• How to fix the developing world for sixty million dollars

    by  • July 18, 2008 • The Global Picture • 7 Comments

    or, how to fix the planet for $60,000,000

    First, let’s get clear about this: sixty million dollars is not a lot of money. Let’s think about a few things that cost in that price range.

    1> One half of a Eurofighter aeroplane.

    2> One half of “Batman and Robin.”

    So, here’s what I’m going to spend your notional sixty mil on: television programs for farmers and people who live in slums. I’m going to blow the whole lot on making 200 hours of science telly, and giving them away.

    Gupta, you may say, you’ve gone insane. But this is not insane, this is about how to do education in places to poor to have real education. The answer is the Open University model: detailed documentary programming that really, seriously, deeply covers what you need to know, from soup to nuts.

    What do you need to know? This is not a trivial question, but remember that we’re making science TV for farmers.

    I suspect there would be some brief primary material, covering concepts like decimal notation, percentages, fractions, mathematical operations like area, concepts like volume. I think maybe 20 hours of primary education on things like the existence of atoms, chemistry, evolutionary biology as it applies to farming (pesticide resistance) and so on would not be out of order. These basic concepts are not particularly difficult if you haven’t really been exposed to them before: the implications can be a lot to manage, but anybody who gets that far can walk three days to the nearest internet terminal and do their research on Wikipedia like the rest of the planet’s intellectuals. We need to get the basic language across. Not everybody will get it, but if one in ten get most of it, and one in a thousand gets the whole idea and proceeds to innovate, we’ve saved the world.

    But the bulk of this science telly for farmers is the basics of what you need to thrive in the developing world, in four major categories

    * how to grow more food?
    * how to stay alive? (water, sanitation, basic medicine)
    * what is happening in the rest of the world? (physical and economic geography, including things like futures markets)
    * what is happening here? (where did television come from? what’s a computer? what’s an antibiotic? what’s science? why did things start to change, what does it mean, and where will it end?)

    Because, dear reader, people who farm by hand in the same way their ancestors did in 2500 BC are about to get a cell phone, and the cell phone they get will soon do internet, and, well, they’ll get an email address and be a global citizen, just like the rest of us. This primer (last item) is the orientation package for modernity, for the fact that people living in an ancient, stable ecological niche (“organic farmer”) are being teleported into a new world by the spread of information and communications technologies.

    So what kinds of telly are we talking about here? ThinkCOSMOS mixed with This Old House and Sesame Street. This is a series of programs for people who are the first generation of their family to look up and say “the sun is said to be a ball of burning gas – can you imagine it?”. This is television for the wonder and hope of people who realize that their children’s lives may be long and beautiful, free from illness and grinding hardship, because something wonderful has happened – people on the other side of the planet discovered how to understand nature in ways which made it possible to live far, far better and easier lives, and now their wonderful machines bring news from afar. And now they look at the cows crapping into the pond they get their drinking water from, and they want to cry.

    We need an option for these people: here’s instructions on how to get clean water right where you are. You can get immediate benefit from this revolution going on around you that you have been left out of until recently.

    There are three goals.

    1> Reduce the 30 million per year death toll that comes from lack of basic knowledge about agriculture, public health and appropriate technology. Educate people in the skills they require for survival, like hand washing and crop rotation.

    2> Cushion and protect from lethal memetic infection. No holocaust deniers, scientologists or similar groups should define reality for the billions coming online, or for any sizable subset of them. Basic truth must be observed.

    3> Ease our transition into a planetary culture where all of our concerns are heard.

    This third point is subtle: global, cheap-or-free two way communication really changes things in ways we have not yet begun to see fully. A common frame of reference about at least some of what is happening could prevent generations of misunderstandings, possibly even wars.

    This is television for the first generation to see the stars and know that somebody out there knows pretty much how they work, to long for that knowledge, and have the need to get oriented in how to find it.

    So, what does sixty million dollars buy? A 20 year or more acceleration in the spread of critical, lifesaving knowledge everywhere in the world. It buys production, translation and partial dissemination of the most important television ever produced. Commercial television production is pretty expensive: $300,000 USD per hour for Australian documentaries, which are pretty typical in cost. I figure 200 hours of TV is about what we want to produce – watch one show per working day for a year and you have seen the entire thing, after which, well, you’ve had your eyes opened and welcome to global civilization, mate.

