Advisor: Was it cruel to let poor kids in India play with my iPod?

P1010252.JPGA few years ago, I went on a trip to northern India to see the Dalai Lama. I traveled with a lawyer, a politician, a publicist, and a translator. One of the places we visited on the way up from Delhi was called Jalandhar — it's in the Punjab region and is home to a lot of sweatshops. While we were there, we met a bunch of kids who lived with no electricity but told us that, when they grew up, they all wanted to be computer scientists. So we whipped out our cameras and iPods — the closest things we had on hand to real computers — and showed them how technology works. We figured they would enjoy it, and thought it could be a valuable experience that would stay etched in their minds as something to aspire to as they continued their studies.

Later, I found out that one of my travel mates thought what we had done was cruel. We had seduced these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford, and sullied their pure, technology-free lives with the temptation of electronics.

So who's right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter? Is there even a right answer to this question? What do you guys think?

Advisor is a column about how to juggle technology, relationships, and common sense. Got a story to tell? Email me at lisa [at] boingboing [dot] net.


  1. Well, now, there’s a question to lose sleep over. Not dissimilar to the awful situation “Slumdog Millionaire” created – all those child actors taken from the slum to the Oscars, of all things, only to be dumped back once we’d all moved on to the next film.

    No easy answer, though I can’t help thinking ignorance is bliss…

    1. Feeling bad sounds like that bullshit White Man’s Burden. Unless you were actually taunting these children, you have shown them a visible path towards bettering themselves, maintaining their education, and bootstrapping their lives to achieve great things as a result. My friend’s wife from Turkey lived in a tiny rural village, tending the family farm until her uncle brought her and her brother to London for schooling. She’s now an executive, understands English better than I, and is a total success.

  2. No it was not cruel. Your friend must think very highly of himself… “We shouldnt show these lesser creatures our advanced technology, less they feel bad.” Come on.

  3. I think your travel mate should lighten-up. Technology isn’t inherently evil, nor is the concept of seeing something you might not own in your lifetime. Labeling the act as cruel is a bit dramatic and it really depends on the person you showed the devices to as to whether or not it will even matter to them in a couple of days. Some people obsess over the things they can’t have, some people do what it takes to get those things, some people just move on with their lives. I don’t really think there’s a “right” answer to this, but I wouldn’t feel guilty if I were you.

  4. As someone who is currently in a poor country, teaching some poor kids how to use cameras and computers, I say: no, though it depends on the purpose, the context, and the details. At the core of the situation and reaction as presented is an assumption that these children will forever remain marginalized, poor, and unable to have any interaction with technology devices or tools of economic empowerment. I believe that this presumption is inherently more cruel.

    Sometimes, the future will surprise us.

    1. As someone who is currently in a poor country, teaching some poor kids how to use cameras and computers, I say: no, though it depends on the purpose, the context, and the details. At the core of the situation and reaction as presented is an assumption that these children will forever remain marginalized, poor, and unable to have any interaction with technology devices or tools of economic empowerment. I believe that this presumption is inherently more cruel.

      Sometimes, the future will surprise us.

      That’s quality reply.

      Not hard to imagine circumstances in which a similar act might be cruel, but given the kids already expressed an enthusiasm for computer tech, it may well have been inspirational, perhaps…

  5. It’s an odd opinion to take that it is cruel to inspire children – who obviously already know about computers and openly fantasize about being computer scientists – just because they do not have the immediate means to obtain that goal. They are children – do we deny the mystery of Santa Claus because as adults we know he doesn’t exist?

    As a young teen, it was the things that I was exposed to that inspired me to achieve what I have now. I couldn’t obtain them, I didn’t have the means for them… but they were worth living for.

    The person who thinks it’s cruel to inspire children lives in denial and a double standard. Openly, they would say that they would want to ‘help’ these children, but in fact the operate under a silent prejustice that keeps children like the ones in your example from ever achieving anything.

  6. What a stupefyingly paternal attitude. Yes, we must moderate our interactions with these unfortunate creatures of a lesser god lest they understand the horrors of their own situations. I

    I’d maybe agree if this were just an off hand attempt to flaunt wealth, but the fact is that these things do exist, are a part of the day to day of millions of peoples lives and are worth knowning about for that reason alone.

    It’s certainly not your job to protect their feelings. Mind boggling.

  7. I dont think you can comment unless youve been to India and have seen the poverty and living conditions of some of these children. I dont know if its necessarily wrong but at the same time I would say that its a bit insensitive.

    1. I lived in India for 9 months…. they are wonderful industrious people, yes even the ones that live in poverty. Children are curious by nature and are always fascinated by things they have never seen before. I have meet hundreds of “poor” indian kids and a vast majority of them are extremely hard workers and believe if they work hard they can have a better life… Its pretty condescending to think that just because a child is poor they will never have anything… in fact It would not suprise me if one of those kids was your condescending friends boss one day.

  8. It was not cruel in the slightest. You could easily argue that it’s much more cruel to set ourselves up as the arbitrators of what someone else should or should not be exposed to based on OUR perception of what their lives will be and what they can expect to achieve.

    Claiming that showing them an iPod was cruel is stupid and it shows a remarkable level of western privilege.

  9. Yeah, they live where “there’s a lot of sweatshops”, but an ipod is going to sully their purity.

    Who the hell told your friend he/she was the keeper of the gate for these kids? Electronic devices exist, they are real. Since when is keeping people ignorant of reality a kindness?

  10. And incidentally, I like to refer to arguments like that of your travel mate as “Gringo Knows Best.”

    More often, we don’t.

  11. I think you should have left your friend in the technologically-free paradise. See what he thought about technology after he made his way home.

  12. You were stimulating their curiosity and quenching their thirst for knowledge. They’ll remember it forever. It’s the kind of even that can propel some people to greatness. Sure maybe they’ll be sad they don’t have an ipod, but they’d be sad about that anyway. Even poor kids in india know about ipods (i’m guessing).

    I hope your travel mate doesn’t have kids, or teach them.

  13. I don’t see why it would be cruel.

    I’m sure it’s not intentional, or even really there, but there’s a certain Western egotism in assuming that, once they’ve glimpsed some luxury plastic gadgets, these impoverished kids are going to feel even more deprived and impoverished. We all lived without mobile phones and iPods just a few years ago – they’re hardly necessities.

    I’m sure these kids, and their communities, are more concerned with the denial of their rights to education, healthcare, security and sanitation, and the lack of civil and political power, as well as electricity, that they experience. A shiny white gadget is pretty insignificant in the face of all that.

    So I don’t think you did any damage. Did you leave any lasting benefits?

  14. I’ve seen the space shuttle but it’s unlikely I’ll be visiting space.

    I’ve walked past the Ritz Carlton but I sleep on a futon.

    I’ve seen Pam Dawber but I……you get the idea.

  15. I am living in Pondicherry India with my son and wife and I sm constantly showing off, as my son would say, my iPhone to Indians. My reason is Indian consumer markets need to be opened up substantially or tariffs reduced on consumer goods. The poor quality of items manufactured in India is quite shocking. India may be be leader in software, but manufacturing is where it needs help.

  16. “I’ve seen Pam Dawber but I……you get the idea.”

    Please tell me that sentence doesn’t end with “Robin Williams!”

  17. By that standard, most of BoingBoing is cruelty to us.

    It might just inspire them to develop technology themselves, just like when the Roswell aliens showed us Cheez Whiz.

  18. Nope it’s okay. For them it’s just a reminder that they should not fuck up their karma so that in the next round they’ll be reborn in a industrialized country where even a moron with the most useless job can afford a ipod while the smartest and brightest in their country fill up their chinese motorscooters if they want to show off.

  19. I absolutely agree with your first instinct, I think it would be aspirational for them. Your friend’s suggestions that they will probably never be able to afford them smacks of paternalism of the worst kind. They already aspire to be computer scientists and the price of technology is always falling. Sure in 30 years they might not be able to afford the top of the range digital hand-held what-evers of the day but the price of present-day iPod equivalent tech will be so low that it will easily be within their reach.

  20. I don’t think it was cruel… better to have something amazing to work hard for, and dream of; than just to have a vague idea of your aspirations.

  21. A few years back, I went to Nepal. Our guide came from a small village that had little in the way of amenities. I showed him my iPod, let him listen to it, took him to an internet cafe and guided him through the basics of using the Internet and computers, etc.

    Guess what? A few months back, he friended me on Facebook. He was able to get a laptop through another client, found an internet cafe, and is now running his (global) guiding business from there.

    I may have had nothing to do with it, but his entrepreneurial spirit drove him to use the technology to improve his life. For the right person (even someone poor and with few resources) exposure to this technology could be an eyeopener.

