China Needs a Slice of Raspberry Pi


Mmmmmmm, pie.

Raspberry pie is delicious, and everyone should have a slice, but the title is not a typo, and what I’m here to talk about today is not real pie. It’s Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer being created by a UK company. It’s not exactly a powerhouse; in fact, it doesn’t even have a hard drive. But with the help of an SD card or flash drive, plus a TV and mouse/keyboard to connect it to, it becomes a functional computer that can play simple games, run most Linux software, and even surf the web. Here’s the best part: it costs $25. The developers are hoping it can be used to teach kids programming, but to me it seems like it could be used for much more than just that.

What does this have to do with China? While we spend a lot of time talking about China’s growing number of smartphone users and social media addicts, and it can be easy to forget that hundreds of millions of people here live in poverty. And poverty is defined as income of less than $361 per year for residents of rural areas.

Needless to say, people from impoverished and rural areas often don’t get access to the same quality of education that’s available in cities. They also don’t get access outside the classroom to computers and technology the way a wealthier city-dweller often would. This can put rural children at a severe disadvantage later in life when they’re competing with urban residents for jobs but don’t have the computer know-how to keep up. By know-how here I don’t mean programming skills, I just mean the general knowledge of how computers operate that comes with years of use.

It’s obvious that Raspberry Pi could help. $25 ought to be cheap enough for at least some rural Chinese school systems, and the opportunities it could afford poor kids — not just to learn programming — are enormous. And while it needs to be connected to a TV and keyboard to be used, keyboards are cheap and televisions are pretty widespread, even in China’s most rural areas. Plus, the $25 Raspberry Pi is actually made in China and then imported to the UK afterwards. Could that price be dropped even further for a similar product that was just sold domestically and didn’t have to incorporate overseas shipping? I suspect so, though probably not by much.

This is something Chinese NGOs, schools, and the government in general should be looking at very carefully. The price is right, the advantages are numerous, and the downsides practically nonexistent. In fact, by my quick-and-dirty calculations, China could give every impoverished person in the country a Raspberry Pi if the government were willing to spend just six percent of what it spends on the military each year.

That’s probably not realistic — after all, who wants to educate children when you can buy missiles — but it should be very feasible to outfit schools in poor areas with Raspberry Pis so that kids can get some hands-on time with computers, and even learn to program. I know that dessert-based placation of the poor has been out of style since Marie Antoinette’s head rolled out of the guillotine, but somehow I think that “Let them have pi!” could be a pretty successful policy. How about it, China?

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