(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
Families and students are just like public schools, churches, non-government organizations and charities of any kind: they all are on a shoestring budget but, sooner or later, cannot avoid using computers.
When this happens, sometimes one or more private company steps in, maybe through government programs, and offers computers or software packages. Money-wise, these all look like very good deals, maybe the only way some students or a charity could afford a computer. In some schools, the same offers may also be the only way to work on the projects the teachers assign to their students. Can parents and volunteers figure out if these really are good deals, without any hidden traps? Sure. As with everything else in this Guide to Family Freedom, no technical expertise is necessary: all you need is good old fashioned common sense and, of course, a list of the right questions to ask.
Are the pupils or members of the organizations prepared to use computers? Do they need them?
Don’t let the board or anybody else spend your money unless they have demonstrated that there is something strictly connected to the organization’s mission that will actually be done with the computers; or, in a school, that the teachers are prepared to teach their usage and that the computers are configured to avoid distractions.
Do these offers create dependence?
Yes, dependence, the same as with Drugs, or Alcohol, or Smoking. The dependence you find yourself in when you realize something has become dangerous, or at least useless and ineffective for you, but for some reason you are forced to keep using it. In case you were wondering, no, this is not (necessarily) an attack on computer games. We refer to the already mentioned fact that software has some dangerous characteristics that, like radioactivity from nuclear power plants, can create problems even after you have stopped using a particular program.
Do these offers force other people to waste money?
High School and University students can, in many countries, purchase some popular software programs at heavily discounted prices, for personal usage on their own computer. Offers like these look particularly tempting especially when a family already owns a computer. Before opening your wallet, however, please check if your computer is, or can become with little extra money, powerful enough to run that program. Don’t trust advertising, ask relatives and friends who have the same or similar computers. Otherwise one may end up buying and might be forced to buy a whole new computer. Any software that forces you to buy a new computer has a cost pretty bigger than zero. Note that this is true even if you had done something so stupid and unnecessary as illegally copying, rather than purchasing, that software.
Another thing to remember is that yes, we may be in the Third Millennium, but in almost all jobs and fields of study, all a computer really needs to be is an integrated typewriter, calculator, email program and reader of Internet pages. Today, even some cell phones have enough computing power to do this stuff. Don’t believe that you can’t live without software so powerful that it only runs on the last generation of personal computers. Especially because there already are alternatives which are more than adequate for most small and home office users.