Hang-ups

25th April 2008 at 01:00

Villagers in the remotest parts of India know who Bill Gates is; would recognise him if he stopped by the well one day to beg a glass of water. " That's one of those "facts" which reporter Ian Jack admits can never be checked, although Farrukh Dhondy reckons he has (TES2, April 18).

But the Indian entrepreneur that he interviewed for Granta magazine is so sure it's true that he has included a likeness of the great man in his latest range of children's toys. It's all very strange. Other than for sports stars and despots, there have been only a handful of humans who could claim the distinction of being genuinely world famous: Charlie Chaplin, Yuri Gagarin, Princess Di - and now, Geri Spice. So how has the founder of Microsoft managed to elbow his way into such illustrious company?

It can't be because he is one of the century's great innovators. Let's be honest, the only good thing to be said about Windows 95 is that it is not Windows 3.1. It can't be because of his wealth. It's true that Bill has managed to stash away a respectable Pounds 11.56 billion - or so says The Sunday Times. That is, however, peanuts compared with the Sultan of Brunei's Pounds 30 billion. But, outside of Brunei, it's very doubtful that anyone would recognise the Sultan if he stopped to ask for a glass of water - although, it's even more doubtful that his minders would ever land him in the embarrassing position of having to do so. What makes Bill special is that he has A Dream.

His avowed intention is to put a computer on every desk and in every home. As well as the obvious reasons for wanting to do so (11.56 billion of them to date), Bill has a genuinely evangelical desire to bring the power of the PC to the finger tips of every man, woman and child on the planet. The hype about information and communication technology (ICT) is often hopelessly and hilariously over-the-top. Nonetheless, ICT - and especially the information superhighway - will offer unimaginable opportunities to everyone who has a computer.

Regardless of what continent they live on, or how far their village might be from the nearest main road. Bill Gates's dream translates as easily into rupees as it does into dollars. That's what impressed the villagers. It's not surprising, then, that one Indian businessman is reported, in the same issue of Granta, as saying: "We are taxiing on the runway. We will leave America behind. Nothing will stop us being the greatest economic power on Earth."

It's the sort of sky's-the-limit optimism that seems to go hand-in-hand with new technology - or at least in those countries that appreciate its potential. The UK does not seem to be in that number. Our schools, as usual, have to shoulder their share of the blame. Since 1979, the Government has invested Pounds 1 billion in ICT.

It hasn't done much good, according to Dennis Stevenson who conducted an inquiry (independent but on behalf of the Labour party) into the impact that computers are having on education. He says bluntly: "The state of ICT in our schools is primitive and not improving."

As many as 70 per cent of teachers never use computers in their lessons. In fairness to the teachers, they are no less out of touch than the rest of the adult population.

A year or so ago the magazine Parents amp; Computers carried out its own survey. The findings were every bit as dispiriting as Stevenson's. For instance, only 1.5 per cent of the sample knew what the Internet was - most thought it was the European rail system. Definitions of a modem varied from types of clothing to types of transport.

And who is Bill Gates? He might be a household name in India, but in the UK, the survey revealed, a surprising number of us think that he is a character from Oliver Twist.

arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk

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