Those who know me well know of my intense love for raspberry pie. I once finished a full-sized raspberry pie in 2-3 days. I can’t remember the exact details, probably because I was too busy levitating from all the sugar. But, there is another kind of raspberry product that’s even better than pie: Raspberry Pi.
What on earth is a Raspberry Pi?
“The Raspberry Pi is a low cost, credit-card sized computer that plugs into a computer monitor or TV, and uses a standard keyboard and mouse. It is a capable little device that enables people of all ages to explore computing, and to learn how to program in languages like Scratch and Python. It’s capable of doing everything you’d expect a desktop computer to do, from browsing the internet and playing high-definition video, to making spreadsheets, word-processing, and playing games.
What’s more, the Raspberry Pi has the ability to interact with the outside world, and has been used in a wide array of digital maker projects, from music machines and parent detectors to weather stations and tweeting birdhouses with infra-red cameras. We want to see the Raspberry Pi being used by kids all over the world to learn to program and understand how computers work.” -Raspberry Pi Website
Here is a video from the Raspberry Pi foundation on the topic, if you need further illumination. Yes, that’s right—the saints creating this device are a not-for-profit organization. The Raspberry Pi Foundation is an education charity with the mission “to advance the education of adults and children, particularly in the field of computers, computer science and related subjects”.
Just how low cost is the Raspberry Pi? As of February 2nd, 2015, the Raspberry Pi 2 is on sale for $35. $35!! That is insane. Even though you still need to find a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, one can find cheap versions of these. I’d say it’s totally reasonable to think a person could acquire the complete Raspberry Pi setup for under $100 dollars. This isn’t a second-rate computer, either. For computer programmers and advanced engineers, sure, it’s not going to be ideal. But for the many, many individuals who do not have a computer or internet access, the Raspberry Pi could be revolutionary. It can run Microsoft 10 (the operating system), and though it doesn’t include a wi-fi chip in order to keep costs low, one can plug in a USB wi-fi device to gain access.
Raspberry Pi and Internet Inequality
It might seem hard to envision how this device is revolutionary, but did you know that 75 million Americans don’t have internet access? That’s about ¼ of the country living without the single most fundamental tool for personal advancement and education in this day and age. We talk about an inequality problem today, but just imagine how heightened the disparities in skills, education, and wealth will be between children who grew up with internet and those who have never had it.
The Raspberry Pi can’t solve the issue of high internet costs making it inaccessible for many, but it but it does reduce the number of auxiliary items needed to support internet usage. The cost of having a computer is a large deterrent and roadblock for some who wish to have internet, but would have nothing to access it on. The cheapest laptops or desktop towers available today are over $120 and $80, respectively. These are probably not quality machines designed to foster learning and performance, like the Raspberry Pi.
Obviously, a low-cost computer is only the start to solving this huge problem, as internet prices are still absurdly high. Internet should be classified as public utility, and the cost and quality of connection should reflect that. The US doesn’t do an excellent job of maintaining infrastructure, but it would be hard to do worse than Comcast, Time Warner, etc. Those with low incomes should receive subsidized internet rates. Internet in 2015 is as essential of a public good as education.
Internet Aside, Low-Income Children are Disadvantaged in Education
Children from households that don’t have internet access are already disadvantaged—they are most likely very low-income, and face a number of educational roadblocks. A huge amount of a child’s future success is determined by how much their parents talk directly to them from infancy onward. Low income households frequently feature parents who are non-native English speakers, have lower educational attainments, and do not have the luxury of working in a white-collar job. As children, they may have not been spoken to as much, leading to lower attainment for them, and a cycle that can perpetuate for generations without outside intervention. How serious is the gap? The Economist provides a great video and article on the topic, excerpted below:
“At 18 months, toddlers from better-off backgrounds can identify the correct object in 750 milliseconds—200 milliseconds faster than those from poorer families. This, says Dr Fernald, is a huge difference.
The problem seems to be cumulative. By the time children are two, there is a six-month disparity in the language-processing skills and vocabulary of the two groups.” - Economist
This gap ultimately compounds in lower IQs, earnings, and “success” as determined by wealth or job position. So, as you can see, the implications of being born into a low-income family upon projected future success are not positive. It’s not that parents don’t want their children to do well, sometimes people simply don’t know better. Thankfully, interventions can help.
“One such is a Language Environment Analysis (LENA) device. It is like a pedometer, but keeps track of words, not steps, by analysing the speech children hear. It was originally developed as a prop for research, but parents kept asking for the data it recorded and researchers thus realised it could also serve as a spur. Parents use it to monitor, and improve, their patterns of speech, much as a pedometer-wearing couch potato might try to reach 10,000 steps a day, say.
A recent study by Dana Suskind shows how promising this approach is. Dr Suskind is a paediatric surgeon in Chicago. She got interested in the field while monitoring children whom she had fitted with artificial cochleas, to treat deafness.
Her new study shows that the use of a LENA device, combined with a one-off home visit to give parents advice, produces a 32% increase in the number of words a child hears per hour after six weeks.”
If a low-income, no-internet (LINI) child is fortunate enough to maintain pace with their affluent peers, they still do not have access to technology needed to succeed in many industries today. A great deal of homework is assigned online, and LINI children may have no place to do it. If they have a question about a historic event or current news, there is no way to find the answer—at least right then.
Computer Programming Has Made Life Better for Many
Looking around the ranks of successful tech figures today, many had access in some way to a computer at a young age. This was during a time when computers were nowhere near as commonplace as they are today! Computer programming skills are considered vital in many industries, and in most others provide a significant skill premium and/or salary increase. Few job roles are made worse off by the addition of computer programming.
There’s a caveat to the improvement that programming has brought about, however. The people who are worse off due to programming are marginalized low-income workers that never had the chance to learn to code. A grocery store cashier who did not have access to a quality education may have their job replaced by an automatic checkout machine—a machine designed and coded by someone who did, presumably, have internet access and the ability to learn to program. On a minimum wage income, few can afford to live, let alone have a smartphone or internet access. Thus, a new generation of LINI children comes about.
$35 Pi for All!
All of this is a long-handed way of pointing out that the availability of a $35 computer can (and hopefully will) change life for the better for LINI households. If even 1% of the 75 million Americans without internet access had a Raspberry Pi that they used to do work, learn to program, and browse the web, that would be 7.5 million adults and youth gaining technical skills that will give them a brighter future. The elderly will probably not benefit from services like the Raspberry Pi, as it isn’t the simplest device for an internet-newbie to use. Children, on the other hand, have the wonderful ability to quickly pick up new skills and navigate new technical environments.
If more devices like the Raspberry Pi come about and knowledge of them grows, we can help close the widening gap of educational inequality leading to fiscal inequality. I’m not naïve enough to think that the Raspberry Pi is a magical device that will fix the internet access issue, but it’s a wonderful example of tech put to good use. More awareness of Raspberry Pi and availability to LINI families—who I 100% guarantee you have no way of knowing that this device exists or that the new version launched today—will make everyone better off.