Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The $100 publicity device

It's one of those stories that people just can't resist: self-publicist and acclaimed guru Doctor Nick - sorry, Nicholas Negroponte - pops up in Tunis at the WSIS Summit promising $100 PCs for the world's starving children.

Rather than critique the stunt itself, it's also instructive to take a look at what happened in the media, which was simple: it was taken as gospel. You know that guru-worship has reached ridiculous heights when someone showing a not-particularly-functional prototype is written up as if he'd launched a commercial product, which was how the show-and-tell was swallowed at the first pass.

By the third day or so, a very few media outlets had started to pick over the entrails and decided it wasn't such a hot story after all. As far as I can tell, The Inquirer (http://www.theinquirer.net) was the first to pour scorn on the idea.

But that's not going to be enough: the lack of scepticism at the beginning has created an international belief that Doctor Nick's done it again - a stroke of brilliance from the guru, save the world and feed the starving, how do you nominate people for the Nobel, and so on.

Media guru-worship is bunk; it's the inverse of "ad hominiem", where all you need to turn bad ideas good is to have the endorsement of a guru. So I've long since given myself a guru-ectomy.

There are a great many questions any journalist could have asked if he or she hadn't been sleepwalking at the time. But to me, the outstandingly obvious one is this: Why would authoritarian kleptocrats spend money buying up PCs for their citizens at the same time as denying them food, suppressing communications, and repressing information or debate?

Some context is instructive here. Journalists attending the summit were seeing first-hand the effects of government Internet censorship in Tunis, which is by no means the worst offender on the "control citizens' access to information" league table. The Register (http://www.theregister.co.uk) reported hilariously that a Swiss tourist information site (www.swissinfo.org) was being filtered out of the Tunisian Internet.

But a huge part of the premise of the $100 laptop is that it gives the villager in the third-world access to the Internet, yet neither Doctor Nick nor the waiting acolytes in the press can say "but what if the government blocks their access?", in which case the village child got a $100 western doorstop.

I would also have asked for evidence supporting the article of faith that you can't get an education without a computer - and by evidence, I mean real, peer-reviewed, non-industry-supported, independent research, not an arrogant American metaphor about sharing pencils around a classroom.

This piece of world-wide blue-sky media dog-whistling was nothing more than a publicity stunt.


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