  22. “We want to be computer scientists.”
    “Well, we happen to have some nifty gadgets that might be of interest to you, then, but since you’ll never be able to afford them and your dream of going into computer science will come to naught, we’re just going to remain mum on the subject.”


  23. One point seems to have been overlooked in the comments. The children had already professed a desire to become computer scientists, that would mean that they were already a little familiar with what computer technology is. So what is there to spoil? They already know it exists. You just provided a more concrete example of the technology to them.

  24. There’s something about the idea of the iPod or digital camera as being “aspirational” that really makes my skin crawl.

    Why should they aspire to such hi-tech materialism? It suggests a very linear, “Western” concept of progress and development.

    As I pointed out above, these kids probably have more important and more fundamental things to aspire to.

    1. Blah Blah, why do people like you insist everything “western” is bad, and everything non-western is good and/or superior. It is the the very worst sort of cultural relativism and demeans both you and the people you are supposedly defending.

      iPods are not the harbingers of doom.

  25. First off, it’s a little silly to assume that none of the kids will ever have any of those things. The world is still changing at a pretty good pace, and one of those changes is that technological goods are still getting cheaper and suffusing into places where we never thought they would. I mean, if, in 1985 when about 1 in 1000 Americans owned a cell phone, you had told people that about one in three people in Africa would own cell phones by 2009, who would have believed you? That’s 24 years. Honestly, I would say that the odds are that most of those kids will own cell phones within their lifetimes and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their families already do. Lots of places without household electricity have cell phone coverage these days.

    Further, if these kids are serious about studying computer science, some of them could well go on to universities to do it. India is poorer than the US but that doesn’t mean that scholarships don’t exist. If you really want to help, then help them get educated. First, keep in mind that you can learn computer science without a computer or by sharing one computer amongst a number of people. For decades that was the way most people learned. Also, there are being increasing efforts to develop computer science curricula where the students can learn to program on their cellular phones. And there’s no reason that this shouldn’t work. Computer programming has the same underlying principles regardless of platform and cellular phones are really just little specialized computers.

    So, if you really want to help, send them course materials and perhaps a cheap laptop and some solar panels so that they can start learning computer science instead of just dreaming about learning it one day.

  26. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of pre-warp civilizations

    1. “The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of pre-warp civilizations”

      Yes, no interference /by civilizations with warp drive/

      We and they are, in fact, of the same civilization, as far as the Federation would be concerned. Are you sayign we can’t interfere in our own internal affairs? That is patently ridiculous.

      More importantly- these people already know we exist, they know computers exist. The prime directive, even if it were a law in existence on earth today, is already out the window. The sweatshops are most likely sweatshops that exist /because/ our part of society and theirs are interrelated.

      1. Hmmm, Boingboing, humor/science/arts/fiction/electronic freedom site, sorry for injecting (what I thought was) humor. I know that these people have had contact with the outside i.e. modern world, if they had not I would have been scathing in my post. I tried to use humor that would be recognizable to many of Boingboing readers, evidently said attempt was too subtle for some, my bad. Next time i will use a pun instead.

    1. You don’t often hear that phrase anymore, thank you. (I assume it is because there are not many left, I hope that’s true.)

  27. If we don’t aspire to have access to technology available to every person in the world within the lifetime of these children, I think we’re failing in a profound way. The value to be gained from technology shouldn’t be hidden away because we fear it will instill false hope, but rather shared because we know it can alter lives for the better.

  28. I’d say your intention was pure, the kids probably loved it, and your travel-mate was being a condescending prick to the “little people who will never rise from the ashes.”

  29. The most important things, IMO, about the proliferation of technology and its availability to more people around the world is that:

    1) Different cultures, contexts and individuals are able to use the technology in their own way, in a way that benefits them and those around them, without damaging the lives of others.

    2) Such technology have as little negative impact on the environment as possible.

    Regarding mobile phones, though, I understand they’re increasingly widely available and widely used in India these days.

  30. Scrolled nearly all the way to the bottom before the first mention of The Prime Directive. Well, we’ve already corrupted their ‘primitive’ society haven’t we?

    Be open, be human, share the knowledge and the wealth.

  31. Lisa,

    This is a question I face regularly. I work in some of the poorest parts of Chicago with kids who often lack even the most basic things like clean clothes, food and materials for school. Part of my job is working to bridge the “digital divide” by showing these kids how to access library materials, use computers and tech in general. They’ve seen my iPhone and the dozens of little flash drives and cameras I’ve used on the job over the years. Sharing that tech with them fires their curiousity. They want to take pictures of their own, they want to create with the technology.

    Give a classroom full of 8th graders, most of whom live far below the poverty line, a dime-store digital camera (the kind you’d see in a check-out lane for $10 bucks around the holidays) and they’ll go mad with it. Every kid who isn’t suddenly a posing model becomes Annie Liebowitz.

    It’s not a reminder of their poverty, it’s an evocation of hope. These tools exist, they’re not mythical or magical. There’s nothing to fear about them, and if you can and when you can get your hands on them you should take full advantage.

    Poverty is isolating enough already. The notion that those of us fortunate enough to have means should keep our toys to ourselves lest we upset them is ridiculous. More sharing, please.

    1. I find Mgfarelly’s comment rather quite illuminating. You don’t have to go as far as Northern India to find poverty and exclusion from first world technology… it’s right there on your doorstep in Chicago.

  32. By his or her very presence your traveling companion has the ability to inspire such a horrifying longing in those same kids.
    From the other side of the world.
    Who flew in a plane.
    Who have nice, cool clothes.
    All things the kids won’t do or have. Most likely they’ll do just what most of the people around them do, till the end of their lives. Just like your traveling companion, whose mission in life seems to be spreading guilt & unease.

    1. Lisa, should you ever find yourself in a similar situation with your travel mate, have him/her read Haroun’s reply, then stand back as he/she disappears in a puff of logic.

  33. “… give them hopes for a better future.”

    Although their lives are probably not very good (sweatshops), material goods are not the path to happiness. Life is cruel, whether you have an ipod or not, and they would probably learn that lesson eventually anyway (if they haven’t already). You have no way of knowing how your ipod influenced their lives, for better or worse. It could have caused them to learn more about technology and eventually study at a university, or it could have caused them to become thieves in order to fulfill their desire for the happiness they think a gadget will bring, or it could have had no impact at all.

  34. Man, when I was younger I wanted to be an astronaut. So my mom bought me a model space shuttle that I could play with. That was so cruel.

    No. No it wasn’t cruel. Sure, most of them probably won’t grow up to be computer programmers, but they clearly knew what computers were before you got there. Worst thing you did was inspire a few kids.

  35. I had the opportunity to live in Bali in the 90’s. I befriended a family from a small village in the interior. They shared with me many things about their culture from the proper way to worship at their shrines, to how to make sausages, to the funeral party for their grandmother.

    In return, I taught their eldest daughter how to use email, to this day we chat regularly on skype.

    Staritng with the skills I had shared with her, she ended up managing a big hotel in Bali and now is a sucessful businesswoman in New Zealand.

    If she had not had the inspiration, she might have stayed back in her rural little villiage eking out a sustainable living from the land.

    Because of her own curiousity and my inspiration, she became the woman she is today.

    You were TOTALLY correct in sharing your ipod. You did not seduce “these poor kids with luxuries they will probably never be able to afford” – you gave them inspiration about things they can achieve.

  36. some years ago one of nasa contractors was toying with rocket hovering
    I sent for the news release and promptly sent them to my young cousins
    in africa along with a balsa aircraft I had made

    they really enjoyed that I was later told..

    but to let third world children see first hand our culture is up to
    the owners of gadgets to council this not govenments


  37. Did you use the iPod to show them videos of a puppy being tortured? If you didn’t then it wasn’t cruel.

  38. It is horribly materialistic to worry about the deep longing these kids will have for our consumer trinkets. That’s the kind of thing that ruins people for life? Really?

  39. Hang on, if these kids have been experiencing “unsullied, technology-free lives”, where on Earth did they get the idea that they wanted to be computer scientists?

    Yeah, patronising, nobility-in-poverty claptrap. There’s nothing noble about being technology-free, especially in a world that’s going to see a population of 9 billion before the century’s out, and that won’t be able to support that population without technology.

    Makes me want to go all Kirk on your friend’s Prime Directive ass.

  40. On the contrary, you may have inspired them. I agree, your friend is racist to say we should not show people things that they MAY not ever be able to have.

  41. Speaking of Star Trek: what if the Federation showed up at your workplace tomorrow and let you play with some of their toys? You know, make a couple treats on the replicator, measure some stuff with the tricorder, and zap a few rocks with the phaser. Then they disappeared. Would you think they were being cruel?

  42. Baloney! Sully their technology free lives? Pl-ease!

    What hooey! Most all of us live in the 21st century for better of for worse, even those kids. To say, that the people who you demonstrate your technology to will somehow be diminished…well it is technological bigotry.

    It’s like saying : “I should never read Shakespeare to a person who is incapable of reading because it will cause them pain. They may realize that they can’t read it on their own….ever” “Best not to give hope to the hopeless” It’s condescending Bull hockey!

    You may be giving them a reason to break out of their situation and advance themselves. They did after all say that they wanted to be computer programmers or technicians. So there is at least some kind of conceptual awareness there. Your friends are intellectual snobs and bigots of the highest order.

    One of the things that cheap plentiful tech does do, aside from the massive environmental damage, is to make access more egalitarian.

  43. I think in this instance you are going to create 3 different scenarios. 1) The kid who aspires to grow up andhave that technology so they work hard, or use their creativity and are able to obtain it. 2) The kid who covets the technology and lives a life of crime to try to obtain it. 3)The kid who is indifferent and trys to live their as best they can without it. If you can live with that then there is no reason to feel guilty.

  44. What I find bizarre is that the white person’s face has been blacked out but not the children’s. How colonial.

  45. In a few years, the first world will be dumping outdated laptops on them, that are no longer powerful enough to run the expected level of eye candy even though they will be more powerful than the computers that were once used to send humans to the moon, and these kids will have access to the means to make their dreams a reality. (And that’s not even counting the OLPC project, or the cheap 8-bit computers recently reported on BoingBoing.)

    @l.blissett #13
    That makes the priveledged assumption that living in a first world nation is to be in a state of higher karma. It could easily be the reverse.

  46. I think we need to set aside our high-and-mighty ideas about the evils of materialism in certain cases. I’m usually the first person to complain about capitalism, but in this case I think things are different. Certainly some plump, credit-card wielding American doesn’t need 4 LCD tvs in his/her house, but sharing the wonders of technology with those who are genuinely interested is not a promotion of materialistic gluttony.

    You don’t know what these people really feel like, and I cannot speak to what those in India think. But, I have visited a former Communist nation (Romania) and I’ve done some research on its past. From what I’ve learned from talking to some Romanians, when you come from an economy that denies you everything, where you have to wait in line for sugar, or seek electronics from black marketeers, all of these new possibilities seem exciting.

  47. It was not cruel. The kids already told you they wanted to be electrical engineers or whatever, so they were already “sullied” by technology and the craving for it, to use your companion’s words.

  48. It’s no more cruel than the guy in the office next door who parks his Aston Martin next to my 10-year old banger.

    Was it cruel of my school teachers to take me on a trip to Buckingham Palace?

    Seriously, showing these kids cool toys is fine. They may never be able to afford an iPod, but perhaps one day many of them will.

    10 years ago, you wouldn’t think poor indian traders with a gerry-built cart would now be using mobile phones.

  49. Daft. I visit Cambodia frequently for an anti-trafficking NGO and my children’s extended family, so I end up spending a lot of time sitting in slums with kids, talking to adults. My iphone gets handed around – Koi Pond is the handsdown winner for children under five – and played with, and these are kids I see again and again over several years.

    Unless they live in maybe Bhutan with no TV access at all, they will see far more seductive materialistic crud on TV shows, and if they are streetkids in an urban environemtn, around them constantly.

    Getting a shiny box to play with for a while is just plain fun. It’s not going to change their lives, but it’s going to amuse them for twenty minutes as much as a cool picturebook or a tetris handheld.

    It’s the same with giving streetkids money – bad idea, much better to pay for a meal at a local coffeeshop for them, but in the long-run, neither is going to make much difference. Save your angst for deciding which NGO you’d like to support that has sustainable long-term work with the kids.

  50. So your companion had a problem with showing them a piece of high tech consumer electronics, but had nothing to say about them working in sweatshops assembling high tech consumer electronics for Western consumers?

  51. I got to meet an honest-to-gosh member of European royalty once, but I’ll never be a member of her court. Oh, woe is me! I’m like Cinderella if she’d never lost her shoe!

    This is ridiculous. Someone’s projecting their guilt onto you.

    P.S. I’ll probably never meet the Dalai Lama myself–how dare you not share the opportunity with the entire BB readership!

  52. It was what is called in education a “teachable moment.” The kids want to know more, and you had the means to show them a part of a much wider world. I teach school in a lower socioeconomic urban area in the U.S. You never know what you do, what tiny thing that you think is insignificant or fleeting, will inspire these young’uns. Yes, you did the right thing. If I personally kept to your friend’s theory of “don’t show children things they may never possess or do,” my colleagues and I wouldn’t work so hard to introduce our students to new concepts and ideas, because honestly, when you look at the statistics and how things are stacked against these kiddos, it is disheartening. Does that mean that we don’t go on the field trips, that we don’t arrange for guest speakers to come and talk with the kids, that we don’t create special programs? Hell no! We persevere because you just never know what will inspire a child to go the extra distance and create that success for him or her self, or decide to push for change for their own children in the future.

  53. I am a descendant – 3 generations removed – from the villagers of Jalandhar, Punjab. My great-grandparents were illiterate farmers who left for greener pastures elsewhere in India 100 years ago. Their kids learned to read and became professionals. Their kids, in turn (my parents), left for greener pastures overseas, but still speak the dialect of Jalandhar. Me and my generation, living in the west, became techno geeks.

    Hopefully it won’t take as long for the children of these villagers.

    1. I am a descendant – 3 generations removed – from the villagers of Jalandhar, Punjab. My great-grandparents were illiterate farmers who left for greener pastures elsewhere in India 100 years ago. Their kids learned to read and became professionals. Their kids, in turn (my parents), left for greener pastures overseas, but still speak the dialect of Jalandhar. Me and my generation, living in the west, became techno geeks.

      My great-grandparents were illiterate fisher-folk. That didn’t stop my grandfather from becoming a bank manager or my mother from being a research scientist.

  54. Rather than cruelty, the question to be raised is the potential influence on their civilization & behavior such a discovery might have.
    Basically you are taking one of the good things about our civilisation (technology) and creating a link in their mind that technology = our civ. Knowing that wanting this technology adequates in submitting to our economic rules, and the international context we created around our vision of economy (economy is a descriptive science, the application we have now is only one of the forms of value exchange that can be, but we are / have been submitted into / fervent believers that our system is better. (of which we have meanwhile no proof, and we are at a point where even considering alternate systems labels you as a commie).

    Now basically, leaving aside the slight technological frustration for the kids, you can ask yourself the real question about the people in their country being happier in our system or in their system.

    Before answering you might want to look at alcohol / antidepressant consumptions, suicide rates, reported levels of well being, availability to sustain oneself etc…

  55. Did you tie them to their chairs and tape their eyelids open and force them to look at your iPod? Yes? Then you were cruel and should feel terrible.

  56. Look at it this way: Is it cruel for someone to take me for a ride in a $600,000 Maybach? No. I would find it interesting and entertaining, and more so if I were very interested in cars.

  57. Was the act of showing advanced technology to impoverished kids cruel? I would say “no”. Instead, I would describe this act as “motivation.” It is what gets me up in the morning.

  58. I don’t think it was cruel at all. When I was a kid, I stared in wonder at all the cool gadgets I couldn’t afford, and said to myself “Some day, I’ll have something like that.” To assume these kids will never have anything like that is IMO a much more elitist way of thinking than to actually show them some of the amazing gadgets that we all take for granted here.

  59. Nope, not cruel. You may have inspired some of them by showing them existing computer tech. Your friend is dramatic. It’s not like you tortured them with it.

  60. I think the deal is that the Earth can’t support 7 billion (or 10 billion in 50 years? 20 billion in 100 years?) human beings all enjoying mobile computing devices that they throw away and replace every year.

    I think we’ll soon realise that we need westerners to adopt less tech-obsessed values – or at least values that view technology as really serious, polluting and expensive stuff that requires very, very careful reflection before we buy it. In fact we’ll need everyone to cut down on the amount of stuff they own – not for ideological reasons, just because more people sharing fewer resources means a smaller or a yet more unequal share for everyone.

    …And we’ll need to travel less. So in a way your very presence in the presence of the Dalai Lama is representative of the current inequalities and imbalances in human society and the biosphere. Like it or not, and certainly not because westerners are in any way better than Asians, a billion Indians and 1.2 billion Chinese aren’t all going to be able to own computing devices and drive cars forever. Our choices are all about what, if anything they CAN own, what we westerners will be able to own, and what proportion of us will die along the way.

