There. I said it. Slashdot is worthless. OK, I’ll admit that the headlines are useful, but the comments certainly are not. The sad thing about Slashdot is that there are still people posting useful and interesting comments, and they’re utterly and completely lost among the utter crap that floods the site. Generally I make do by simply ignoring the comments section on Slashdot entirely, but after reading the comments on the Jhai PC yesterday, I realized that the comments section is not just worthless but actually a malign force.
The thing that amazed me most was that almost all of the comments on the Jhai PC were critical. The thing that amazed me least was that most of the critical comments were obviously written by people who didn’t even bother to click through on the link, and were criticizing things that weren’t even true. The criticism generally centered on the fact that instead of giving PCs to the Laotians, the Jhai PC folks should be working on giving them food, or schools, or some other basic staple of life.
First of all, never mind the fact that the commentors are simply rock throwers who most likely aren’t doing crap for people in Laos or any other country. Rather than trying to make a difference in anyone else’s life, they sit on their asses all day carping on Slashdot about things other people are doing. Even if the Jhai PC is not the most brilliant idea in the world, it’s something, which beats the hell out of nothing.
If you don’t admire the project or aren’t interested, then don’t donate any money. It really is that amazingly simple. The Jhai PC folks aren’t asking to raise your taxes, or asking for a government grant, or saying that their idea is the end all and be all of anything. The proposition here is to provide pedal-powered PCs that might provide some benefit to some people in Laos. It’s an experiment, and people are donating their own time and money to make it a reality. What do the losers on Slashdot do? Tear it down. Pathetic.
The first time I ever visited Slashdot, it was to read the article arguing that Netscape should release the source code to Navigator. Back then, this was a pretty revolutionary idea, because the movement that everybody refers to as open source was nascent at that time (in spite of its already lengthy history). Certainly Slashdot wasn’t the only place where people were talking about open sourcing Navigator, but the article was a big, big deal at the time. It embodied a particular vision.
Now, if you want to read visionary stuff, Slashdot isn’t the place to look. You’re better off hitting technical blogs. The Jhai PC is a visionary idea. Will it improve the quality of life for the people served by the product? Maybe, maybe not. It sure seems to me that enabling people to communicate with friends and relatives across the world for the first time would be a nice benefit for the people in those villages. Allowing them to negotiate business transactions with people a few villages away without walking there to do it might be nice as well. Nicer than having a meal to eat? Probably not, but I doubt that the people who posted on Slashdot have a better sense of the needs of Laotians than the people in the Jhai Foundation working on the project. And the thing about it is, if this proof of concept works, then who knows what it could lead to? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get real first person reporting from areas of war and strife thanks to these computers? The idea of an internet connected PC that can operate almost completely off the grid holds great promise, and someone has to get it out there to see where it leads. This is that project.
People who actually did even a modicum of research know that the main part of the Jhai project isn’t computers, it’s coffee exports. The Jhai Foundation is building a nascent export economy by selling coffee grown in Laos. Apparently the coffee is very good. What if the coffee farmers in Laos use the Jhai PC to further improve the scale of their agriculture by communicating amongst themselves and learning more about coffee cultivation via the Web, thus making it possible to raise the standard of living significantly in rural Laos in general? Maybe that’s a crazy idea. But maybe it will work. It takes this project to find out.
We know we can help out people in developing nations by providing better food, education, medical care, and other basic staples of existence. Those of us working in IT can help provide these necessities of life by donating our money to causes that provide them. The question projects like this can help to answer, though, is how we can use the intellectual products of our work to make life better for some of the least fortunate people in the world. Maybe this is one of the ways. If not, we can try something else. It depresses me that the readers at Slashdot (at least the ones who bothered to comment) have a hard time seeing that.