July 02 - July 08, 2007

Internet access is seen as a right in the developed world. It isn't even there in many developing nations, so when it is, it is seen as a gift.

In most countries where Internet access is common, the usage patterns follow a standard; email, game-playing, travel, gambling, porn and watching Utube. In countries where access is less easy to come by the patterns are very different; buying a permit to marry, looking for a grant to feed rabbits, even asking where next month's rent is coming from. In many countries, the Internet is a godsend, not a right.

In Madhya Pradesh, India, an illiterate woman approaches the soochak (manager) of an Internet kiosk. She complains about a water well that is not operating, and the soochak uses a PC to enter her complaint on an electronic form, then uploads it to a local hub, where it is registered with the authorities.

In Lima, Peru, a woman needs to contact her emigrant son in New York City for money to pay a doctor's bill. She goes to the local cabina püblica, a small computer center, where VoIP allows her to make a short call to her son for a sol or less-about US 30c. In Hungary, a man who hunts rabbits asks J·nos, the local teleh·z operator, to surf the Web and find a government grant for seed corn. He can use this corn to feed his rabbits through the winter, so they'll be fatter for spring hunting.


These three cases are all strong examples of people in less-developed areas reaping real benefits from Internet access. The value of the Internet as a development tool manifests itself in surprising ways; and most important of all, none of these users needed to become computer literate to benefit from Internet access.

In fact, only about 10 percent of the people on the planet are familiar with the Internet and what it can do. Most of them live in industrialized countries, or if they live in developing countries, they are part of the well-off, well-educated, and often English-speaking minority that lives in urban areas. Few come from the poor and sometimes illiterate majority.

The split between those with and those without access to digital technologies is often called the digital divide. But that phrase hides the complexity of the problem, because it focuses on the "having" and the "not having" of technology. Instead, what really matters is the ability to use and benefit from technology, whether or not that technology is personally owned.

Although many people and organizations know that simply giving away computers is not going to bridge the digital divide, it's still not clear what should be done. Conditions in Tokyo don't match those in Lima, Peru; those in New York City don't match those in Madhya Pradesh, India. And, as it turns out, technology alone isn't the solution. What these Indian, Peruvian, and Hungarian examples have in common is the relevance to local social networks and local business needs that led to successful applications.

All over the developing world, public Internet facilities are springing up to fill niches and make lives better. These facilities are far different from the Internet cafés that are well established on the urban scene, where people who are already Internet savvy access their e-mail or play games. Public Internet facilities are increasingly solving real developing world problems, and becoming a growing and vital force in the less ITC-accessible developing world.

An information kiosk, a cabina public, and a teleh·z are different in appearance and in operation. Each, however, is economically valuable to its local community. The proprietors and entrepreneurs running these establishments rely on local social networks and the knowledge of how to mobilize resources locally to benefit the community. They use—and in some cases co-opt—whatever technology they can access to meet the needs of their local customers, needs that are usually very different from those of people living in more developed countries.

Moreover, major organizations and manufacturers like Intel are beginning to define and design indigenous products. Platform Definition Centers (PDCs) have been established in four key developing markets—India; Egypt; Brazil; and China, to help define new computing platforms and technologies that meet local market needs. The Brazilian center in S„o Paulo center will employ local resources and look for specific products and technology concepts that address the needs of Latin American markets. The Cairo, Egypt, establishment will address the needs of the Arab world. As Otellini says, Intel is making a concerted effort to establish localized technology centers around the world—in places that need them most.

To date, the people who developed the world's computing hardware and software created it to fit their world—the world of the "haves." Responsible companies are looking at the way technology is being applied in the rest of the world, by the "have-nots" and how, in the future, it might be designed to better fit into that world. And offer access for people that need it, not just want it.

TONY SALVADOR and JOHN SHERRY are ethnographers with Intel Corp., in Hillsboro, Ore. Salvador has a Ph.D. in human factors and experimental psychology from Tufts University, in Boston. Sherry has a B.S. in computer science from the University of Portland, in Oregon, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Arizona, in Tempe.