Let Them Eat Laptops
From the outset, it sounds like a wonderful idea: Design and build inexpensive laptops that under-developed countries can provide to their neediest school children. Let the children of impoverished farmers and laborers have access to the world of the Internet, ownership of at least 100 electronic books, a video cam, and educational programs, all wrapped up in a sturdy, lightweight, waterproof, low power, open source, $100 laptop. Except that the cost is really $188 per unit, equivalent to the average monthly income of most of the families who receive these machines. Since the laptops are given to individual children, and each child (from ages 6 to 12) in a selected village is given one, one family could very well boast up to six laptops - equal to 6 months of income.
One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte, of MIT Media Lab fame. A non-profit organization, OLPC hasn't directly addressed the concerns of many interested parties, from the children themselves, to the governments they're trying to involve or have involved in the program. Among the criticisms: The laptops are "top-down" designs (and the children themselves weren't involved until the end product was distributed); no technical support or repair options are provided (Negroponte has been quoted, "What you want is for the kids to do the repairs"); and, what will keep these desperately poor families from selling the laptops to pay for food, or much-needed medical care? And because the laptops are intended to replace textbooks, what happens to the child's education if the machine is broken, stolen, or sold? And why was the lack of Internet access in most of these remote villages never addressed? All good questions, that deserve thoughtful answers.
But one question doesn't seem to have come up: If the laptop is designed to last five years, what happens to the child after that? After five years of living in the 21st Century with email, Internet, videography, a library of books at their fingertips, they still have to live in the same world they were born in, a world that hasn't changed very much in hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Five years spent dreaming of careers beyond the farm, beyond the village, dreams of college and prosperity, dreams of distant countries and people unlike anything ever imagined. And then the sturdy little device that created the dreams dies. The village is the same, the hunger doesn't go away, and the meager income stays meager. Higher education, lucrative careers, exciting people and places are just as allusive as ever. So what, exactly, has been accomplished?
Will Negroponte and the OLPC simply echo Marie Antoinette?