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One Laptop Per Child -- Updated
Jamais Cascio, 16 Nov 05

laptop-handside.jpgKofi Annan and Nicholas Negroponte were scheduled to unveil the prototype design of the "$100 Laptop" (also known as the One Laptop Per Child project) today at the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis. (WorldChanging has previously discussed this project here -- Ethan gets a preview, here -- I get an update, and here -- my original post on the subject.) I haven't seen any reports yet from the scene, but while we wait, here are some updated links:

The One Laptop Per Child website at MIT has new pictures up of the latest version of the design. The crank (which currently does not actually work) has a definitely "toy" look to it, which is intentional (see below), and the unit itself is actually fairly small. The ability to flip the system into "e-book" and "laptop theater" mode is striking, however -- it's something most laptops costing ten or twenty times as much can't do.

The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post have introductory articles out today, recapping the history and goals of the project. Each provides a useful new tidbit -- the CSM reports that Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has proposed a $54 million program to equip 500,000 state school students with the laptops, while the Post notes that the color and design of the laptops is meant to deter adult thieves by making the devices easily identifiable.

That may not be enough. The features of the $100 laptop are potentially attractive enough that some folks may just give it a quick spray paint job to avoid easy detection. The theft temptation is just one of the potential problems with the idea identified by Lee Felsenstein at the Fonly Institute. Other potential problems include power generation, the reliability of mesh networking, and the necessary support infrastructure. Felsenstein should know -- not only was he one of the leaders of the Homebrew Computer Club back in the 1970s and 1980s (and Laureate of the Tech Museum of Innovation), he was instrumental to the creation of the Remote Village IT project begun in 2002.

It's important to note that Felsenstein's arguments may not hold water: the power requirements may be lower than he supposes, for example, and solving the issue of persistence of mesh networks may require supplemental hubs, but is certainly not impossible. For me, his most powerful caution is calling out the attractiveness of the device for non-student use -- simply relying on bright colors to deter theft (or sales by family members) is not likely to be sufficient.

The larger question remains as to whether this is the right tool for the job at hand. I have no doubt that the technology/price point is achievable, eventually. And certainly, for at least some of the students, a device like this will enhance learning and access to information. But whether this is a better solution than other solutions -- both technological and otherwise -- is a still-unanswered question. Books are less-costly and far less likely to be stolen, and community computers (akin to "Village Phones") would provide access with less risk of theft or misappropriation. They aren't even good models for the technologies that the students in the global south are likely to be using as adults: systems based on mobile phone-type architectures are already far more common, and can carry out many key economic tasks.

Still, I'm not as convinced that the program will inevitably fail as is Felsenstein. There is a form of immersion in information that's possible with a larger screen that simply cannot be replicated with a mobile phone-type device. The distribution and theft issue is likely solvable, if difficult. But neither am I as convinced as Negroponte that this is the best course of action.

I'm willing to see it tested, though -- and would be happy to be surprised.

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Comments

"There is a form of immersion in information that's possible with a larger screen that simply cannot be replicated with a mobile phone-type device"

To be strictly accurate, the immersion is provided by field of view: a small up-close display vs a large far off display. A small 'spectacle' style display would be better suited to the mobile style intended. The issue is the price (which I don't know offhand)

... plus the increased risk of bumping into things!


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 16 Nov 05

i would have to try the unit out ot have a view on it ? the sidekick unit that is with t-mobile was supposed to be a trend setter but between resolution issues and costs it seems one is better off with a laptop like dell has out there relatively cheap and tracfone as far as costs and aestheics when their are screnes that can be carried around that have telescopic capability then maybe something will happen as i see it, we are still in the dark ages

sincerely

N


Posted by: nick consoletti on 16 Nov 05

Have you heard that Steve Jobs offered MacOSX operating system for free to MIT and MIT refused the offer? I think they did the right choose: it makes no sense to start with such a project and be tied to some non-free software. Software must be free (as in free speech). My blog post is at http://moloko.itc.it/paoloblog/archives/2005/11/16/apple_offers_for_free_macosx_for_100_laptops_mit_says_no_thanks.html


Posted by: paolo on 17 Nov 05

Jamais, you said: "Books are less-costly and far less likely to be stolen" - why?