  61. Tell your friend that while he’s at it, don’t take any of those poor little savages to modern clinics and introduce them to vaccinations or medical technology, because they might, you know, feel bad that they don’t get sick and die, like their friends who minded their station in life and didn’t tag along.

    Christ. When you upgrade that iphone, look also into getting a better class of “friend”.

  62. Was it cruel for my parents to let me, as a 7 year old boy, watch Star Wars, even as they knew very well that most of the wonderful things in there are not even real?

    Showing a child something magical (even if outside their reality, such as a light saber or an iPod) can be a very positive thing, if it inspires the child to seek it.

    Star Wars inspired a lot of children. Hopefully, this iPod will do the same.

  63. Kids (even relatively protected, Western kids) can handle way worst frustration than having a new “toy” taken away. On the other hand, you showed them a cool thing they will remember for a long time. Hell, one of these kids might be the next Stallman or Mitnick – sometimes it only takes one look to become hooked forever.

    There was a feature here some time ago about that guy who gave a computer to Indian (I think) kids who had never seen one. He then filmed them trying to manipulate it without having any prior knowledge about how it worked. The kids actually discovered the Internet and went to look at YouTube videos. That was one of the coolest pieces I’ve seen here.

  64. Some of the people who post things on here are so absurd, and rude. Calling this person names and assuming they are racist from a tiny snippet of information is careless and wrong.

    I know what its like to travel and live in an underdeveloped country, and to feel ashamed at all I have when so many around me have so little. I don’t understand why nobody considers that perhaps this person simply thought that a little modesty in a foreign land would be decent.

    I don’t agree with the travel buddy, but I can at least understand the root of his concern.

  65. Yes, do not sully the precious minds of these honorable Noble Savages. They are not yet ready for the shining edifice that is civilization. Oh wait, this isn’t 1746.

  66. Something tells me you were not the spoiled kid on the playground saying “look what I got suckers!” That would be cruel. These kids expressed an interest in technology and you had some in your pockets. You interacted with other human beings. Cool. Being cagey about the reality of ones life is dishonest. You should tell your friend to set him/herself free. Isn’t it a bit grandiose to think that a single interaction with someone will change them forever? People change themselves and make the decisions that shape their lives. It seems like a weird head trip to think showing someone an ipod will be a life changing event, even if the person is in a very different situation.

  67. So, these kids dream of becoming computer scientists, and your travel mate thinks they will never accomplish this. Why, exactly, wouldn’t they?

  68. Cruel, not the least bit. Life is a journey consisting of learning and the end result, experience. The fact that the children wanted to be “Computer Scientist” lead me to believe that somewhere and at some point, they’ve already learned of electronics. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. At least they can say they’ve played with an iPod and a nice digital camera. One doesn’t miss what one has never owned….Keep showing those iPods to whomever, never know, one of those kids may become an Apple developer because of that experience. The person who made these claims was just jealous because you had an iPod and they had a Sandisk Sansa! :)

  69. When my wife and I went to Mexico for our honeymoon, one of the things that we ended up doing on the way to see the ruins at Coba was visiting a Mayan village.

    That actually felt..colonial, I guess. It felt like we were really intruding on those people and like they were some kind of exhibit for us. So my wife and I spent our time there with the kids instead of the tour group, and the kids were happy to pull us hither and yon to show us anything they thought was interesting – but the best part was giving our cameras to the kids and letting them take pictures. They were really into it, and I’m pretty sure that they know more about a Nikon D50 than I do. They certainly took some memorable pictures, and good ones too.

    I don’t feel like it was “cruel” to let the kids use our cameras for an hour. They were obviously familiar with how they worked and had a great time with them, and for our part it was one of the best memories of the trip.

  70. I’m curious if your travel mate was American. The idea that anyone has the potential to choose their destiny is very American, but in India the caste system is still very prevalent. Culture be damned! Those kids have a dream, give them all the encouragement and support you can!

  71. I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who thinks that your friend’s attitude was incredibly patronizing.

    India already has 30% penetration of cellphones, and that is growing very, very rapidly – almost 50% a year. With mobiles comes not only voice, but SMS, email, and access to the net.

    I’d bet dollars for donuts that within 10 years most of those kids will have access to iPhone level devices; not because they have stopped being poor necessarily, as much as that that level of access is normal, and baseline, even all but the poorest.


    1. India already has 30% penetration of cellphones…not because they have stopped being poor necessarily, as much as that that level of access is normal, and baseline, even all but the poorest.

      I’ve seen the same odd phenomenon in some very poor areas of the U.S. such as Appalachia, rural Northern New York, and some Native American/First Nations territories. In areas where many families live in aging trailers without indoor plumbing or running water, living units are often seen equipped with satellite dishes and large-screen TV’s. It’s often easier (and cheaper) to improve your living standard with new high-tech toys than it is to purchase a new home, or drill a water well.

  72. I dont think it was cruel to show off your electronic gadgets to the poor children on the train. It may b=not have been the smartest thing to do as one of these children could have made off with one of your electronic devices.

  73. A lot of people have had, currently have, and will have many things I’ll never have and I live in a developed country. I get by just fine thanks. I feel bad for the guy who was concerned about this. You’ll never ruin a kid by exposing him to new concepts.

  74. Sigh…
    Let me preface this by saying I am what is presently referred to as Native American (formerly Indian)and I heard much of this discussion from white folks when I was a kid. What should we be exposed to lest we ruin their youth with hopes that will never be fulfilled. It’s a completely Western question that never enters the minds of other cultures. Why you may wonder? Because it’s assuming you know more than I. Most of the time that is an incorrect assumption. And it is incorrect in this case. The person stating that is repackaging colonialism in a warm cuddly way. Westerners know better and therefore should determine our destiny. Well, you don’t.

    Off the subject completely, Avatar was nothing but Dances with Wolves in Space. But EVEN BETTER because the white guy actually got to become an Indian, not just live like one. I’m open to discussion on this one. Have a lovely day.

    Gila River Indian Community

  75. You’re both wrong. You think these kids will never be exposed to technology just because they’re poor? It’s India, for crying out loud. Other poor kids in India disassemble electronics for their components and their precious metals.

    You think these kids have never watched any television? Never seen any billboards or magazine advertisements for Ipods?

    Have you ‘inspired’ them by letting them play with yours? I doubt it. If they enjoyed it and had a good time playing with your stuff, then there’s nothing wrong with that. But don’t lend it more weight than that.

    There are a lot of other more important things to have moral qualms about.

  76. For me a question like that tells me a couple of things about the questioner –
    1. An extreme self-centeredness. I’ve noticed this usually of people who are abroad for the first time – they see everything from their own perspective. A perspective which is not necessarily only individualistic, but also cultural and social.

    It’s only when you’ve been abroad for a certain length of time, and if you’re not too conditioned in your thinking, that you really learn to step outside of yourself and your culture which is ingrained and see things without the baggage of judgement.

    2. It also shows that the person asking the question didn’t see the flip side of things. Countries, cultures, societies, families can’t be judged on the basis of simple yardsticks. In fact, I think the yardsticks themselves lose a sense of measure when you actually see, rather than just look. Look is what our eyes do, see is what our brains and hearts do.

    I’m from India and I’ve lived abroad, including the US, for over a decade. There are many things which are better there, technology being just one of them. There are many things that are better here, a strong sense of community in the neighbourhood, is just one of them. I’ve seen better technology here sometimes, and I’ve seen better communities there once in a while.

    One of the things that really help in seeing rather than just looking, is learning the language. Like someone said long ago – “Learn a new language, get a new soul”.

  77. I am never going to be able to afford a Tesla Roadster, yet Boing Boing keeps publishing items about them. How cruel!

    Seriously, capitalism ensures that we all see stuff we can never afford every day. That’s just life.

  78. Absolutely not! I’ve never heard anything so preposterous. It’s called sharing. It’s something I learned how to do when I was but a wee lad on my rocking horse. You show people things because they are curious. You can really light up a young mind simply by showing it something unfamiliar and exciting. If the kids look happy, they are happy. Period.

    The cruelty was in bringing your insipid friend to India and inflicting him upon the happy children. Leave him at home next time.

  79. I believe your friend may be a dick. He is assuming they can never get anywhere which is downright depressing and not his place to judge.

    If aliens visited us and let us play with their faster-than-light spaceship only for a few minutes, wouldn’t that be better than just telling us about it?

  80. I have seen pictures of the space station and shuttle, I will never be on either, but I can still dream of living in space and working there.

    Showing someone young that there is something out there to achieve is a good thing. They may never achieve that goal but it is a goal to strive for, I think a lot of kids that grow up in north America and Europe have all the gadgets and never have to worry about the basics of staying alive. Our kids don’t have a goal that they need to strive for, we are a life of privilege and leisure, and it is destroying our culture. We take on small insignificant causes and fight for them as if life depended on it. Take Peta and the anti fur, no one is going to die of starvation if someone buys a fur coat or not.

