Podnosh has a report on the recent Birmingham bloggers cafe/pubmeet, and Stuart Parker (of North Birmingham Social Enterprise) has comments on a discussion had there about the government’s new vote-buying handouts initiative to spend £300-million of taxpayers money on free laptops+broadband for 7-19 year-olds whose parents are on the dole

“It’s not about the access […] I chatted with Nick Booth last night about the situation and we drew similar conclusions about what should actually be happening with that money. It should be providing training, guidance, communication, advice etc delivered by the people with the right skills and attitude […] Our project is in the throws of equipping these mentors with the kind of knowledge and skills that will benefit those excluded from the digital community. Hopefully before too long, those who make the decisions will be aware of what’s actually going on and who knows, maybe do something about it.”

I agree that it’s “not about the access”, at least not generally. As I’ve said here before, a simple lack of basic literacy would seem to be the main barrier that’s holding many poorer people back from computers and the net. The UK’s Basic Skills Agency reports a frightening 24.4 percent functional illiteracy rate in the West Midlands. People need to be taught to read and write at an adequate level before they can tend to the inevitable needs of an 8-year-old’s laptop, or set up a broadband router, choose/install/configure a good firewall, figure out the browser menus and settings, and surf the (still predominantly text-based) web.

I’m also worried that the laptops+broadband are apparently to be completely free. At the very least they might be dependent on something such as a satisfactory end-of-year school/college report.

What’s perhaps more worrying is the government’s mishandling of the previous scheme — the Home Computing Initiative was ended abruptly in 2006. This led directly to the financial collapse and ruin of the best and most efficient independent mass-market computer builder in the UK, Evesham. Let’s hope similar unintended consequences don’t emerge from this new scheme. Although I note that the BBC reports ominously of the new scheme…

“Officials were not immediately able to say how the scheme would work.”