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"Culture is a more important force than infrastructure" in determining a country's "digital" potential, said Professor Nicholas Negroponte at a conference last week on bridging the digital gap between technological haves and have-nots.
About a hundred students and professionals working in the fields of technology and development got together for "Bridging the Digital Divide: The Role of Students," hosted by students of the MIT-Africa Internet Technology Initiative (MIT-AITI). The half-day event featured an introductory address by Professor Negroponte, chairman and former director of the Media Lab; two panel sessions -- "Getting Students Involved: Why and How?" and "Corporate Support for Student Initiatives"; closing remarks by Dr. Nii Narku Quaynor, CEO of Network Computer Systems Ghana; and a dinner presentation about MIT-AITI.
Professor Negroponte used examples of European countries to explain his statement about digital potential, specifically France and Norway. The two countries have similar infrastructure, but until last summer, Norway, which is one-thirteenth the size of France, had more domain names registered, he said.
A decentralized culture will be more likely to embrace the Internet, he contended. Italy, for instance, has great digital potential, if not great infrastructure. The country has a "bottoms-up, Moms and Pops" economic base, a "well-known underground economy and a healthy disrespect for authority" that give it a better chance for digitalization than some other nations, said Professor Negroponte.
"Certain countries will move into digitalization faster than others -- not because of political structure, not because of infrastructure, but because of the culture alone," he said. Perhaps telecommunications can change "the axiom that being rural means being poor," so the process of development doesn't have to mean urbanization for developing countries, he said.
Paul Njoroge, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science who founded MIT-AITI a few years ago to teach web-programming courses in his native Kenya, noted that "Africa has 10 percent of the world's population but less than 1 percent of the world's Internet users." The reasons behind this disparity, he said, are war, disease, drought, blight and bad government.
Students, particularly those from deprived areas, can help eliminate the disparity. "They have good perspective and ideas for tackling the problems," Mr. Njoroge said. Those "studying engineering and technology have good access to the knowledge base and are very good for knowledge transfer to other students." Technology-transfer projects "should be pragmatic and geared to people's actual needs," he added.
Rohan Amin, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and president of Puente, a student-run group that has established successful technology transfer projects in Philadelphia, Ecuador and India, said students can be successful in these projects because of their "drive, interest and technological savvy." His group has projects planned for Argentina, Turkey and Tanzania in the next two years.
Ernest Wilson, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and a self-proclaimed activist from the 1960s, exhorted the students to activism. "Turn the brain drain to a brain gain," he said. "I would urge all of you from Africa to go back home. Don't stay in Cambridge." And to all the students present, he said, "Go to these countries. Be radical. Be excited. Be a revolutionary."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 11, 2001.