Rodrigo Baggio, 29, has devoted a good part of his life to showing that the former can often be the case. "Hardware is neither good nor bad. It's what you do with it," he says.
He looks the obvious graduate student in some Ivy League university. But behind the laid-back image is a young man from Rio de Janeiro with a determination, tinged with a certain tropical Brazilian mysticism, to make IT serve the cause of human rights and social equality and come to the aid of the poorest.
He was in London recently visiting the Ashoka Trust, one of his benefactors, after clinching partnership deals with Unesco, which wants to reproduce his techniques in all its member countries, and picking up $2.1m (pounds 1.3m) in cash and software for his projects from Bill Gates's father.
Baggio was a computer enthusiast from his early teens, wiring up his school and community organisations. But then, he says, he had a dream about putting IT at the service of the favelados, Rio's slum-dwellers.
He started in earnest in 1995 with a simple plan and now has 12,000 slum children learning IT in self-sustaining schools throughout Brazil. He has even carried his message to some of the indigenous peoples, and his idea is beginning to catch on internationally. His instrument is his CDI (Comite para Democratizacao da Informtica) and the scores of Schools for Citizenship and Computer Science that it has spawned throughout Brazil. Each school is autonomous and not much cash is involved; Baggio works as far as he can with volunteers and donated hardware.
His project got off to a bad start with a campaign that collected donated computers. Within a year he had two rooms full of broken computers. So he went about teaching maintenance. This led to the idea of setting up computer schools in the favelas, giving the opportunity for the hardware to seduce the street children and young people who might have drifted off into crime and drugs.
With help from churches, the CDI promoted the spread of the individual schools. When a school is launched in a slum, several hundred people decide who will be responsible for running it and who will go for the three months of training. Then the pupils are chosen and each is charged a monthly fee of about pounds 6. A typical school has five computers, each used by two people, working in shifts. Half the fees go to the instructors and half on running costs.
The curriculum must always include human rights, health, citizenship and culture besides spread-sheets and word-processing. The favelados are thus offered a way of rapid self-improvement in a society in which computer skills are in increasing demand.
The latest recruits to the CDI's schools include a Guarani community, an outpost of a pre-Columbian culture. In the village of Sapukai, 118 Guarani children have access to computers powered for a few hours a day by a diesel generator. Baggio says the hardware is less a medium of communication and more a medium for preserving their culture.
"Computer graphics are very useful for them," he says, "since much of their culture is preserved through drawing rather than writing."
Committee for Computer Science Democratisation: