TCS Daily


Let Them Eat Laptops

By Daniel R. Ballon - November 7, 2007 12:00 AM

Mass production will soon begin on the XO, the "$100 laptop" that MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte believes will change the world. Behind the dream of empowering children through technology, however, lies a reality more complicated and far less idealistic.

Professor Negroponte believes his non-profit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) can help solve "whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty." Early reviews of OLPC's finished product extol its many innovative features. None of these reviews, however, mention what the XO fails to provide, such as a source of clean drinking water, abundant and nutritious food, or medicines for curable diseases.

Clearly, Negroponte does not mean that his product will directly solve hunger or poverty, but rather that an advance in education will provide the tools to address these problems. This is a worthy goal, and by all accounts the XO is a worthy educational tool. If OLPC were a charitable organization distributing laptops to poor children, this would be a noble endeavor. But as it stands, the effort is bound to involve exploitation and corruption.

OLPC's business model actually requires substantial investment from the governments of developing countries, diverting limited resources away from a population's critical needs. The "$100 laptop," which actually costs $188, can only be purchased at a minimum quantity of 250,000. OLPC targets countries like Nigeria, where one out of three children suffer from malnutrition. There a $50 million minimum investment could instead be used to feed more than a million children for an entire year.

After unloading their product, OLPC relies on the naïve assumption that governments will distribute laptops free of charge to deserving schoolchildren. This blind trust in corrupt governments will deprive children and ensure the creation of a robust XO black market.

Beyond exploitation, OLPC feels entitled to a monopoly. When Intel produced a rival low-cost laptop, Negroponte proclaimed that "Intel should be ashamed of itself." While he portrays himself as a humble idealist victimized by an Intel-Microsoft conspiracy to price him out of an emerging market, it is clear that Negroponte fails to understand a basic market concept.

In a free market consumers enjoy the freedom to purchase those products that best suit their needs. When governments make purchasing decisions on behalf of the people, they rob the consumer of that freedom. If OLPC wished to compete in the free market, they would target their product directly to the consumer. By opting instead to lobby for government contracts, OLPC ensures that the XO remains immune from market forces.

Negroponte speculates that Intel and Microsoft are punishing him for using an AMD processor and the Linux operating system, but the actual motivation is not personal. These companies recognize that consumers in the least developed countries currently have little demand for laptop computers.

By donating more than 100,000 PCs and providing deeply discounted software, Intel and Microsoft are investing in brand recognition. When consumers someday acquire the means to purchase this technology, the hope is that they will choose Intel and Microsoft products. Ultimately, consumers, not governments, will make the choice.

If OLPC cannot wait for a laptop market to materialize or distribute the XO exclusively by donation, there are viable alternatives for realizing the project's mission. The use of cell phones is skyrocketing in the developing world. By the end of next year, this market will include 50 percent of the world's population. Mobile devices are an inexpensive, tested technology, and increasingly offer access to the Internet.

If the goal is to broaden children's horizons through connectivity, why must OLPC reinvent the wheel? Repackaging the XO as an inexpensive mobile device could excite significant consumer demand and make an immediate impact on education. The current plan will have a different impact.

Children will suffer if governments divert scarce resources away from essential services. To avoid that outcome, professor Negroponte should channel his ingenuity into a product compatible with existing markets. Success will be achieved not by forcing technology on children, but by bringing children to technology.

Daniel Ballon,Ph.D., is a Fellow in Technology Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California.


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13 Comments

More leftist crap.
I read about this last year, this is just such foolishness.

So now instead of a chicken in every pot well have a laptop on every table and so what, were all going to Ebay together in one big online harmonic convergence?

Oh well, I guess the left wants everything else to be taxpayer funded, why not laptops?

Don't use Linux!
If these devices make Linux popular how ever with the Open Source Jihadists feel the elitist surge of knowing they are better than all others?

Meet the needs of the 'customer'.
Maybe all these 'do gooders' should spend a few months living with those they want to 'help'.

But that's the free market approach, meet the needs of the customer.

TEZ:
Sorry. Wasn't meant as a reply to you.

miss named computer
It could be that these do-gooders think that underdeveloped poor people should also have access to all the free porno that we do. Apparently they think it's another social injustice that we're rich enough to enjoy it but that that those third world kids are so deprived.

laptops for evry child
Half of the population of Pakistan is illerate. I would guess all the children are. No wonder the term "Nutty Proffessor" came into use.

every child?
No, not every child.
Children in countries considered "too rich" by the OLPC project group are excluded, even if their parents don't have money to even buy decent clothes for the kids and have to live on foodstamps and handouts.

