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Bridging the divide

Techies across the Triangle are finding ways to connect people around the world



Bridging the divide | Goodwill in Raleigh | Teens teaching teens | One Laptop per Child | e-NC Authority | Connecting nonprofits

Waiting until 2007 to launch a special issue on technology means most Internet startups and breakthroughs in gadgetry are old news. What's happening now has more to do with the tools people are creating—and the collaborative way they're creating those tools—that allow people to be more creative and make unprecedented connections with one another.

The open source software movement started the ball rolling the late 1990s by allowing anyone to view, fix or change software code and use it, share it or market it themselves (in truth the movement got started in the '80s; it took on the "open source" name in 1998). The point is to make it better—more people with ideas and itches to scratch means more brainpower working on the problem. That's how the Linux operating system—and its largest commercial distributor, Raleigh-based Red Hat—have been able to stand up to Microsoft.

In the past few years, the open source ideal has spread to all facets of culture. Social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Friendster became successful thanks to the pages their individual users created and the connections those users made. Wikipedia showed that an encyclopedia written, compiled and edited by the public can be a tremendously valuable and popular resource. (It's also provided a valuable reminder not to believe everything you read.) Journalism, too, has been affected by the open source ideal, thanks to bloggers who report and fact-check where the mainstream media sometimes fails.

In all of these cases, the value of the technology is based on how much it allows ordinary people to do and create—and how much of a building block it creates to allow more people to join in.

Most of the subjects of these profiles are not working at the cutting edge of the technology industry. But they are creating its future by tackling the issue of the digital divide, the gap between those who can access and benefit from technology and those who can't. That gap exists for people who have no computer at home or no ability to use one. It can mean no Internet access. In any case, the divide gets wider as technology advances—unless technological innovation is aimed at bringing those people into the fold.

There is a kind of Promethian idealism behind many of these projects. But consider these efforts not only as philanthropic but as examples of enlightened self-interest: The more people have access to technology, the better society can become. We need all the brainpower we can get.


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