Blogging: A time and a place?

Funny, isn’t it. Not so long ago I’d never have considered publishing personal thoughts in any shape or form. That scruffy notebook under the bed was the place for them. For a start, there wasn’t an instantly accessible medium (as such), but even if there was who’d be remotely interested in what I had to say? Or not say, as the case may be. Remember, many blogs are transcripts of what people think – based on a never-ending internal dialogue – and not necessarily what people would actually ever ‘say’. And therein, perhaps, lies the magic of blogging.

What people say in public, and what they’re comfortable saying, is in certain cases a very fine line. You wouldn’t necessarily expect much from the author of a blog about Eggs, Bacon, Chips and Beans other than information about, well… ummm… eggs, bacon, chips and beans. What you see is what you get. But just imagine reading Kofi Annan’s personal blog, and I mean his personal blog. What on earth would it say – what does Kofi really think about the state of the planet? What worries him – guard down and politics aside? I doubt I’ll ever know, unless I manage a drunken 4am fireside drink with the guy after a conference somewhere…

One of the earliest comments I received about my kiwanja website was that it was incredibly personal, just as much a site about me as it was about my work. Not good, they said. But this was always my intention. People that know me will realise that I am my work. But despite this, three months ago (when I decided to give blogging a try) my first instinct was to create a new site, an anonymous one, where I could say whatever I wanted and then somehow distance myself from what I had written. What nonsense that was, and I realise it now.

So I added a blog to my kiwanja site and began brain dumping there. As a ‘business’ site – well, one ‘advertising’ my wares at the very least – my logic was simple. If people didn’t like what I thought then I wouldn’t want to work with them anyway. Risky, but at the end of the day why pretend to be someone you’re not for the sake of getting the gig? I’m passed that now.

One thing that blogging has re-inforced for me is this. It allows me to be myself, something that many people in the higher reaches of corporate and company life – Kofi included – perhaps cannot. In public, at least.

Unless, of course, he’s blogging anonymously somewhere… Now, wouldn’t that be a find?

Battle at the bottom of the pyramid

You can imagine the headlines.

“Western giants battle over the hearts, minds (and ultimately the wallets?) of Africa’s rural poor”

I’m talking about the battle going on right under our noses between MIT and Microsoft, or Nicholas Negroponte and Bill Gates, or the $100 laptop and a Windows/mobile device (as yet unnamed since it’s not even in existence). Or all three if you like.

For those of you who might not know, the $100 laptop is a product of One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a non-profit association dedicated to researching and developing a laptop to revolutionise ICT access for the ‘rural poor’ in developing countries. The idea was announced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Forum in January 2005.

The laptop itself is a rather bright little green thing, its most striking feature being a crank handle which gives it the power it needs to run. As is traditional in such cases, the idea has caused jubilation and alarm in equal measure, not least from Bill Gates himself who, not surprisingly perhaps, is a little miffed that the laptop designers have opted to use open source software, shunning his beloved Windows operating system. Maybe for this reason alone Mr. Gates has gone on the warpath, slamming the $100 laptop and claiming that some Windows-powered mobile device plugged into a keyboard and TV is the answer. All very interesting stuff, even if it doesn’t exist yet (or does it?!).

All of this strikes me as yet another example of top-down interventionism. Are these projects (or visions in Bill’s case) needs-driven, or big business agenda-driven? And whose needs? If it’s the ‘rural poor’ then are their needs real or perceived? Who’s representing the ‘rural poor’ in all of this? What do they think (not that they can all collectively respond, naturally)? I imagine it’s like being in a hospital bed with two doctors standing over you arguing about how you’re feeling and what’s best for you. As the patient, surely you have some say? In a similar way, the ‘rural poor’ should not be treated as passive recipients of whichever ICT becomes dominant, based on battles of ideas, money and ideologies far, far away. Is it really for us to say what they really need?

“African women who do most of the work in the countryside don’t have time to sit with their children and research what crops they should be planting. What is needed is clean water and real schools”. How many would agree with that?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not particularly for or against initiatives like the $100 laptop. It’s just the process that I’m having a little difficulty with.

Stranger in their midst

From a handwritten note – quite literally on the back of an envelope – from my university anthropology days. It reads:

The reader must imagine to himself the privilege of making contact with primitive societies which were more or less intact and had never been studied seriously. Just how recently – as luck would have it – the whites had set out to destroy them will be clear from the following story.

The Californian tribes had still been quite wild at the time of their extermination, and it happened that one Indian escaped, as if by a miracle, from the holocaust. For years he lived unknown and unobserved only a dozen miles from the great centres of population, and kept himself alive with his bow and sharp-pointed arrows whose stone heads he carved himself.

Gradually there was less and less for him to shoot, and finally he was found, naked and starving on the outskirts of a city suburb. He ended his days in peace as a college porter at the University of California.

I can see why I wrote it down, why I wanted to keep a record of it. It quite wonderfully catches the whole essence of disappearing peoples and cultures, and does so beautifully and concisely. I don’t know who the tribe were, or who the porter was. Maybe I’d prefer to keep it that way.