My parents wouldn't have been able to afford a laptop for both me and my sister at the time we were children, not at the prices laptops (or their temporal equivalent) cost at the time.
Many of today's parents are in the same position both in the US and Europe, especially those with multiple children and average or below incomes.
Yet they're considered "too rich" to get a cheap or free machine, while some dictator's kid whose daddy skims billions of dollars off the foreign aid his country gets can get one (that kid of course won't want one, he's access to the donated Toshibas and Dells supplied by aid organisations for schoolteachers and doctors).

A Brief History of Left and Right
Humans originally existed as members of small bands of nomadic Hunters/Gatherers. They lived on deer in the mountains during the summer and would go to the coast and live on fish and lobster in the winter.
The two most important events in all of history were the invention of beer and the invention of the Wheel. The Wheel was invented to get Man to the beer.

These were the foundations of modern civilization and together were the catalyst for the splitting of humanity into two distinct subgroups: Liberals and Conservatives.

Once Beer was discovered, it required grain and that was the beginning of agriculture.

Neither the glass bottle nor aluminum can were invented yet, so while our Early Humans were sitting around waiting for them to be invented, they just stayed close to the Brewery. That's how Villages were formed.

Some Men spent their days tracking and killing animals to BBQ at night while they were drinking Beer. This was the beginning of what is known as the Conservative Movement.

Other Men who were weaker and less skilled at hunting learned to live off the Conservatives by showing up for the nightly BBQ's and doing the sewing, fetching, and hair dressing. This was the beginning of the Liberal Movement.

Some of these Liberal Men eventually evolved into Women. The rest became known as Girlie Men.

Some noteworthy Liberal achievements include the domestication of cats, the invention of group therapy, group hugs, and the concept of Democratic voting to decide how to divide the meat and beer that Conservatives provided.

Over the years Conservatives came to be symbolized by the largest, most powerful land animal on earth, the Elephant. Liberals are symbolized by the Jackass.

Modern Liberals like Imported Beer (with lime added), but most prefer white wine or imported bottled water. Th ey eat raw fish but like their beef well done. Sushi, Tofu, and French food are standard Liberal fare.

Another interesting evolutionary side note: most Liberal Women have higher testosterone levels than their Men. Most social workers, personal injury attorneys, journalists, dreamers in Hollywood , and group therapists are Liberals. Liberals invented the Designated-Hitter Rule because it wasn't fair to make the Pitcher also bat.

Conservatives drink Domestic Beer. They eat red meat and still provide for their Women. Conservatives are Big-Game Hunters, Rodeo Cowboys, Lumberjacks, Construction Workers, Firemen, Medical Doctors, Police Officers, Corporate Executives, Athletes, Marines, and generally anyone who works productively. Conservatives who own companies hire other Conservatives who want to work for a living.

Liberals produce little or nothing. They like to govern the Producers and decide what to do with the production. Liberals also bel ieve Europeans are more enlightened than Americans. That is why most of the Liberals remained in Europe when Conservatives were coming to America . They crept in after the Wild West was tamed and created a business of trying to get more for nothing.

Here ends today's lesson in World History: It should be noted that a Liberal may have a momentary urge to angrily respond to the above before forwarding it. A Conservative will simply laugh and be so convinced of the absolute truth of this History that it will be forwarded immediately to other True Believers and to more Liberals just to tick them off.

the actual hardware
To me the major problem is the $100 laptop itself. It reeks of paternalism. It looks as if the people who designed it believe that third-world citizens need something really, really simple, because they cannot cope with anything as complicated as WinXP.

Reminds me of the "digital divide" that was a hot issue 10 years ago. Supposedly, poor people in the US needed help getting online, otherwise they would be left behind, disenfranchised, relegated to second-class-citizen status. I sensed in this an elitist assumption that low-income people couldn't do it for themselves.

Of course, this is untrue. Recently, when I checked in at a very low-budget Alabama motel, the minimum-wage desk clerk debated with me the download speed of the motel's wireless internet system. "But I ain't never brought my own laptop down here to check it out," she said.

So much for the digital divide. With DSL cheaper than cable TV, and garage sales full of "obsolete" computers that are still powerful enough to display a web page, just about anyone who wants to get online can do so.

It'll be the same in third world nations. They'll get their hands on "obsolete" hardware and pirated software, and the $100 laptop will be seen for what it is: yet another elitist attempt to give people what is supposedly good for them.

