Smile Politely

Free Rice

I knew had hit the mainstream when my daughter came home all excited about it. She’s in middle school, and the paradox of middle school is that nobody does anything unless everybody does it. Since everybody is apparently doing Free Rice, I thought it would be good to try it out.

It’s pretty simple. You are presented with a word, and if you correctly guess the definition of that word from a list of choices, a hungry person somewhere in the world gets 20 grains of rice. If you get it wrong, the hungry person apparently gets nothing. You can play as long as you like.

I was immediately uncomfortable with this, and not just because my vocabulary is not so very much good. I had visions of someone telling a poor child somewhere, “Sorry kid, some guy in Champaign, IL, USA didn’t know that trebuchet means catapult, so I guess you’ll have to go hungry. Hopefully, he’ll get smarter soon, or not too bored, and then you’ll be able to stave off starvation for a little while.”

I also wondered how the economics worked here — in what way does my learning English translate into food for poor people? But, I guess this has long been a problem for anyone who does not directly engage in agriculture. How does smelting iron from ore generate food for the smelter? How does grading a test allow a teacher to eat? How does blogging translate into anything of value that can be traded for goods and services? Oh wait, I guess the answer to the last one is that it doesn’t.

In this case, it turns out that is a non-profit that sells advertising. It attracts people to the site (and their advertisers) by providing a vocabulary game. Pretty ingenious. They have indeed figured out a way to generate money for poor people by getting others to learn English. It does make me wonder, though: who gets the rice when someone gets the wrong definition of a word? Are the officers of this non-profit collecting truckfuls of rice each day and skimming off the “wrong-answer” rice? I think an investigation might be in order.

What I love about this site is that it provides a real connection between my actions and other people’s food provisions. That’s one of the problems in the modern world — there aren’t enough visible connections between our choices as consumers and their effects on others in the world. That cheap sugar and coffee look attractive at the store, but behind it are slave-like working conditions that we don’t see. We like to drive our SUVs down the block to pick up kids from school, but the gas for them will sometimes require invading other countries to ensure control of the oil supply.

What we need is the evil twin of this site. Hook up a poor person to a website, and if they get vocabulary words right, the price of our goods goes up to provide them living wages. The only problem is, I can’t think of a way to make money from such a site.

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