I have had an ambivalent attitude to the One Laptop Per Child project ever since Nicholas Negroponte, stumped for an answer on the ultimate purpose of the computer, declared, â€œâ€¦ there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.â€
Now it turns out that the laptop wonâ€™t, after all, cost US$ 100. Before anyone leaps to the defence of Negroponte I will admit that the technology is nifty, innovative and exciting. I hope it gets incorporated into commercial devices. However, one has to ask oneself whether this is any less of a vanity project than Oprah Winfreyâ€™s US$ 14 million school in South Africa which only serves 152 kids?
Take a look at the requirements for the success of the project: a government must purchase 1 million of them in a single order, and an initial order of 3 million is required just to get the ball rolling. In other words a poor country (since a rich country certainly doesnâ€™t need them) has to find US $ 175 million to purchase a batch of computers. That alone, in South Africa, would pay for 65 new schools. And we do need them. As ME Surty, the deputy minister of education, declared, â€œIt is wonderful to talk of connecting up our schools to the Internet, but too many schools have no access to running water, let alone electricity.â€ Worse than that: too many children still get taught sitting under trees, rather than even having classrooms.
Technology has produced so many wonders that it is easy, and lazy, to get into the habit of thinking that poverty is caused by a lack of things. It isnâ€™t.
The premise for needing such a sophisticated device is thin. Many programmers got their start on the ZX Spectrum, a wonderful beginnerâ€™s computer. It uses a television, a tape recorder and a command line. Coding is straightforward. The open-source nature of the XO has blinded many with the belief that this is somehow easy for others, but the learning curve for Linux is severe. The XOâ€™s toy-box case hides a very sophisticated interior. And no-one is declaring that poverty in Africa is a result of a lack of MRI scanners at their hospitals; no matter how much this sophisticated product would improve their diagnostic capacity.
Talk of the digital divide ignores the stability divide. The US was a wealthy country long before the Internet. Wealth and stability produced the Internet, not the other way round. China has created 300 million jobs in a decade with a government completely opposed to the Internet. Little notebook computers are not going to change anything.
AMD with their 50×15 project has a more practical approach of putting computer labs into existing infrastructure, but it is still counterproductive. All of this tells African governments that they need not be responsible for the outcomes of their failed economic and political experiments; the rest of the world will feel sorry for them and stump up cash to allow them to proclaim that they are â€œdoing something for the peopleâ€.
What is needed in impoverished nations is exactly the same thing as got Europe and the US out of the mire: stability, accountability, and respect for private ownership of oneâ€™s capital (be that labour, land or products).
Since poor countries cannot afford Negroponteâ€™s Folly, foreign donors must stump up the cash. Given the poorly articulated purpose of OLPC, the incredible lack of infrastructure and basic services in the countries concerned, I can only hope that the donor community refuses.
As for the notebook? It is what it is. A luxury toy for the kids of the rich.