Question Box: the Internet for remote places, no literacy or keyboards required

The Question Box is a project from UC Berkeley's Rose Shuman to bring some of the benefits of the information on the Internet to places that are too remote or poor to sustain a live Internet link. It works by installing a single-button intercom in the village that is linked to a nearby town where there is a computer with a trained, live operator. Questioners press the intercom, describe their query to the operator, who runs it, reads the search results, and discusses them with the questioner (it's like those "executive assistant" telephone services, but for people who live in very rural places).

This is a really good example of how the net can extend beyond the physical boundaries of its wires. I remember being in Entebe, Uganda, and seeing the print shops that were out of the city and off-campus, where you could go and browse a CD-ROM's worth of electronic text for printing and binding. The CDs were updated regularly by couriers on motorcycle, who brought them from the capital, creating a relatively high-latency sneakernet link over terrain that (for political and technical reasons) the Internet couldn't cover.

I supposed that there must be an even higher-latency connection further from these print shops, of people who place orders for their wares that are fulfilled once a week, and a still higher latency connection further out, of people who inherit the books once those people are done with them. The closer you are to the live net, the more control you have over the information it delivers.

Eventually, the net's tendrils will extend to the places where the print-shops are, and they will relocate to the villages, and the people who inherit second-hand books will become the people who order the books. And eventually -- through programs like One Laptop Per Child -- the live net may reach even the most remote corners.

But the net isn't binary (well, it is, but not in the way I mean): it isn't there or not-there. It can ooze in, over the period of years and decades.

The Question Box has been deployed live in Phoolpur village in Greater Noida, close to New Delhi and it was a stonking, smashing success, and will now be expanding further. Check out the project page. Link


  1. Brilliant. This project epitomizes the best qualities of the internet – making information available, accessible, fluid. Organic growth based on the needs and available resources of real people.

    The whole thing is a little Oracle-like. Nice mythic resonance. Wonder if this would do well in a place like Chiapas, where the Zapatistas have done well with the internet, but literacy and financial resources are still abysmally low.

    This also connects a different type of people to the internet, who don’t have the privileged white boy frame of reference…diversity is always good for evolution.

  2. This is wonderful.

    Whose imagery is this, I learned it in the 300-baud modem days — that using the Net can be akin to walking into a huge dark library and shouting out your question, and having voices from the stacks reply with answers. Borges, perhaps?

  3. @magicbean – “The whole thing is a little Oracle-like. Nice mythic resonance.”

    It reminds me of a less-than-successful Steven Spielberg film from 2001 called A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. Gigolo Joe and David the boy robot go to see Doctor Know to find out where they might find the Blue Fairy who could make him into a real boy.

  4. Speaking of 300-baud-days, when I was working tech support, I took a couple calls from interpreters for the deaf.

    The hearing-impaired was using a TDD to communicate with the interpreter, who was speaking on the phone with me.

    Rather slow, and communicating technical concepts was difficult when the people on either end had more knowledge than the person in the middle, but we did resolve the problem.

    [I much prefered it once the company instituted direct TDD support; TDD was still slow, but comparatively direct.]

    I hope the searchers for this project are well-informed and good communicators to avoid these obstacles. [Librarian reference desk would be good training. :) ]

  5. Imagine what this thing would seem like to a remote tribe like the Kalahari bushmen in “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

  6. Han Solo & friends said it best: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

    There’s something entirely too dystopian about this setup. Who pays the operators? Does this employment cause bias in answers? Imagine if corporate policy required the operators to give “canned” answers to certain queries…

    Not only would the villagers be unaware of any bias or misinformation, they would also unfortunately embrace it as truth coming from “the Question Box.”


    But seriously, when I first read about this, I was a little skeptical. After all, what sort of questions could far-flung villagers possibly think to ask? And how would the tech on the other end know how to translate the local lingo into accessible queries? After all, it would take a long time to get an answer if your question was something like, “Can you tell me a better way to fish?”

    But the skepticism is misplaced. After all, we all went through a learning curve when first getting acquainted with the net. Who’s to say these villagers can’t learn how to ask the right questions, too? Eventually, it may lead to learning new ways to live and introducing internet access to their area, modernizing and improving.

  8. After all, what sort of questions could far-flung villagers possibly think to ask?

    Get as far as you want off the beaten path in the Himalayas and the kids there will still know how your iPod works better than you do. There are very few places on earth where people don’t know about the rest of the world. Just because they don’t have the infrastructure doesn’t mean that they don’t have the knowledge.

  9. I don’t have any problem with this, per se – anyone trying to help those less fortunate is probably better than me – but I find that this endeavor and the free laptop project and those like it don’t take into account the reality of the situation in most of these countries. Laptops are useless when what you don’t have food, potable water, shelter and defense.

    The problem is that, while we received computers at a time when we were more or less ready to incorporate them gradually into our daily routines, these countries are in a vastly different developmental state and need the sorts of things we needed at that stage. Know what would really help Subsaharan Africa? Air conditioning, no joke.

  10. The question that sticks in my mind is…is this simply cheaper than building libraries and training librarians?

    Ankh sez: “…akin to walking into a huge dark library and shouting out your question, and having voices from the stacks reply with answers.”

    Hmmm…and hoping the voice is that of the educated, well-read Librarian than some random yahoo…

  11. is this simply cheaper than building libraries and training librarians?

    In a village with fifty inhabitants, three weeks on foot from the nearest paved road, in a country where buildings are made of cow pies, physical libraries are probably not ever going to be the answer.

  12. This is the 21st century equivalent of the village scribe, someone who would write and read letters for most residents (who were illiterate). There are rules for letter writers and I’m sure they would be enforced for Googlers and Yahoos, too, although a bit more difficult to enforce when not F2F.

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