Illustration for Gillian Tett's 'The digital world's other equality problem'
© Shonagh Rae

In recent days, Vivek Wadhwa, an American technology entrepreneur and pundit, has been helping to run a “hackathon” in the San Francisco area. But this did not comprise the usual computer coding and brainstorming sessions that occur at places such as Facebook or Google. There were no hoodie-wearing men in their twenties chewing on Chinese takeaways as they tossed around brilliantly lucrative entrepreneurial ideas.

Instead, Wadhwa’s “hackathon” involved dozens of poor Latino and black teenagers from the impoverished part of Oakland, a place far removed from the wealth-soaked Palo Alto region. And instead of trying to create the next gazillion-dollar IPO, Wadhwa and other computing experts were trying to teach poor kids to “code”, with a hope of inspiring them to become software engineers.

It is an intriguing experiment. A few weeks ago I wrote about the lack of women in computer science and pointed out that it was imperative to get more young girls “coding”, both to plug a jobs gap and as an act of empowerment. Dozens of readers emailed me in agreement. But some also pointed to another issue: namely, that today there is not simply a gender digital divide, but a widening socioeconomic one too.

Most notably, wealthy children in the western world are now being inundated with electronic gadgets in a manner that is turning them into digital natives from birth. Never mind the fact that elite schools in Silicon Valley teach their kids to code, middle-class children across America and Europe are living and breathing computing skills too. In London, for example, Falkner House, a private primary school (that I know through my own daughters) has just started handing out iPads for use in homework. These programmes are so innovative that they have won the school accolades from Apple; no doubt other schools will soon follow suit.

But the more that wealthy children live and breathe iPads and laptops, the greater the risk that this will entrench economic divisions between kids who are electronically “literate” and thus being trained to cope with an increasingly digitised economy – and those who are not. Or, to put it another way, as the economy becomes increasingly split between skilled and unskilled jobs, the risk is that poorer children will become shut out, from a very young age, from the productive parts of the economy because they do not have access to this electronic world.

This is where the Oakland hackathon comes in. Right now, events such as these are merely a cosmetic gesture: a mere 180 teenagers attended last weekend’s coding session and a similar number in another, earlier experiment in San Francisco. But Wadhwa is convinced that these gestures can open teenagers’ eyes to the cyber world. “By the end of the day we had kids saying they want to go into software – it was amazing,” he recalls, pointing out that when these poor teenagers started designing innovative apps of their own, “they didn’t do the type of frothy social stuff that often comes out of Silicon Valley, but much more useful apps, like homework apps or teacher apps or stuff for drug abuse”.

Wadhwa hopes this could provide a model that could spread. For one of the most interesting parts of the experiment is that it entails what management thinkers call “reverse innovation” – namely, importing clever ideas from the developing world into the west (rather than the other way round). Most notably, the Oakland hackathon was conducted using a $40 basic tablet known as the Aakash, which was developed in India for poor consumers. By using this “developing world” device, Wadhwa hopes to get around the fact that the dazzling gadgets now emanating from Silicon Valley are too expensive for poor children. As such, this echoes the strategy of the One Laptop Per Child campaign developed by Nicholas Negroponte at MIT, which also uses basic, cheap machines to teach computing skills to children in developing countries such as Uruguay.

Whether the hackathons will work remains to be seen. But Wadhwa is already savouring one tiny victory. When he met his teenage would-be coders in Oakland he asked if any of them dreamt of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg – and, initially, only two hands went up. But by the end of the day, as he tells the tale, almost everyone declared that they wanted to be a Zuckerberg – of sorts. But, Wadhwa adds: “[Then] we agreed that we needed to stop using Zuckerberg as the example. We want the next example to be a José or a Keisha.” It is a small, inspiring thought; and, of course, a revealing sign of what a mountain men such as Wadhwa now need to climb.

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