  81. We’re all poor relative to someone else in one way or another. Therefore, the person asking this question could be furnished with an answer by simply reflecting on what it is like to be exposed to the accouterments of privilege out of her reach. I think this happens to most of us on a daily basis without too much ill effect.

    More interesting to me though, are the underlying assumptions expressed by the question itself which, to my mind, expose certain biases.

    1. That the trinkets of technology that we go gaga over automatically have an equal appeal to other people.

    2 That the benefits of “technology” are instantly recognizable and understood to people who have never been exposed to it so much

    3. That the Ipod will not significantly fall in price over time

    4. That the poor of India have no means by which to better themselves financially and will always remain too poor to afford the toys that are common place in the West.

    The purpose of this question seems to be about sensitivity to the feelings of the perceived have-nots of this world, but what it really does is couch the guilt the arises from being in the other camp. Far from being altruistic, this little question is really about expiating that guilt.

  82. Considering how many cellphones there are in Africa I don’t think it will be that long until they get some of their very own.

    That said, crime was heavily correlated with the introduction of television into new communities – not because of violent tv shows, but because people suddenly realized all the things they didn’t have. Relative deprivation. Everybody knows this from their childhood, you don’t feel bad about not having an X-Box unless everyone else in your class has one.

    Impact of the introduction of television on crime in the United States: Empirical findings and theoretical implications. By Karen M., Hennigan; Marlyn L., Del Rosario; Linda, Heath; Thomas D., Cook; J. D., Wharton; Bobby J., Calder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 42(3), Mar 1982, 461-477.

    It’s good to question these things, though.

  83. OMG, you just violated the Prime Directive! You, Kirk and Archer are all going to hell in a hand basket. (Just kidding.)

    Seriously, you didn’t show the kids porn or give them meth, you showed them technology. You gave them a chance to learn about something they were interested in hands on. Your friend should be ashamed. Even if only one of those children ever grows up and “makes it” or becomes a computer scientist, assuming that none of them should be given the opportunity to see a computer or iPod or cell phone because it might be cruel dooms everyone to expecting failure.

    It’s almost 2010. We sent people to the moon, we ride in horseless machines and fly in the sky. Just because the children are poor doesn’t mean they won’t understand. Give them a chance to dream and you might be surprised.

  84. First of all, I think it is important to remember that IT is very important in India. While it has mostly affected the lives of the middle class, it is undeniable that it has indirectly affected the rest. You do not need to belong to a particular caste, have fabulous communication skills, know perfect English or possess connections to do well in IT. I think IT has the potential to be the tool that children of “impoverished” families can use to improve the economic situation. Showing iphones to kids is not cruel because
    1.I’m sure they’ve seen iphones before at least on TV and seeing one in real life would have only delighted them
    2. While seeing a shiny might have causes a little bit of desire, it would certainly be fleeting as there are more important things in life when you’re living in a town known for its sweatshops. I also speak from personal experience with respect to certain Tokyoflash watches that BB has waggled near my face.

    Secondly, some things, I think, are more accessible in India through hook or crook than the US. Ipods, other music players, DVDs and even computers can be found at much cheaper rates in the grey/black markets which aren’t policed much by the authorities. The idea that the same rules of access exist all over the world is very presentist.

    Thirdly, the ipod is not the apex of civilization. I know it feels that way in the US and perhaps other countries of the North. But seriously, a music player/cell phone/crappy camera which looks awesome? Not that revolutionary in the grand scheme of things. You friend might be overestimating the effect the ipod has on other people’s lives.

  85. Really? This is a question?

    If someone came and showed me something wicked cool that I couldn’t have -right now- but I knew that it was possible for me to have in the future, to work towards it — that would inspire the hell out of me.

    If I time traveled back to 1980 for an hour and showed myself my iPhone, I would have been a little sad that I couldn’t keep it (What, I was 8 years old.) but I’d be incredibly optimistic about the future and do everything I could to bring it about as soon as possible.

    Oh, and don’t go traveling with those people again. There’s self righteous and then there’s being a prat and then there are these guys.

  86. They’re kids. An iPod is a toy. Kids and toys: what could possibly be more natural?

    True, you didn’t ask for advice on this topic, but I’m going to take the plunge anyway: Get a new traveling companion.

  87. I think the kids would’ve been upset had you NOT shown them your iPod. I think of this situation of going as follows:

    Kids: “We want to be computer scientists!”
    You: “Hey, let’s show them our iPods.”
    Racist Friend: “No, it will only make them jealous of our vastly superior society.”
    Kids: “F-you, Racist Friend! Show us the goddamn iPods!”

    On a side note, I hope you showed them Surprised Kitten.

  88. It is important for children to experience beyond their current situation. That fosters growth. That is why pretending and playtime is so important, it gives students a chance to imagine being something they currently aren’t and they learn about what that would mean. Making people aware of the reality of the world around them is not a bad thing, it is how it is done and the intentions it is done with that are important. See Lev Vygotsky or Barbara Rogoff.

  89. It’s interesting that because we in the developed world fetishize gadgets, we assume that poor rural kids living a largely traditional lifestyle feel similarly.

    I mean, if you showed these kids a super expensive fashion handbag, would that be cruel and tempting? No, because it has no value to them. They lack the cultural context to fully understand what someone might value about it.

    Similarly, while I’m sure that electronic gizmos are fascinating on a certain level to any kids (they have lights, buttons to poke, they can do interesting tricks), a lot of the reasons that we fetishize them are culturally local. A cell phone is nifty, but even if that rural kid had one, who would she call? How would the advanced scheduling features and always-on email access solve problems in her life? I would guess electronics like an ipod or cell phone would be seen as interesting novelties, but probably nothing more.

  90. I was quite dismayed when I last went to India to find that EVERY rickshaw driver had a better cell phone than mine – not just slightly better, but multiple generations better -and their cell phone charges were about 95% cheaper than ours.

  91. I am from india, from a different region and culture than what you mentioned but all the same I grew up poor with my single parent unable to even really afford a good school. Now am typing this on an iPhone, probably because when I was in teens someone donated a computer to my govt school. All of us were so intrigued by it though there was not even a teacher who could tell us exactly what it could do. The fascination led me to pick up a book on computers, then later computer programming and by the time I really had my hands on a dos based computer a few years later I was already well versed in writing complex qbasic apps in pen and paper! That’s what I do now for a living – make iPhone apps among other things. Not just I made money but let me have a feeling I gave back something to technology and made many people hhappy just the way I was when I saw the first computer.

  92. Zadaz #111, Precisely, my friend. Whether one lives in the projects of East-side Chicago or the sweatshops of Calcutta, the mantra, O,Ha! is an essential element in dealing with life’s slings and arrows.
    H-Hope: Coleridge wrote. “Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,And Hope without an object,cannot live”
    A- Ambition: Another D.W.P., Browning observed. ” A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for” Provide opportunity and those children will triumph.
    Incidentally Lisa’s companions were a lawyer, politician, publicist and translator. Want to speculate who was most likely to make such an observation? Another provocative post Lisa,well done!

  93. That’s like saying it would be cruel to show a “poor” child in the 80’s a laserdisc player and worrying that they’ll never be able to have one as an adult.

    Whatever their circumstance, when these kids grow up something infinitely cooler will be available to obsess over. Now if you had whiffed a subway sandwich under the nose of a street begger, that’d be pretty cool.

  94. Funnily enough, this attitude reminds me of the ‘Prime Directive,’ incumbent with all its paternalistic (to borrow a previous commenter’s term) panache, and clearly, these kids aren’t living in some sort of vacuum. I think humans are more resilient and inventive than credited. (See William Kamkwamba.)

  95. A very interesting question. Also interesting that so many respondents who have labeled the companion as a racist, also assumed the companion was a male. Re-read the post, sexists. But seriously, I may not agree with that person, but I would not assume they were racist from the thin gruel of this story.

  96. So who’s right? Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future? Does it not matter?

    You were right to show them the possibilities that life has to offer. Also, I take serious issue with your traveling companion who complained. I’ve worked with several Indian entrepreneurs and innovation happens at all levels in India. The idea that they MUST innovate to survive is something that’s lost on we who are so fortunate to have technology. Many of my business partners and friends are non-resident Indians who grew up as children without proper shoes and went on to careers in technology (making boat loads more than I do at that!).

    Tell your travel pal to stuff it!

