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Khmer Kids Link to the Future

Beginning to wonder were the real payoff of digital technology is? One answer: Cambodia.

Brrr! not just another frosty January in Cambridge, not just a new year, but 010101: the real dawn of the new millennium. But it feels like a digital winter in more ways than that. The Internet bubble deflated, leaving not only pissy investors and a chill on Wall Street but a generation of hackers frozen like mastodons in the Microsoft ice age, and a lot of decent people wondering: What good is this computer stuff anyway? Sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but is it really making life more worth living? Where’s the beef?

Even at the MIT Media Lab, which has been ground zero for blast after digital blast, teams are scrambling to pioneer a post-computer society, exploring implications for life in the numinous high- tech beyond, sometime after the Internet. A few years ago, to teethe on this, we launched an effort called Things That Think (TTT), our cute name for a research thrust to explore embedded intelligence very broadly. What might happen when commonplace objects, like shoes or underwear or furniture or toys, begin to contain more sensory and computer power than we can currently predict, and when innate, wireless nets fluidly link them to the rest of the planet’s infinitely scaling information systems? Surely, thinking machinery will infest heretofore inanimate things. What then? The implications are fantastic and profound.

TTT felt like a big bang when we launched it. We put on our sunglasses with embedded holodisplays, ready for a bright future. After all, we were blazing trails into a networked world that would stretch far beyond today’s Tinkertoy Internet. It was so obvious: The computer revolution hadn’t even begun yet. But after just a few years, folks (observers and researchers alike) became blas. Being digital was for old farts. As the giddiness faded, we tried being more outrageous: How about edible computing? Quantum machinery? A smart coffee cup? Teleportation? And visitors would say, “Oh.” It was as if every whizzy thing that could be dreamed could be built. Science fiction was just an implementation detail. What’s a poor inventor to do? Retire to a life of venture capital?

As the digital industries grow out of their adolescence, people are beginning to question where these technologies are really taking us. So when an old lab’s research themes fade and new ones emerge, folks pay attention. And at the Media Lab, the freshest aims involve domains such as art and human expression, creative societies in developing nations, expeditionary and ecological field efforts, and Media Labs in other countries as an ongoing way to explore creative technology in indigenous contexts-bold and humane efforts that take computing and communication and any other sort of imaginative technology utterly for granted, like paper or duct tape.

To me, some of the most interesting avenues involve the deployment of powerful technologies in communities that are furthest from being overtly ready, in the hands of people who are passionate and starving to put it to use. One of the world’s best examples is Cambodia.

The first time I visited, about five years ago, Cambodia was a nation of about 10 million people with perhaps 10,000 telephones. You could count the cars in Phnom Penh. Most taxis were scooters (for 50 cents, you could ride almost anywhere). Few roads were paved. Electricity was sporadic. The temples at Angkor had recently reopened, though few visitors made the pilgrimage. Pockets of Khmer Rouge troops were still at large in the Elephant Mountains to the north, as was Pol Pot, so the remote temples were off limits. I saw a horrifying number of amputees.

My most vivid memory, though, is of the children: There were wonderful kids running and playing everywhere, bubbling over with energy. It was like seeing the green baby plants that grow back after a forest fire. Walk through the temple ruins at Angkor, and you were never alone: A swarm of kids surrounded you, first begging for handouts but quickly giving way to laughter and games. They seemed to be able to chatter in most of the tourist languages and make lightning calculations of foreign currency values.

At the time, I wondered how technology might take root there. Cell phones were a natural; developing regions often leapfrog to next-generation technologies. But with such a lack of infrastructure, how would computers find a useful role? The answer turned out to be by leapfrogging to the next generation of people.

Today, for U.S. $14,000 you can build an elementary school in rural Cambodia. You can even name it for someone you love. Click on www.cambodiaschools.com and build one. Last year, I saved my money and built a school for my mom; it was the nicest Christmas present she had ever received. And what happens to your donation is extraordinary.

Your $14,000 is matched by $12,000 from the World Bank. And $2,000 of it is kept for teachers’ salaries (in order to import a new breed of teachers). So for $24,000 net, a three- to five-room elementary school is built in a rural village. But for an extra $1,700, the school gets a solar roof to power its computers (ah, there’s the technology). Apple Japan and others have been donating machinery to these causes.

Now, in these schools, there is no segregation by race, age, intelligence or anything else, which is undoubtedly a healthier way to learn than the factory format used in most Western countries. There’s certainly no busing. And as quickly as we can manage it, the schools will be online: remote village schools, jacked into the world’s online knowledge. You’ll find Khmer kids tuning in to online lectures from great university professors. It’s already happening. There’s only one problem: Who can help these schools bootstrap, and bring them up to speed with computer skills? The amazing answer turns out to be-orphans.

One of the heartbreaking consequences of the Pol Pot regime is the number of orphans. The Future Light Orphanage on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is a computer learning center for orphaned kids (http://www.camnet.com.kh/future.light). The orphanage has been equipped with a large number of computers (including machines no longer needed at MIT). In just a few years, some of Cambodia’s savviest computer experts have grown up there.

So when it came time to bootstrap computer-based teaching in rural villages like Robib (see http://www.villageleap.com), the orphaned kids were invited to help (with permission of the minister for education). Like an MIS SWAT team, the kids set up machines, got e-mail working so they could stay in touch with their pals back home, and hacked at ways to transmit Khmer, their native language (Microsoft Outlook chokes on Khmer) instead of broken English. Today, this network helps Robib villagers sell silk weavings in a new worldwide market.

When you ask Cambodian kids what they want to be when they grow up, the answer used to be “a truck driver.” Or a cook, or a waiter in one of the fancy new hotels. But ask the kids at the orphanage, and the answer is, “I want to be a computer pioneer.” And ask the orphans after they’ve gone into a village to help the schools bootstrap, and they say, “I want to be a teacher.” They are not just bootstrapping the technology; they are bootstrapping the culture, and the self-esteem of the community around them.

By January, there will be between 30 and 50 new schools in Cambodia. Thanks to this new form of networked microphilanthropy, you can watch online, brick by brick, as the school you helped found comes together. You will receive the very first e-mail messages as kids come online. I plan to visit the schools myself in February, with my mother. Mom will help dedicate the Dixon Learning Center. It’s the best Christmas present ever: a cure for the digital winter, and a reconnection to things that matter.

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