    Translation is key. We must make the videos in a format which enables easy dubbing / subtitling. Make a lot of them in Africa, Mexico, India, China, Brazil. Possibly start them all in English, but more likely, shoot pieces in many languages from the beginning, so shows typically are shot in four or five languages, and then what needs to be dubbed is. Translate massively, using fansubbing and fan-voiceover, say 60 global languages for very, very broad population coverage. Even little local colleges can translate the shows they deem most important into their local languages. This is global television – shows to bring the whole human race to a shared basic understanding.

    There needs to be follow up too – online resources, modeled on wikis, for subsidiary content like deeper explanations, the full content before the show was cut, discussions, elaborations, fan videos showing local applications, the entire thing. A lot of shows might be very technical: “The Treadle Pump” – one hour, how, why, what, and then detailed instructions online or even jammed into the hour. But no matter how good the content is, people will have questions, and possibly so many questions it’ll take an army of volunteers to even try to answer them.

    $300,000 per hour, 200 hours. Making the shows gets shopped out to existing science and technology TV production houses. They produce good product, there is very little risk of a flop or more than the occasional dud show, and they will cooperate through a central hub that helps with mindset and cultural issues, and ferries experience and lessons learned between the production crews. Script advisors from UNESCO, WHO and all the usual suspects, although creative control resides with the commissioning editors, who should be drawn from mainstream TV channels across the world. In-front-of-camera talent should also be globalized – stars and thinkers from every continent to be the Carl Sagan to their generations. Vandana Shiva, Bono, Madonna all take their turn explaining the action.

    We need to do this. We need to start now, because as the network spreads, people are going to have hard questions.

    When I look around the internet pretending that I’m a dirt poor kid in a Bengali village with a cell phone computer that my parents mortgaged their farm to buy because they knew I was really smart, I see very, very little helpful material. Could I sift the wheat from the chaff quickly enough to get oriented? Could I find material to teach me to read? Could I learn English? Could I get to Appropedia and if I did, could I build things to save my ass?

    I think the answer is “probably not.”

    But if the computer came with The Programme… then I’d know the search terms, and I’d have already had a chance to learn most of the basic concepts I needed to make tangible change, right where I am today.

    We have not even begun to design and build the “internet for the impoverished” – the datasets necessary to empower the five billion people outside of the industrial revolution to pull themselves out of poverty in a single generation or less.

    The TV show is a start. It’s the index to the knowledge of the world, and transmits a core set of basic skills (hand washing, solar cooking, water purification) right along side the perspective necessary to cope with the world of dreams which is 21st century scientific-technical reality.

    A singularity is coming: the poor are going online, very, very soon. Let’s start building the things they’ll need. I suggest we start with television because it’s a densely proven mass medium, and it can be repurposed into video in all formats, into radio programs, into compressed files crammed into the memory of cheap computers and cell phones in future years – “your new computer, does it have The Program?”

    Yes, yes it does. It’s standard with the operating system now, along with The Archive and various other things.

    The storage is coming. The hardware is not the problem.

    But we need the programs, the pages, the content, and I think that investing sixty million dollars – the price of half of Batman and Robin, or if you prefer, half of a single eurofighter jet – in producing a televised primer on scientific reality and appropriate technology is the best possible investment of human resources today. Ten years from now the hardware will have arrived, driven by the investment of the big manufacturers. But nobody is paying for this kind of content, at these kinds of scales and levels of professionalism. Without it, the gulf between the global reach of the telecommunications grid and the relative absence of content useful to 85% of the human race will be a global crisis within ten years.

    There’s one other bonus. For the first time in history, most of the geniuses, most of the real breakthrough minds of the human species will have access to at least some higher education concepts. Up until now, even if you had an IQ of 160, you were still 80% or 90% likely to be born in a hut by a paddy field and never see the light of a library in your life. A fine mind languishing in a landscape without high density ideas.