  97. I wish my neighbor were as cruel as you, and let me test drive his Tesla Roadster, but alas he is a virtuous man who refuses to subject me to that torture

  98. I don’t see how that’s cruel at all. I mean, I can see why the man might feel a little guilty; he’s traveling the world, and lives in such wealth that iPods and smartphones are little more than modern equivalents of a pocketknife or a bauble.

    But if those kids really and truly wanted to see some high-tech gear, and they really want to work with such equipment in the future, then I think what you did was a wonderful gesture. You took that opportunity to share with those kids for awhile, and I should think they’ll remember your visit with positive emotion.

    If you speak to the man who worried about seeming cruel, you should tell him not to feel that way. He may never see those kids again, but they will remember him fondly for letting them see the gear he had. Even if their lives don’t go the way they want, they’ll still remember him as a good person, and be thankful that someone with access to such gear would be so willing to share it with them.

  99. A good book to read that deals along the same lines as this story – Maragret Laurence’s, “The Prophet Camel’s Bell.”

  100. It seems rather arrogant to assume that children are somehow ignorant of their own state of poverty. Or that they can’t assess your comparative wealth to theirs just by looking at you. Sharing some fun is a basically good act. Not sharing just seems kind of, well, like you’re trying to trick them. “No we don’t have any fun phones or technology. Just all these other nice things.”

  101. First off, THEY tell YOU they want to be computer scientists? How on earth can showing them your IPOD and other technology do harm? It was a good thing! And don’t allow anyone to tell you otherwise.

    I would have done the same. How are these kids supposed to keep their dream alive if they are not stimulated and challenged? They have to be exposed to such gadgets!

    How are they supposed to start learning “hands on” if they never ever see something that is there dear goal? Don’t feel guilty about that.

    Whoever told you it was cruel is a nut. Or they were feeling guilty about their own problems. Don’t listen to them.

  102. It’s hard to know what the _best_ way to help less fortunate people would be. I think not showing kids things like digital cameras or iPods doesn’t improve their lives, and showing them doesn’t increase their ‘misery.’

    When it comes to helping, the only rational model I know of is the American Friends Service Commitee. They’ve been active world-wide for a very long time, and take their work very seriously, and they _don’t_ parachute in and impose their viewpoint on the unfortunate natives.

    They 1) Look for reliable, willing local people who want to improve their {town,area,country}. 2) They LISTEN to what those people say what they think is needed. and 3) They seek to facilitate self-sustaining indigenous solutions — they’ll be there with expertise, money and materials to help out, but ultimately they want to help create something that will persist when they leave.

    In the context of your encounter with those kids, you listened to them and responded in the way that felt most natural at the moment. And things like cell phones and digital music players aren’t necessarily out of reach for poor Indians. Cellphones at this pt. are endemic in India — one person might not own one, but there’s a whole cottage industry of people who own one and sell calls on it for a nominal fee. And the entry level for digital music players is below $10 by now.

    A better question is one a poor child in India might have to rich Americans, like “I might want a cellphone of my own, but do I need one?” and “that little music player is cool, but I can listen to the radio, or sing with my mates. I’d rather buy good food!”

    My son just returned from a college term in Chennai and Kottayam. There was no Wifi and most places they lived had no television. Going to an Internet Cafe was out of the way and hard to fit into his schedule, so he did it a couple of days a week. When he came back, he’d formed a new habit of reading books for pleasure, something he didn’t normally do before.

    My best friend in high school was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania in the 70s. He told me in a letter once that he’d always thought of third world countries as underdeveloped, but after living there a while, he saw the US and Europe as being overdeveloped.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that one should not assume things about people whose lives are very different than your own, or think one knows what they need. They’re not fragile — they’ve survived their circumstances, and may even thrive — and exposing them to things they don’t have won’t hurt them.

  103. The wise but much-maligned Reverend Wright said, “You can’t become what you haven’t seen.”

    A smart phone isn’t a useless piece of mindless materialism. It’s an extraordinary tool for organization, communication and personal empowerment. Everyone should see a smart phone in action, if only to expand their consciousness of what is possible.

  104. This is like the people who claim that we cannot interact with primitive cultures in the Amazon or Africa because we might “corrupt them” and they prefer their ways. It reminds me of how colonizing nations would use their colonies for entertainment and that if they became more like us, they would not be as interesting. Someone mentioned the word paternalistic and that is exactly what it is, combined with narcissism that other cultures are there to be gawked at rather than understood.

  105. cruel? as cruel as sitting in front of a black and white TV, and watching some bipedal creature makes some noise about it being “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

    Do you have ANY idea how many kids wanted to be astronauts after that? 99% never would be, but they could see the stars, and they could

    People are inspired to do things and aspire to do others, but that is because there is a SPIRE to climb. What we should be telling people is not how they can’t do it at all, but how it may be their children, or children’s children.
    Much of our country was built on that, it is not wrong to think that way. Or was your travelling companion believing that the caste system was the best way, and nothing should be done?

  106. I wonder if space aliens have these kinds of debates: “Should we reveal ourselves to humans? Or is it too cruel to show them something they’ll never be able to afford?”

    1. I wonder if space aliens have these kinds of debates: “Should we reveal ourselves to humans? Or is it too cruel to show them something they’ll never be able to afford?”

      Everyone can afford an anal probe.

  107. I’m surprised that everyone assumes the Ipod will forever be too expensive for the third world.
    My first calculator, in 1972, was $250. A couple of years ago, I found a calculator being sold as a premium with a pack of bubble gum, beside the cash register at Walmart.
    Or consider the ubiquitous cell phone. They are cheap enough, in the third world, to use as IED detonators.

  108. Surely the cruelty is only that it would be ecologically impossible for everyone to have our lifestyles, inconvenient truth tho it may be.

    The planet already is already over-stretched

  109. Are the children of India ramen or varelse? Outrageous partiarcal condesension of your beneficent noble friend to question the ability of the poor heathens.

    As a general rule, it is a complete waste of time to dream of the possible.

    Give the kids something to dream about.

  110. Yeah thumbs down on your travelling mate from me too. That is such a high-and-mighty opinion to have. You gave those kids a potentially life-changing memory.

    What is cruel is giving the children something they want and know about (such as candy) without express approval from their parents, as you may be messing with their nutrition & behaviour, or giving them something their parents can not regularly provide, thereby creating social tension (between child and parent) where there was none originally.

    I believe this is where your travelling partner is getting confused. Seems that they mean well, but are a bit misdirected with their actions.

  111. WTF?

    Let me see now. Last evening I was chatting with a young feller in Calcutta. There was a language barrier, me being an Arkansas redneck and he being an Indian from India, but we persevered to an understanding.

    See, he was helping me with a wireless connectivity problem, and since I have to deal with a slow satellite connection we had an hour and a half to kill.

    We talked about the upcoming holidays, the sorry state of consumer electronic reliability, the ‘good old days’ of things being built to last versus planned self-destruction, and how the cost of living varied from rural areas to city living.

    An interesting conversation on both sides.

  112. As for your questions, Lisa, I agree with the many people here saying that there’s nothing cruel about letting these kids play with some cool technology.

    I’ll try not to be too hard on your travel mate, since I have no idea what kind of person he/she is, but that reaction seems a bit over-the-top to me, as if the technology is some kind of drug, that, once tasted by these poor innocent kids, will haunt their memories, forever unattainable.

    Anyway, your intentions were kind, and I’m sure the kids took it that way. Hell, after they said they wanted to be computer scientists, how could you *not* show them that stuff? That would have seemed more cruel to me. :-)

  113. Knowledge is better than ignorance. It is always good to spread knowledge and always cruel to keep people ignorant. I know a guy who grew up in a Mennonite family in America who would plow his family’s farm with oxen. He said that he would look up from the field and see airplanes flying over, which made him want to fly them. His parents demanded he stop his education when he got to eighth grade but he knew he had to graduate from high school to realize his dream. He ran away from home and stayed with a teacher until he graduated and got a spot at the Air Force Academy.

    Just the sight of a jet flying free in the sky was enough for him to enter a wider world. Just the sight of that iPod may be enough to motivate those kids to do whatever it takes to achieve their dreams and pull their whole family up with them.

  114. Tell your friend to hug his own inner child-without-electricity, and to tell him that when he grows up he’ll have an iPhone and fly in a big airplane, and maybe be a good person too if he works at it and isn’t so pessimistic.

  115. IS this all that different than you meeting a master chef and he cooks you a special meal that he rarely makes because of expense and/or difficulty? You’re not likely to ever have that again but it was nice to have a taste

  116. Treat people like people for goodness sakes!
    Having been poor myself I could smell patronizing behavior from a mile away, and I always hated people who were like that. It was supremely disrespectful, and I always tried to find a way to make fun of people like that behind their backs. It was petty, but it was all I had.
    I’m pretty well-off now but people with your friend’s attitude still really tick me off. They’re pond scum, putting themselves so far above us “little people” they have to decide for us which of their technologies might burn holes in our benighted brains.
    I absolutely loathe people like that.

