Access To Freedom Through Personal Computers
Creating worthwhile and unbiased access to technology for the world's next 2 billion users.
Where will the world's NEXT 2 billion users come from? – not from the lights on this image.
I was reading to my daughter recently and her book included the picture above from NASA, with a caption along the lines of “you can see where people live in the world from the lights of the cities”. Leaving aside energy politics, this description just isn’t accurate. Many of the nations in the dark on this image are some of the most populous regions in the world. They simply lack access to essentials that many in the world take for granted, like a stable and robust power grid to support needs like lighting, and our focus at Endless: a healthy and growing new-PC-user ecosystem that enriches users' lives in a myriad of ways. However, lack of access to computers for these parts of the world will change in the coming years.
We feel this is a very important topic for technology and education nonprofits, engineers, and designers to be discussing. The United Nations population division says that the world will grow from its current population of 7.5 billion to 9.8 billion people around 2050. The majority of that growth will come from nations that are in the dark on this map: 1.2 billion in Africa, 0.7 billion in Asia. Along with our partners, we are thinking about what their roadmap to digital computer access, and the subsequent user experience will look like.
By 2050 the world will grow from 7.5 billion to 9.8 billion people, mostly in developing areas. What will this new population's computer experience and access look like?
Next step in global access: the whole world empowered with PCs, not just phones.
For nearly 10 years Endless has been working to empower as many people as possible with access to their own useful personal computing experience. Why do we think PC access for all is important? Our core thesis is that, while it's true that most people in the world have cell phones, the reality is that the majority of them do not have access to the powerful tools that personal computers bring. You can only do so much on a phone. Being able to fully take part in a digital life on a PC opens really transformative opportunities: accessing more information, learning in a better setting, developing deeper work and life skills, and increasing earning potential via the digital economy. All of this development is not possible with just a cell phone, and over 50% of the households in the world can only choose their phones to work with in 2021.
Access to a PC is not enough, users also need useful information and experiences. Once achieved, we believe that simply having access to a computer is not sufficient. To wield a complex and powerful tool effectively, people need to combine it with knowledge and experience. Access is not created equally, especially when one considers new users. If I handed you a complex machine like a graphing calculator right now, would you know how to effectively use it beyond its "On" button? As I hand you that machine, I should also be aware of your previous experience with it, along with your next steps.
What will the first-time computer experience of 2 billion people by 2050 be like? Will it be a wonderful and intuitive experience that immediately brings value, or will it be a confusing and frustrating experience? We think about this question a lot at Endless, and it underpins our long-term investment in desktop usability in Endless OS and the wider GNOME community.
New users navigating, managing, and thriving in a new digital world.
Beyond one’s own ability to engage with the technology, it’s also important to consider what the technology is enabling us to do, and how it influences the choices we make through its recommendations or omissions. Everyone’s ability to access technology and information on terms they can control and benefit from is essential because computers can impact every part of our lives – where we choose to live, what we do for work, how we access educational resources and support, reach healthcare and welfare support and information etc.
Whether or not they intended to, corporate actors have gained substantial control of our window on the world and the design of people’s experiences with PCs, and technology more generally. With the complexity of the technology space and the speed at which it evolves, we cannot unquestioningly assume that everyone is acting in our best interests. Having the tools to access a new digital world, and the ability to understand and navigate these external influences, can be life-changing, but we cannot assume that new users will have these critical skills.
Even experienced PC users should think about this influence.
Diving in deeper, have you ever asked who decides what software you can run, and what information you can see? Who controls which apps you are able to find in the app store, and what conditions they have to meet to be there? At this point, the majority of technology comes to us all from or via around 5 US-based corporations. These are the five largest corporations in the world by market capitalization, if you skip Saudi Aramco. I don’t consider corporations “evil” or immoral - I consider them more amoral, and acting rationally within the framework that is set up for them. They act in their own, and their shareholders' best interests, unless they are forced to do otherwise by the market or by regulation ... and when regulation does come it is slow at best, and usually weak.
These are big problems, starting with the computers in front of us. Software freedom is a big part of that puzzle. The struggle for unbiased access and information control extends all the way to the OS and software on your PC. This is an important consideration for the world’s next 2 billion PC users.
Having the tools to access a new digital world, and the ability to understand and navigate its external influences, can be life-changing. We cannot assume that new users will have these critical skills.
Some are trying to put computer users in control. Why we believe in FOSS.
There are technology nonprofits and foundations like GNOME who work to give new and experienced computer users a personal computer they can trust, with access to large amounts of information and software to engage with on their own terms. The free and open source (FOSS) community is built on this principle, and considering the impact that information and misinformation has on the global political landscape, it's an important part of the discussion about how technology can be trusted with so many new people interfacing with technology.
I want us to build a world where everyone – and all the diversity that implies – is empowered by technology they can trust. In addition, if we want to build software that’s useful for people around the world, we need to include their perspectives in what we design, build and implement. I want us to be part of building that future for the next 2+ billion people who are being born starting today.
Worth building: a world where everyone – and all the diversity that implies – is empowered by technology they can trust.
Next steps to collaborative global impact for good.
So how do we get to a place of building universal and useful access to computers for the world’s next 2 billion computer users? To start, at Endless OS Foundation we are partnering with like-minded technology, software, and information resources organizations to make digital tools and a wealth of information more easily accessible to all. We hope our part in this, together with our partners present and future, will improve digital access and literacy on a worldwide scale in the upcoming years.
In addition, we will continue to tell stories about access and the #DigitalDivide, highlighting the disconnects needing bridging along with the staggering facts about underserved communities. In the USA alone, 12-15 million students lack the connectivity needed to stay out of the digital divide and homework gap. This is a number larger than the population of Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the USA. These numbers are sobering and deserve all of our attention in the U.S. and globally.
There’s so much to cover in this work and conversation, and you’ve already been kind enough to stick with me for 1400 words. I’d love to connect and hear your thoughts about this very large question, and possibly collaborate on solutions. Please feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob McQueen is CEO at the Endless OS Foundation (EOSF). Rob is an experienced engineering manager and company leader, and has been a user, developer and advocate for a Free and Open Source Linux desktop for nearly 20 years. Based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, Rob also currently serves as the President of the GNOME Foundation, a 501(c)(3) in the open source desktop space.