India builds high-tech bridges


NEW DELHI, India - The wall is not a subtle or decorative thing, and it was put there, let's be clear, to keep the poor people out. Slums on one side, India's gleaming high-tech future on the other.

The wall was built solely to protect the stately corporate headquarters of NIIT, a huge computer-training and software-services firm.

But now there's a breach in that wall. NIIT engineers have notched a computer into the concrete, a weatherproof computer that faces outward, toward a neighboring colony of squatters and itinerant laborers. The computer is connected to the Internet and available free to anyone who wants to tinker with it. No rules, no restrictions, no instructors.

Local kids were the first tinkerers and the most adventurous.

"The children started learning out of thin air," says Sugata Mitra, director of research and development at NIIT. "No one showed them how to use it. No one guided the process."

The children from the slum, all of them desperately poor, speak only Hindi, and at first they didn't know what a computer was. They simply called it "the thing." But through trial and error they quickly taught themselves some basic computer operations, and it wasn't long before they were downloading Hindi music files from the Web, playing cartoon games online and landing 747s on Flight Simulator.

"The games are the best," says Jatinder, 9, as he works the computer's joystick with loud advice from some kibbitzing friends. "We play football and badminton and the rat game."

The rat game, it turns out, is an online game featuring Mickey Mouse. The children, who don't speak English, still don't know anything about Disney, Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse.

This was just one of the many smiles and surprises that Mitra and his fellow engineers would encounter as the NIIT project got going.

Their hole-in-the-wall experiment is one of several public-access computer projects now under way in various parts of India - test computers being installed as a kind of municipal property, as if they were a communal village well or a shared generator. Public-access computers are being used in the southern city of Pondicherry, for example, to alert local fishermen to approaching storms and to publicize the itinerary of traveling health clinics.

India, which recently saw its population surpass 1 billion, has only about 1 million Internet subscribers. And although 20 percent of the world's population lives in South Asia, the region accounts for just 1 percent of Internet users worldwide. The much-heralded wiring of India has a long way to go.

But Sugata Mitra, in his grander visions, sees the Net as an opening gateway between India's stoop-labor past and its well-connected future, a real chance to narrow the gap between the information haves and have-nots. He imagines a computer kiosk in every urban neighborhood, in every crossroads town, in every dot- and not-on-the-map village.

"It will absolutely revolutionize our democracy," Mitra says. "Can you imagine?"

He muses about the possible mobilization of tens of millions of new voters. Farmers could learn about their commodity prices online, the better to avoid being cheated by middlemen. And government accounts would finally be public and accessible, thus rendering bureaucrats more accountable - and their notorious bribe-taking less rapacious.

In service to this vision - and courtesy of a $2 million grant from the World Bank - Mitra and his colleagues are puzzling out the design of an outdoor kiosk that shelters a Net-connected computer. The devices will have to withstand the searing heat waves, dust storms and monsoons that seasonally sweep the country. They'll also have to handle India's mercurial phone connections and paper-thin bandwidth, along with the power surges and blackouts that are daily or even hourly occurrences there.

The computer in the wall in New Delhi is a homemade Pentium encased in a weatherproof housing with a plexiglass screen. There's no external keyboard, but there's a joystick for a mouse and two push-buttons for clickers. So far, Mitra proudly says, the computer has run maintenance-free.

While installing the computer, the NIIT engineers also rigged up a video camera in a nearby tree so they could watch the comings and goings at the wall. Mitra, from his own laptop, can also monitor the sites and applications that the children are using.

"In a week those kids knew more about MP3 than just about anyone I know," he says. "Somehow they found Hindi music on the Web and downloaded it. They don't know what they're doing. They just know how."

The most frequent visitors to the computer range in age from 8 to 13, and boys seem to use it a little more often than girls. Local adults have been slow to try it out, and almost none of the women has tried it. Microsoft Paint is the children's favorite application, Mitra says, but they themselves shut down a Hindi-language interface he had created to help them access the Net more easily. They prefer Internet Explorer, he says.

Mitra was fascinated by the terms the kids employed to describe the new things they were encountering. Computer, mouse, icon - these are English words born of Western concepts.

"Nobody in India knows what an hourglass is, so the kids use the word damru. The god Shiva has a drum that he shakes - the drum is called damru in Hindi - and it's shaped just like an hourglass. So that's the word they came up with."

To describe the on-screen pointer, the kids say sui. In Hindi, it means "needle." So when the computer is working, the sui becomes the damru.

"Who cares if they don't know what the correct terms are?" says Mitra. "The terminology is not as important as the metaphor."

Mitra has repeated his free-access computer experiment in a rural setting. A computer was placed in a village schoolroom - again with no instructors and open access - and the same thing happened. There was a frenzy of trial and error, followed by a rapid acquisition of basic computer skills, followed by what Mitra calls "a spiral of learning."

"That's how they can play Flight Simulator," he says. "That's how they learn that to take the brakes off it's something like Alt-Control-Underscore-B. The learning just spirals up so fast."

Schoolteachers, he says, have been the most resistant to the hands-off learning strategy.

"Teachers have always employed the jug model of learning," Mitra says. "The children are empty jugs, we're full jugs, and we need to fill them up. But the kids have been filling themselves up."

It seems that Jatinder, a fourth-grader, is the fullest jug of all. He is said to be the most accomplished computer-user among the slum kids, and he has become so proprietary about the computer in the wall that he often asks the NIIT security guards to keep children from other neighborhoods from using it.

Jatinder's father is a blacksmith, a wiry, hard-working man who earns about 80 cents a day. But Jatinder, who speaks only Hindi, has no inclinations toward smithing. And when he's asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he doesn't hesitate for a moment with his reply: "Computerman."

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