Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Digital Revolution hits Kenya

When I first got to Busia in 2006, the only place to get internet was the Post Office. It was painfully slow and didn’t usually work. If I had to send something large, like a database, I would have to haggle my way across the border into Uganda where there was one internet café that was a bit faster and sometimes open. Uganda’s electricity is something like 24 hours on and 24 hours off, so if I went there during an “off” spell, I’d have to either find 4 more people to use other computers to make it worth their while to turn on the generator, or pay for 5 people myself as I sat alone, trying to send one email.

Now, almost exactly four years later, I’m sitting in my room with an internet stick that plugs into my USB port and provides me with internet where-ever there is a phone network. The much anticipated high speed internet from the fiber-optic cable hasn’t reached this part of Kenya quite yet, but it’ll be here soon enough. In any case, the stick is plenty fast. If I was a little less lazy, I could go into town to use one of the many internet cafés, or the hotel which has wireless (that’s right, wireless!).

Internet and cell phones have become efficient and mainstream so much more quickly than things like land lines and even electricity. I don’t think this is part of the public vs. private debate—I think it has to do with how dramatically simpler the required infrastructure is for these goods. There are parts of Kenya that, I predict, will never have land lines. They will only have cell phone towers.

Our library needs to pick up on this. Book are wonderful and irreplaceable, but we have to take advantage of resources that can be digitized a much as possible. It does not make sense for us to drag over reference books, which are large and go out of date quickly, or even textbooks, when we can bring them on CD. If we are able to develop a strong digital library, it can serve the duo purpose of providing information and training people to use computers, which (it almost goes without saying) is an essential skill.

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