Filling the Digital Gap: A Discourse on Tech Access among Under-served Children in Malaysia

Mister Nerdie follows with great interest the current social media discussion on addressing technological deprivation among underserved school children in Malaysia. We would like to offer our insights as technology professionals on the subject. Let’s look at the problem. Students lacking devices for school have begged for help – through over 43,000 messages- to get the tools they need. Offering quick response, the proposal is the template route: raise funds, buy them new devices. Well-intentioned, yes, but is the answer that seems simplest and most straightforward also the best one? Is it sustainable and cost-efficient? A closer look at the fast-tech industry will show that this move might actually do more damage than good. A lot of technology manufacturers build in planned obsolescence, forcing us to buy new products almost every couple of years. This means keeping up with technology becomes a costly lifestyle, apart from the obvious (but often neglected) unintended consequences: tonnes of non-biodegradable electronic waste. In 2019 alone, Malaysia generated 364 kilotons of electronic waste. That is an average of 11.1 kilograms per person.

What’s the real underlying issue?

Two years from now, the students who receive these devices would find themselves with outdated laptops or tablets that could no longer cater to their needs. Therefore, the core problem that persists is actually the issue of access to technology. Proposing to supply Raspberry Pis to students may seem disruptive to the discourse, but we believe the real disruption direly needed right now is to accelerate technological accessibility. We sincerely applaud efforts around Malaysia to raise funds to buy brand new devices for children in need. But we would like to put forward a more long-term, cost-efficient, job-generating and environment-friendly solution.

Access to tech: Practicality over pompousity

Instead of buying brand new devices, we should look at what we already have. A lot of people have old devices laying around that are not in use—devices whose utility can be prolonged. It is also common for companies to upgrade their devices every two or three years, and they may not know where to redirect them. This is a resource that we are under-exploring and under-utilising. The Plug program at Mister Nerdie addresses this from the get-go. We take old devices from the hands of those who do not want them anymore, and make them useful for those who need them for school, work, or play. In today’s world, technology has become a human right. We need it for our survival, without which we cannot achieve other basic human rights. As such, tech accessibility should be made as painless as possible. Our young students are in a period of transition, which is difficult enough as it is. The solutions we propose should, thus, ensure they could continue their education uninterrupted. This means the technologies we give them must use operating systems they are most familiar with i.e. Windows, iOS, or Android. While the idea to give them Raspberry Pis would be great, to expect them to learn how to use a different device and adjust well, on top of the stress of everything else, could prove counterproductive and even drive some students to the edge.

Purposeful jobs: Technicians generating income while helping address a crisis

As repair demand increases, providing this service gives livelihood to technicians who are struggling through the pandemic. As it stands, Malaysians have demonstrated their willingness to participate in the gig economy to supplement their income. For some, it is even their main source of income. Funds allocated for buying brand new devices can be diverted to hiring technicians. Students get learning devices, technicians earn a living— win-win.

Going green: Upcycling to reduce electronic waste

It is estimated that the amount of e-waste generated worldwide will reach 74.7 metric tons by 2030, with the global amount of e-waste increasing at almost 2 metric tons per year, making efforts to recycle unwanted electronics more important than ever. Through upcycling old electronic devices, we extend their life-cycle, saving them from quick obsolescence. This way, we avoid creating another pound or so of electronic waste, which the world already has in toxic excess. Our main aim is to ensure access to technology for students. In the process, we found a way to address that need while also promoting economic and environmental sustainability, which in return creates spillover effects on immediate stakeholders.

Mister Nerdie is a civic tech movement that champions meaningful access to technology and technological products as a human right through offering device repair services and promoting the development and use of open source technologies. It runs The Plug, a social enterprise program that supplies technology needs to the underserved.

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