    But by the time cell phones and computers have converged and globalized, and the remaining half of the human race has cell phones, all these hidden geniuses will start to come out. Somewhere, in abject poverty, there’s the kid who’ll cure cancer, or aids, or hunger. There’s an army of human potential waiting to be activated by access to information.

    Let’s build an onramp for these kids and their parents, a primer on all they need to know to learn, to grow, to participate, and to change the world.

    The raw net is not enough. We need the bridge, and it’s going to cost money to build, but less than half of “Batman & Robin.”

    Foundations, won’t you reach into your back pockets, pull out some loose change, and fund this?

    Vinay Gupta – hexayurt@gmail.com

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    7 Responses to How to fix the developing world for sixty million dollars

    1. July 18, 2008 at 3:54 pm

      I really like you idea, but I wonder: Couldn’t this be done by volunteers, just like Wikipedia? I mean: What would the price-tag of Wikipedia be?

      Have you read Shirky’s essay about the “cognitive surplus”?

      I think the greatest challenge would be to provide easy tools to produce the content, and clear guidelines to make the small pieces fit together nicely.

    2. July 18, 2008 at 3:56 pm

      What about creating a kind of “Teach for America” for this? That’s volunteer-only I believe.


    3. July 18, 2008 at 4:07 pm

      You may also like this video of Albert Bandura:

    4. July 20, 2008 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks, Vinay, for mentioning Appropedia! I agree that one of the heavy lifting jobs at Appropedia is getting the mostly-English articles translated to the languages of the village users that our stuff is often aimed at. Fortunately we’re beginning to engage translators at university foreign language departments.

      I think there’s a tremendous synergy opportunity here. Video makers can look to Appropedia and other sites to find topics that would be good for the videos. Once videos are made, interested parties can learn more at Appropedia, or they can invent improvements or alternative approaches and post those at Appropedia as well.

      Another cool thing is that this kind of project is the right size for the Gates Foundation. Those souls are heavily burdened trying to find smart ways to spend $2B/yr. A good proposal with clear metrics, etc, might be a good start (tho Gates does not accept unsolicited proposals…there’s a catch).

      In answer to Meryn’s question about the cost of Wikipedia…much less than $60M. Up until a couple of years ago, the cost was well under $5M. Web hosting and servers are the main cost… and that’s only because it’s successful. All the content is donated by volunteers. It’s a pretty inexpensive worldwide education project of its own.

      Okay, so who wants to partner with Vinay and Appropedia to make this video proposal real? And who might already be working on a similar idea?

    5. July 20, 2008 at 7:43 pm

      Curt, absolutely agree that Appropedia is the Right Answer for textual content, although I’m severely doubting the ability of current-generation wiki infrastructure to handle three problems.

      1> Omnitranslation of a given text into 60 languages.

      2> Preparation of how-to guides (not *presentation* of how-to guides but actually doing things like field-testing an explanation, then rewriting based on study results.) This isn’t a tech problem, but it’s a question of how we fund field studies inside of a wiki context. For Wikipedia, the “cognitive surplus” was enough to write an encyclopedia. I’m not sure the same is true for AT resources.

      3> Managing massive content files and versioning of things like video.

      In a lot of ways, I feel like what I’m suggesting is using a sledgehammer – **insanely huge buckets of money** and an industrial-age information production and dissemination medium – TV – to give people their last blast of Industrial-Style Information Production before they step fully into the post-industrial Appropedia-style world.


    6. Chris L
      July 23, 2008 at 11:29 pm

      Yeah, I think the huge buckets of money is probably a good idea, if they can be found. If something like this is to be accomplished quickly and with good production values, the money could be necessary. Wikipedia has high standards, but some fixes take a while to get sorted, and some articles wind up being pretty hit-and-miss despite all the efforts. As has been mentioned, this can’t afford to miss, and major production companies know what they’re doing, for the most part.

      Keeping wikis going as an additional information base is of course essential, but a top-down approach can be the most effective for stuff like this (if not the most resource-efficient).

    7. July 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm

      I suspect that much of the information you propose to produce is already available online. I’ve put everything I know about small-scale solar on youtube:

      Translating it and networking it so that people could share improvements is where the cost actually is.

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