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Cargo cults in Tamland? - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Cargo cults in Tamland? [Apr. 23rd, 2007|04:43 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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[Current Mood |amusedamused]

I was watching Tapan Parikh's talk on UWTV yesterday (thanks again ephermata) about enabling rural Tamils to manage their microfinance accounts using specially designed cell phones and computers. I couldn't help being reminded of cargo cults :) I mean, I'm sure the villagers know at some level that the technology was created by humans, but it's so far beyond their grasp that it might as well be supernatural. Apparently they consider the machines omnipotent and infallible (his words, not mine.)

The technical challenge is apparently to design interfaces for people who can't read, even their own language. I have to say I think that money would be better spent teaching them to read. You know, the whole give-a-man-a-fish thing.

[User Picture]From: ephermata
2007-04-24 04:33 am (UTC)
Do we know how much it would cost to teach all of them to read? It may be that designing a better interface once is cheaper than teaching all your customers to read. Yes, it's a worse outcome for the customer than learning to read, but at least he or she gets some service rather than none.

The other thing that comes to mind is that once you have people used to using these things, you can help them learn to read using these devices. How exactly, I don't know. (The evil demon on my shoulder suggests slowly taking away parts of the new interface and replacing them with labelled buttons or something.)
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-04-24 04:44 am (UTC)
Yeah, you make a good point. I thought about that a bit, actually. The problem, though, is that since you can't make a generic UI based on text, they had to make a lot of aspects of the UI specific to the target application. So it isn't create-once-use-everywhere.

On the other hand, there is evidence that many aspects of education can, in fact, be amortized using modern techniques. If you haven't seen it before, you should take a quick glance at the experiment called hole-in-the-wall from 2000. It shows that kids can show an amazing amount of ingenuity in teaching themselves to use computer interfaces.

The lesson from this is that once you have the capability to mass-produce ultra-cheap computers (kinda like OLPC, although they do a lot of things wrong I don't know if they're going to succeed), kids will basically educate themselves. Cut the teachers out, essentially. This notion is of course highly upsetting to a lot of people, but I believe it is the right approach. Time will tell.
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