For those who aren’t familiar with the OLPC project, “One Laptop Per Child” was a project originated by computer scientist Nicholas Negroponte. Among Negroponte’s many credits are that he’s an MIT graduate, became an accomplished MIT professor and was one of the founders of Wired Magazine. But Negroponte’s crowning achievement may still be forthcoming. He presented this OLPC project as an attempt to provide a lower cost alternative to countries without the means to provide laptops to children for learning. Further details can be found in various new articles, including the Wikipedia article here.
Regardless of what you think about Negroponte and the OLPC committee’s intentions, I think this is one of the most creative and positive efforts to come out of the tech community, which is typically branded as being rather selfish. The laptop would contain several low cost or free parts including a Linux based operating system and an AMD processor. ( A complete spec list is available in the Wikipedia article.) The engineers of the project worked pretty diligently to take the idea from a sketch to a physical and working reality. It took a significant amount of “number crunching” to get the right combination of a system that was capable and still met the $100 cost constraint. When you think about it, it’s quite a technical achievement, regardless of the social implications.
According to a Gizmodo article, Nigeria signed up to participate in the program and ordered one million laptops. However, it was reported that India rejected offers to buy into the project. Sighting the fact that the project is ‘not mature enough to be taken seriously’, Indian officials indicated that the more urgent need was for classrooms.
This story troubles me. First off, let me say that I’m not of Indian decent and have never been to India. There may very well be a great need for classroom space. However, my mind goes to the fact that they’ve benefited tremendously from having well-skilled and well-trained technical minds. People often wrap themselves in the American flag when discussions arise about India and outsourcing. However, I think it’s important to establish that they aren’t asking businesses to come to India. American businesses see the opportunity to hire lower-cost employees who are incredibly bright. Having seen an expansion in the amount of jobs available in certain cities, wouldn’t it be wise for the Indian government to give other cities a head start as well?
There’s a lot that we don’t know about this story. I know for a fact that U.S. companies spoke negatively about the project sighting that “this isn’t what underdeveloped countries need.” (Meanwhile, they don’t offer an alternative.) With the negative vibes coming from some U.S. companies, particularly those that were not involved in the project, could they have possibly gone to the government and asked them to take this stance? Could it be that U.S. companies view efforts like OLPC as “taking away from their potential international market share?” I’m almost CERTAIN that politics are the reason why we aren’t hearing about a $100 PC distributed among some of the poorer areas in this country. I know for a fact that there are areas in the south and in the Midwest where children are looking at twenty-year old Apple II and Macintosh Classic machines. How do we expect them to compete? Maybe that’s the plan?
Whatever the reason, this is a downer for me. I love the idea of a child having access to a $100 machine. Who knows what their young minds that, unlike ours, haven’t really been brainwashed into understanding the limits of what you can do with a machine, might end up making? Sure, some would line up and feature the laptop as the star of the hammer throw contest. But there might be a young Steve Jobs or Gary Kildall or perhaps even a Stephen Hawking hiding among those yellowing Mac classics somewhere in the Rio Grande Valley school system. Or maybe a child who can direct their writing talent into a blog? Or perhaps an artist that can use a mouse like DaVinci used a paintbrush? Or perhaps something as innocent as learning to type and actually moving into a “white collar job”?
What’s most depressing about the story is that Nigeria might not even get their laptops. The project requires that at least 5 million laptops be produced to allow companies to cover their costs. If all of the underdeveloped nations can’t come together and buy laptops for 5 million children, then either there’s something I’m missing about the OLPC project that makes it unattractive to foreign countries or perhaps the problem of selfishness among the rich isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to our country after all.