    But not you. You did the right thing. Treat people like people and you won’t go wrong.

  117. When Star Trek the original series started, we didn’t have automatic doors, cellphones, phazors and the like. Now we do. Why? The creators of Star Trek sparked our imaginations and people figured out how to realize the dreams offered. The same will be with those Indian kids who have no electricity. They have dreams of becoming computer scientists. I look forward to the day when their creations are shared with the rest of the world. Ignore your fellow traveler. He’s paternalistic and condescending.

    1. Such luxuries were unaffordable to most Americans a few generations ago.

      You mean back when William Randolph Hearst and the Vanderbilt family were the only ones who could afford to download music from iTunes?

  118. Orson Scott Card talks about this in Speaker for the Dead.

    As for me, you can show me *anything* just so long as my face isn’t being rubbed in it. Be nice and share, just like we should have learned in kindergarten.

    As for the Slumdog Millionaire kids: for all we know, having seen the heights and depths of life, maybe one of them will become a Buddha someday.

    1. I thought of the piggies in Speaker for the Dead, too, when I started reading this. =D Card certain made some deep points about xenophobia (and anti-xenophobia that becomes a different kind of xenophobia). I can almost agree with the “avoid destruction of culture” argument except that borders on elitism.

      But then it turned out that the travel mate was concerned about “luxuries [those people] will probably never be able to afford”. That’s definitely elitist. (I substituted a common elitist phrase between the square brackets for emphasis.)

  119. In India, it is not uncommon to see young children working as servants in the homes of middle class families.

    Often these young servants have to tend to children close to their age: masters who eat better, sleep better and have toys, along with the time to play with them.

    It is heart wrenching to see the servant children longing for the toys they are forbidden to touch while they clean floors and prepare meals.

    In my experience, it didn’t feel cruel at all to introduce these children to digital cameras or my hand held video game machine. They enjoyed them.

  120. I’d say you did nothing wrong, even if they can’t afford the technology themselves, they’re still growing up in an increasingly technological world and kids everywhere like to play with the latest tech toys.

    Besides, it would surprise most people in the West to discover just how tech savvy kids in the developing world actually are. When I was teaching English in Vietnam, I had to help grade oral presentations given by students in the class that was made up predominantly of kids from extremely poor areas of rural Vietnam, and in their presentations about education, their complaint about the high schools they went to wasn’t that they didn’t have any computers, but that they had too few and they weren’t fast enough. I had 17 and 18 year old kids who were there on scholarships because their village people’s committee had nominated them to be the one person from their village who would get a government scholarship to afford college, and yet they couldn’t imagine living in a world without smart phones. Their textbook had a picture of a PDA in it and I had to explain why anyone would ever have used one because “you use your phone for that.” Not only did it make me feel extremely old, it reminded me that you really can’t make assumptions about people and technology based on where they grew up.

  121. Well, Lisa (and other readers), Jalandhar is a city in India where a girl child does not enjoy the same rights as her brothers. Most of these kids are likely to have modern amenities and some luxuries like a mp3 player etc. but most likely not allowed to use or even touch their brother or father’s electronic goodies. i mentioned this b’coz:
    1. In the pic, I see all girls rather than just impoverished kids.
    2. I have lived very close to Jaladhar for a period of 2 yrs hence I’m aware of how a girl child is often treated at home in that part of India.

    Lisa, you might have inspired some to go beyond what they thought they were capable of of, some may be inspired to steal, some will give up hope and resign to their fate. How does one determine the reaction to ur action?

  122. Lisa, I don’t think you have done somehting bad. Actually the opposite. Kids got better/more open minds than adults and for them it was just a chance to experience something new. I had the same feeling few years ago while let some kids in Northern Africa desert play with my Wonderswan. They were just happy to try something new and were also happy to go back to their analog toys but as in your case, one of my travel mates told me that I was bad exposing kids to these techno toys they couldn’t afford…

    I think experience is really important for kids and maybe you have inspired one to be more curious about tecnology and learn/study more…

  123. The children will react as the individuals they all are, rather than all behaving identically because we class them as all the same – poor kids from northern India.

    I was born and grew up in the UK, but when I occasionally visit relatives in Sri Lanka, I wouldn’t think twice about showing them what we have with us. Often we ended up leaving things there – we could replace a walkman or whathaveyou relatively easily when we got back to the UK, but they wouldn’t be able to buy one at all. Things have changed now – lifestyles are changing, building projects are all over and large malls are commonplace (though is bringing the attendant consumer culture with it, including advertising for Smirnoff Vodka and the like).

    People have some awareness of what goes on elsewhere – to be shown some of it for real does have some downside, but overall I can’t see that you’ve done something terrible. Hopefully you’ve given them some inspiration and knowledge…

  124. Why not just ask the Dalai Llama? His holiness seems like the highest moral authority around, and knows a thing or two about introducing new technology to people.

  125. You did the right thing showing them your iPod, life is about experiencing as much as possible. This situation is like a friend driving over a new Ferrari. Sure, I’d like to have one but it’s cool to actually see one, not to mention take a ride.

  126. As a teacher I believe that children all over should learn what the possiblities are “out there”. To turn it around, I was teaching in a low socio-economic area when a friend took a trip to India and Thailand. She sent e-mails with attached Flickr groups. I read the e-mails while showing the photos to the kids in my classes. Was it cruel to show them the pictures because they would “never be able to afford anything like that” trip? I was showing them the possibilities. Stay in school, get good grades, go to college and you will get a job where you can make money to do these things. Even now, in the farthest reaches, including northern India, children have these possibilities available to them. Feeling guilty? Want to make it easier for them? Then give to organizations like Unicef and Camfed. Or join the Peace Corps.

  127. the way you phrase the question is biased.
    “sullied their pure, technology-free lives “? really? that’s how this person talks? straw man arguement

  128. Well, it depends on what they listened to on your iPod. If it was the Jonas Brothers, then, yes, you’re going to hell.

    I was in India years ago–pre-iPod, but I had a portable CD player. The thought of socioeconomic cruelty never crossed my mind. To the contrary, I think I boosted my karma immensely by introducing Bob Marley to some poor kids on a Rajasthan pepper farm.

  129. A) What wangmo said

    B) I’m sure they’ve seen the equivalent form afar. Jalandahar’s a pretty big, dense city with a ring road and incipient suburban sprawl. If they want to be compsci when they grow up, then they’re pretty urban and already jonesing for exposure to tech.

  130. Should I not let my child look at a Ferrari Enzo because he’ll likely never be able to own one? I’ll have to go tear down a poster off his bedroom wall. I think the answer to the original question is painfully obvious, no it is NEVER cruel to inspire a childs imagination.

    The article said those kids all wanted to be computer scientists, they are obviously already enchanted by technology and want to get their hands on it already.

  131. “it’s in the Punjab region and is home to a lot of sweatshops” This is where you probably got it wrong? I am an Indian and I know Punjab, the way you have characterized it completely off track, it is the cereal bowl of India and one of the more prosperous of the states, and I seriously don’t understand what is meant by the word sweatshops in this article.

    Regarding the exposure you have provided to your IPod and cameras, I beg to disagree that these kids wont have had any previous exposure, but on the lighter side that exposure would mostly have been of the Chinese variety.
    But considering that they probably wont know the difference between a second or two of lag and the poorly designed interfaces on those devices I think you have just hurt apple more.

  132. You’re friend has a holier than thou attitude. The kids were interested in being computer scientists, so they clearly understand the concept of computers.

    Showing this surely would have inspired them.

  133. @ #7: “but the fact is that these things do exist, are a part of the day to day of millions of peoples lives and are worth knowning about for that reason alone.”

    By this reasoning, all Americans should be well aware of farm implements used in rural China, no?

    1. “By this reasoning, all Americans should be well aware of farm implements used in rural China, no?”

      They should and they do: until about the 15th Century, Europeans used a flat till to plow soil in an extremely inefficient manner, resulting in low yields and high effort to grow crops. Conversely in China they had long ago invented the “V” shaped till that was so vastly superior that it boggles the mind that Europeans hadn’t figured it out sooner. Anyway, through travel and communication, this invention finally made its way to Europe and eventually helped create the backbone that formed modern-day America.

  134. I am from a rural part of south India, and my place has plenty of poor kids. Many of these kids grow up without education (most are child labor!). The kids you are describing don’t have electricity, but they have education. In a way, I think you guys helped them a lot. IMO, what you guys did will only raise their curiosity and motivate them to learn more, and work hard. I remember my school years when we were visited by an American Astronaut (can’t remember who it was); that had a huge impact on where I am today.

