Just for the fun of IT

I was captivated recently by a news broadcast showing delighted children in a remote South American village using laptop computers for the first time. Clearly, these kids were hooked. It wasn’t because of the learning potential, the communication capability or the power to engage. It was because they were having fun with technology.

There is exciting new energy around helping developing nations overcome the staggering problems of health, education and poverty. The growing field of “practical invention” is producing ingenious solutions that are sustainable in local cultures, and the simplicity of many of these inventions belies the underlying difficulty and sophistication of their design.

One such effort is the high-profile One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative to bring basic computing power to children in the developing world. With their first low-cost laptops rolling off production lines now, OLPC will kick-start its outreach through a “Givemany” program aimed at corporate donors and a consumer-focused “Give One, Get One” campaign in the U.S. and Canadian markets this fall.

Some argue that the OLPC machine has limited computing power and utility in countries with little or no supporting infrastructure. And certainly, OLPC’s effort is but one of many promising development programs aimed at connecting children and computing. However, I doubt that there is a single solution that will serve all interests. It will probably take multiple approaches to improve learning opportunities and mechanisms for the world’s children. But I can’t get past the faces of those kids and the fact that they were using technology to learn — and having a ball doing it.

Maybe sometimes we forget what drew us to technology in the first place. For me, it was early exposure to logic puzzles, games and my prized chemistry set. I doubt that we gravitate to technology just because we’re good at math and science. We simply pursue that which gives us joy and accomplishment. And if we give joy — and curiosity and excitement and inspiration — to even a small percentage of the world’s needy children, does it really matter if the solution is the perfect one?

The point is, do we know where the fun stops and the learning begins? Do we debate the best alternatives or just get busy and try things, taking first steps in what is likely to be a long journey toward solving the world’s socio-economic woes? This much I know for sure: we must begin to expose the world’s children to technology sooner, rather than later, or risk leaving generations behind to a world of poverty and struggle. If they learn early to have fun with technology I think they will use it to reach out to the world and into a better future.

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