A website standard that is affordable to the poorest demographics in developing countries?

by Ritalin 1 min read1st Nov 201458 comments


Fact: the Internet is excruciatingly slow in many developing countries, especially outside of the big cities.

Fact: today's websites are designed in such a way that they become practically impossible to navigate with connections in the order of, say, 512kps. Ram below 4GB and a 7-year old CPU are also a guarantee of a terrible experience.

Fact: operating systems are usually designed in such an obsolescence-inducing way as well.

Fact: the Internet is a massive source of free-flowing information and a medium of fast, cheap communication and networking.

Conclusion: lots of humans in the developing world are missing out on the benefits of a technology that could be amazingly empowering and enlightening.

I just came across this: what would the internet 2.0 have looked like in the 1980s. This threw me back to my first forays in Linux's command shell and how enamoured I became with its responsiveness and customizability. Back then my laptop had very little autonomy, and very few classrooms had plugs, but by switching to pure command mode I could spend the entire day at school taking notes (in LaTeX) without running out. But I switched back to the GUI environment as soon as I got the chance, because navigating the internet on the likes of Lynx is a pain in the neck.

As it turns out, I'm currently going through a course on energy distribution in isolated rural areas in developing countries. It's quite a fascinating topic, because of the very tight resource margins, the dramatic impact of societal considerations, and the need to tailor the technology to the existing natural renewable resources. And yet, there's actually a profit to be made investing in these projects; if managed properly, it's win-win.

And I was thinking that, after bringing them electricity and drinkable water, it might make sense to apply a similar cost-optimizing, shoestring-budget mentality to the Internet. We already have mobile apps and mobile web standards which are built with the mindset of "let's make this smartphone's battery last as long as possible".

Even then, (well-to-do, smartphone-buying) thrid-worlders are somewhat neglected: Samsung and the like have special chains of cheap Android smartphones for Africa and the Middle East. I used to own one; "this cool app that you want to try out is not available for use on this system" were a misery I had to get used to. 

It doesn't seem to be much of a stretch to do the same thing for outdated desktops. I've been in cybercafés in North Africa that still employ IBM Aptiva machines, mechanical keyboard and all—with a Linux operating system, though. Heck, I've seen town "pubs", way up in the hills, where the NES was still a big deal among the kids, not to mention old arcades—Guile's theme goes everywhere.

The logical thing to do would be to adapt a system that's less CPU intensive, mostly by toning down the graphics. A bare-bones, low-bandwith internet that would let kids worldwide read wikipedia, or classic literature, and even write fiction (by them, for them), that would let nationwide groups tweet to each other in real time, that would let people discuss projects and thoughts, converse and play, and do all of those amazing things you can do on the Internet, on a very, very tight budget, with very, very limited means. Internet is supposed to make knowledge and information free and universal. But there's an entry-level cost that most humans can't afford. I think we need to bridge that. What do you guys think?