  135. When I entered kindergarten, I dreamed of dragons and monsters. When I found out they never existed, I was horribly disappointed. But one day, a substitute teacher showed up with pictures of dinosaurs and exposed us to a world of creatures that were even BETTER than dragons in that: a) they came in way more shapes and sizes and (even better) b) they ACTUALLY EXISTED. Thus a life-long love of all things dinosaurs was started (with a serious interest in becoming a paleontologist).

    Now, barring their relationship to birds, I’ll never see a real dinosaur, so according to the author’s potentially well-meaning friend, it was cruel to expose me to dinosaurs.

    F*ck him.

  136. It wasn’t a problem at all! Remember that altough now they could be expensive, in a couple years they are going to become cheap and, believe me, that day they will use them in more creative ways than other kids do.

    I tell you this ’cause I live in Colombia and I’ve seen it. ;-)

  137. Why is that even a (serious) question? Because they’re all gonna be sad they don’t have an Ipod? I see things everyday I wish I had and don’t; doesn’t mean that the guy who showed them to me was some kinda monster. It just means that, if I’m really into getting whatever it is, I can someday work toward that, nevermind the chance to see something up close that I wouldn’t ordinarily have the chance to. And all that is assuming that Western hyper-commercialism and obsession with ‘stuff’ is the highest calling of a human being, as well as the slight cultural superiority in assuming that everybody else in the world wants some of the crap only you have. Neither is true, which kind of makes this a moot point.

  138. i’m more curious as to why the author chose to edit out her own face but left in the faces of these children

  139. See, just a few minutes ago, I was chatting about this article on IM with my friend in India and we were discussing how ridiculous the question even was considering that give it a generation or two, his country is going to basically be owning America.

  140. I’ve encountered a similar situation working in El Salvador and Peru, and my answer was no, it’s not cruel. Of course, I also rationalized that out into setting up a mini theater up with my netbook. They loved it, and found it amazing since all they had seen was a clunky P3 desktop at the government school. Truly a unique experience watching Princess Bride in Spanish on a 10.1″ netbook, with an audience of 25 indigenous Peruvians in a stilted house…

  141. Your friend’s observation seems to flow from the quintessential ignorant, presumptive American worldview that the rest of the world is far ‘behind’. For your information, Jalandhar is one of the top cities in the state of Punjab, one of the richest and most progressive states of India. The city is the homeland of a number of successful immigrants across the world, notable among who is Lord Swraj Paul of UK, and has a fairly high per capita income and standard of living. It’s citizens are fairly aware, virtually all ‘global’ brands are available in Jalandhar, and a number of youngsters drive around in BMWs, Audis and Mercedes’. I can’t venture any figure on the number of iPods in the city, but I am willing to bet that it’s likely to be a high figure.

    Couple all this with the fact that Indians are way ahead on the technology learning curve than most other nationalities. Isn’t Silicon Valley full of people who’re essentially of Indian origin.

    Yet, you Americans persist with this view that others are ‘far behind’ and act as the arbiters of what ‘you’d’ like to show or not show ‘impoverished’ children elsewhere in the world?

    Grow up to a new world!

  142. Funny, it seems that 192 comments speak about the moral side and only one (KeithIrwin) points out the obvious: the statement that they’ll never be able to afford such gadgets is very likely just false. Already the teledensity in India’s cities is 100% [1], it won’t take 40 years for the countryside to follow (and who’s saying that some of the kids are not going to just move to some city? Again recent development trends make this very likely [2]). So, my guess: they will all own mobile phones in less than 10 years, many of these phones will be better than what you showed them :)


  143. It isn’t America: all these children have a slim – but genuine – opportunity to demonstrate talent and an opportunity for damn’ hard work, and gain a scholarship to one of the IIT schools.

    The Indian Institutes of Technology are merit-based – no pledges or alumni entry! – and I’ve worked with the computing graduates, in Carolina, New York, and in London – including the one that [REDACTED] British bank hired for a quarter million dollarsstraight out of college. These men and women are very, very bright indeed, and their sister students at the IIS are transforming the world of pharmacology and medicine.

    You’re hearing this from a man who struggled out of a ‘sink’ school in a part of England the tourists don’t visit, and won a place at Oxford. An opportunity that the continuing decline of our education system has now closed completely to the poor.

    Of course, you won’t hear this in the US media. And the chance that a randomly-chosen child who handled your iPod will get to IIT is very, very slim. But, on merit alone, they may still get into one of the mediocre second-tier colleges, and get a workaday job as a programmer and a comfortable middle-class life in Bangalore.

    Which is, lets face it, a better opportunity than that awaiting lower-caste children in the crime-ridden slums of North America. How many of them will ever learn to read and write? Face it: you’d never have got your iPod back from them, and you’d probably be dead, if you’d shown your alien white face and flashed such an obvious sign of affluence in the Third-World parts of Chicago, LA, or DC or the rural slums of the Deep South.

  144. Just remember that India has more than 400 million cellphone connections. The number, as per, Cellphone operators association, will go up to 1 billion, yes, 1 billion, by 2013.

    Similar set of kids, who were playing with my Sony P900i, having most of iPod features a couple of years back, now do have a mobile of their own.

    So they will rather thank you and will be proud owners of latest gizmos in the years to come.

  145. don’t think its cruel- but I do think aspiring to be a computer scientist might be like some kids aspire to be princess, cowboy or astronaut- they have no idea what it really means or entails- just that it means pretty, people love you, or adventurous and exciting.

  146. Would it be cruel for a Goldman Sachs banker to let me drive his Bugatti Veyron even though I can’t afford one for myself?

    I’m of Indian descent and have traveled there extensively (though I was born and raised in Canada). I don’t think what you did was wrong–if anything it may have served to inspire them.

  147. I’d be interested to know if the travelling companion with this opinion was also Indian (rather than a Gringo as everyone else is suggesting). It’s an unfortunate fact of Hindu culture that everyone is believed to have a pre-ordained place in life and someone with that opinion may be more likely to think that it’s cruel to suggest to people of low station that they could be anything else.

    This may be changing in the cities and in technology centers, but it’s a harsh fact of life in rural India.

  148. This is an interesting question and the responses have been perhaps even more so. I think the subject of un-affordable luxuries in areas experiencing high poverty is much more complex than we make it in these discussions, and probably varies a lot between contexts and people…and we can’t really know how and if these kids are experiencing consumer lust anyway. I agree that your friends response was a bit paternalistic and naive, I think that much has been established (although you can’t blame them for attempting to think ethically). I just wanted to add that there is a big difference between someone sharing something that is theirs on a personal level, between people and friends, and a company pushing their products onto people who can’t afford such luxuries. The former may be anything from meaningless to inspiring for those involved, while the latter can potentially have quite a few consequences, both for individuals and populations. For example, this paper ( sorry, couldn’t find a free version) discusses how in Jamaica, working omen’s drive to buy luxuries at the level of shampoo had led many women into prostitution for a minute amount of spending money, which one could imagine might directly contribute to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in some contexts. Anyway, its just a little more complicated than the notion that poor people are inspired by advanced technology, but I agree that what you did was not a bad thing. In South America, I let kids play with my camera and laptop all the time, and I don’t think harm came of it. They are individuals with their own agency, even if they have little money and other social/economic constraints.

  149. i one had a close enconter of the third kind. she showed me her gammay ray doodads. ihave been haunted with emptiness ever sense.

    i drink a lot to fill the spaces.

  150. if I had a friend with a lambroghini, I’d be happy to go for a drive in it though I’ll never own my own. or a friend with a yacht. Or a private jet.

  151. I dont think you did bad and I dont doubt about your good hearth and intentions but kind of bothers me that you said “Did we ruin these kids for life or give them hopes for a better future?”Do You think that we in North America have a better future because we have Ipods and used them to avoid conversations with people even our own family members? Better future when our kids are extremely obese because rather to play videogames that going out and play with friends? Or me in the office having lunch in front of the computer instead of going to the lunch room and interact with other humans in a verbal manner? Hmm I wonder..
    I love the “gringo knows better” thing is so funny.

  152. Don’t worry about it, you’re not contaminating their amazingly pure lives or something horrible like that. Maybe it inspired them, who knows? If aliens landed out of nowhere and let you play with their artificial intelligence for a few minutes, it wouldn’t make you sad for the rest of your life, right? I mean, unless you were Ray Kurzweil.

  153. I’d say it depends on what you had on your ipod. My quick assumption from your picture (young 20-something blonde) is that you probably had some Dave Matthews Band, Coldplay, and various American Idol singers. So, the answer is yes, Cruel As Charged.

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