reading (Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey). Now that I’m back though, I think maybe I made a mistake. I like my Kindle, but for an hour on a miserably hot afternoon in Central India, an entire village fell in love with it. Sometimes technology is brilliant, and perhaps I should have let them discover that.

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