You have to get inside the third-world mindset
After living some years in Africa I know there is a real possibility third-world governments could publicly make promises to distribute the $100 laptops to children, yet behind the scenes sell them in the same fashion that foreign aid is very often "sold" instead of given to the poor.


This is not seen as corruption but rather a legitimate way of life that has been shaped by centuries of a "survivalist mentality." Usually nothing is free unless it directly comes from the hand of a foreigner.


Despite severe poverty, virtually everything has a price tag even if it is a ridiculously low price...yet a price that most cannot or barely can afford. For example donated used clothing can be found in huge quantities stored in restricted access warehouses, ready to be sold to confidental vendors who in turn sell to makeshift roadside vendors. Yet children continue to roam in rags.


Although not a very encouraging thought, there should not be real fear that $100 laptops will take money away from feeding the children. Realistically, regardless of political rhetoric, if it hasn't happened yet, they probably won't get fed "for free" with that money, anyways. Corruption exists on every social level. This includes hospitals subsidized by foreign aid to enable "free" medical care, whose services are still primarily given to those who can afford to pay a sizable bribe. Many hospital staff also moonlight in their village neighborhood, selling "stolen hospital medicine" to the poor.

Another example in Africa, while traumatized flood victims stood stranded, homeless and already starving to death, local government representatives attempted to seize the rice locally purchased by foreign relief workers and halt distribution, giving a lame excuse that the rice might contain disease agents and would need to go into their warehouses, all the while other non-flood victims were safely eating the same brand of rice.

Banditry is another factor that needs to be considered where such desperation drives the poor to steal from a neighbor to meet basic needs.

Even foreign-donated Christmas presents distributed to children are often stolen within a day or two, and/or sold by parents and the money spent in one day.

I was extremely excited to learn about the $100 laptop program and I sincerely hope it will be executed carefully and thoughtfully for success. However, philanthropist volunteers almost need to go and personally hand one to each child and in turn provide padlocks for each hut as they will become a target for the numerous local bandits...or allow foreign-run agencies to oversee a longterm program.

A helpful book to read is A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne.

I agree
Yes these good-hearted philanthropists should live in the culture to understand better how to implement this excellent idea. The problem is not the computers but the method of distribution and implementation of an on-going theft-free program.

The children in Africa where I live are extremely intelligent and it is a shame their abilities and potential is wasted in an environment where opportunity rarely surfaces. These computers can do a lot of good in education and ensuing economic hope.

You can read though?
You have been able to read the information on these innovative computers that use "picture icons" for the menu items. It is a great design and the children don't need to be able to read to navigate the computer. Yet it will encourage learning and literacy in countries around the world. The children in Africa where I live though illiterate are extremely intelligent and have an unleashed potential. I am excited about the possibilities this program will offer them in terms of giving them hope of a future.

not the same
Have you ever lived in Africa and seen real poverty firsthand?

The low-income low-budget-motel-clerk is living in the lap of luxury compared to most of the rest of the world. Even a street person in Los Angeles is so blessed cause he may be able to receive a free meal once in awhile and might daily receive loose change, not even to mention welfare.

When I enter the hut of any of my friends in Africa they feel lucky to have one chair and one cooking pot which doubles to carry water, one bucket to store water and maybe grass woven mats for the children to sleep on. And that is all. Real poverty is absolutely mind-boggling for anyone who has never set foot outside of America.

It is a good thing to think of blessing these truly unfortunate people. Why give our cast offs, our junk. We deserve better but they don't?

Next of all, without foreign help, even an obsolete computer junker is completely out of reach of these people. Even if they had one, where would they plug it in? Into a piece of bamboo?

One needs to also walk among and experience the astounding population explosion. Where are all these millions of "fully-functioning" obselete computers going to come from? Who is willing to finance multiple shipping containers stuffed plumb full of nothing but junk?

Next question, who is going to service these troublesome junkers and get them going and keep them going when they get viruses? An army of computer technicians become humanitarian volunteers? Who is going to teach children to be gentle with these "fragile" dinosoars, when they have no concept how to take care of and keep electronic items clean and dry?

The fact that these ingenious little laptops are lightweight, super economically priced, super durable, waterproof, can run on a solar panel, virus free, usable by even illiterate children and so much more...is something truly admirable and noteworthy.

Bottom line...one can never compare our "1st world poor" to real world poverty and come up with any accurate conclusions.

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