Strong opinions, weakly held

The $100 laptop

I’ve been following the ongoing debate over the One Laptop Per Child project with interest. I’ve generally been in the camp that says that if we want to help the world’s poorest people, our resources should go toward providing reliable sources of clean water, addressing preventable disease, and addressing conflict and famine. The technology divide is important, but aid dollars are scarce, so we should maximize our bang for the buck.

The thing is, though, that this project is not targetted at the world’s poorest people. If you read the FAQ, you see that the countries initially being targetted are Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, and China. Most of the critiques of this project point out the absurdity of devoting resources to giving laptops to people in places like Niger as opposed to addressing more pressing needs, but that’s not what the One Laptop Per Child Project is about, at least right now.

On the other hand, there are plenty of considerations that need to be taken into account, even with the project as proposed. The Fonly Institute has issued a critique that’s worth reading (and they’re not just rock throwers either).

To me, the biggest issue with the project is the proposed scope. While the idea of producing and distributing millions of laptops to every child in a particular country is grand and ambitious, I don’t think it makes the most sense, at least at first. It is undoubtable that there are going to be a number of flaws in the system that will have to be addressed, including corruption, technical issues, and cultural issues (most of which are discussed in the Fonly post). So why build and distribute millions of laptops before discovering and addressing those issues. Why not start producing the laptops and selling them at cost (even if the lower volume drives up the price) and seeing who’s interested and what they use them for? Why not distribute them to some kids in America to see how they can be used as an instructional tool?

I think that in countries where computer literacy can open a much wider variety of career options to you, providing more children with the option of becoming computer literate is a great idea. As I’ve said before, had I not had access to a computer when I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t have nearly as interesting a life as I do today. I just think that the project is more likely to succeed if they take a phased approach.

1 Comment

  1. Because even though this is a technical idea, it is not a technical project. It’s a social project. It’s big, bold, ambitious and undoubtedly will run into all the problems that people say/think it will. That is no reason not to move forward. In social project you are not going to be able “discover and address issues” like you would in a technical project.

    I guess I like that they are trying to get something done. If they make their project flexible and adaptable they will be able to address the issues that they haven’t already planned for.

    I mean, think back in our own history at some of the large social projects we launched. If we had not gone forward until all the kinks were hammered out we would, to this day, still be with programs like Social Security.

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