Yes, one book is typically less than $100. But the collection of text books a child would need to get through school, and additional literature, novels, technical handbooks etc. that such a young person would benefit from could easily reach several hundred or even a thousand dollars in value.

And anything rare and valuable is likely to be stolen; the idea of these little laptops is to make them (a) cheap and (b) ubiquitous - why would anybody need to steal one?

I think you (and Felsenstein particularly) are really missing the point!


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 17 Nov 05

Update:
:: 40 million Africans in Southern Africa threanened by famine.
:: Official health disaster in the DR Congo (the official treshold has been reached to call it a 'health disaster' - mortality of up to 5/10,000 people per day).
:: Seed availability and distribution in DR Congo reaching 'crisis level', due to lack of institutional and physical infrastructure; millions of people threatened by famine and malnutrition in the coming year
:: 30 million AIDS orphans in Africa and growing
:: Malaria resistance growing, 200 million Africans threatened

Sometimes I really think Bjorn Lomborg makes sense: we should prioritize every single dollar or €uro we have. Access to information is *absolutely not* a priority. Certainly not for children. Aids prevention first, food second, bednets third, water and sanitation fourth.... access to personal laptops for children comes somewhere at rank 250.

Seriously, the one laptop per child is a very cruel example of how not to help the poor.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 17 Nov 05

The difference between books and the laptop is that the laptop is explicitly intended to be possessed by a single person, whereas schoolbooks are in most cases passed down from class to class. The "several hundred or even a thousand dollars" of books can then be amortized over multiple users. Furthermore, the costs are more granular -- the cost of replacing a lost or damaged book is lower than that of the laptop.

Cheap and ubiquitous, sure -- but "cheap" means a cost of more than a month's income in many of the places they're intended for (and in some places, close to a year's income), and "ubiquitous" means only making them available to students. The latter is likely to change, if only to try to forestall the inevitable black market in the laptops, but you're looking at the cost from the perspective of someone who may might a hundred dollars in an hour (I don't know if you do, but such a salary is not unheard of for someone of your skills), not someone who might make a hundred dollars in a month or a year.

I'm not as dismissive of the laptops as Felsenstein, but neither am I as enthusiastic as Negroponte. There is likely to be a good role for them, but it will be more limited, and the project will face more challenges, than NN would wish.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Nov 05

Lorenzo slipped in while I was drafting my response to Arthur.

We've had the discussion before as to whether information tools are useful for development. As before, not every poor country is as bad off as the most downtrodden regions; information tools are demonstrably of value in many areas. Educational laptops would be insulting in the DR Congo, as Lorenzo suggests, but could be quite useful in Kenya or South Africa. Not all African states face the same conditions.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Nov 05

Okay, I always forget to look outside of Central Africa, so granted, once a certain level of development has been reached and the basic-basics are in place (say ultra-basic health care and food security), then it will make sense. Indeed, we've more or less agreed on this before.
Sorry for my narrowmindedness on this one. It's just that there's an *awful* lot of children for who US$ 100 means the difference between life and death. Literally. And that's what's first on my mind.

If only we could prove that on a global scale, the introduction of laptops to children in place X (say Brazil) will have (in)direct benefits in the long run to the children of place Y (say DRCongo, Sudan), then we're on to something. Sadly, I think there's no such effect, not even on the long-run, because the poorest of the poor are totally outside of long-term global influences like this.

I just read a report by Médecins sans Frontières about the (official) health *disaster* in Congo, and their conclusion is that the only way to pass the treshold of actually changing the situation, is to provide totally free health care to 30 million people for the next 10 years. All other options will be in vain.

Now no donor institution wants to commit to this kind of enterprises. Understandably so. But what do we have to do? Close our eyes, leave an entire generation to die, and focus on places that still can be saved and handing out laptops there? Or save the US$100 for 5 years to save 30 million people now?

Once you start "prioritizing", you're faced with unpleasant dilemmas like this. I can't bring myself to getting rid of the sense of urgency and priority in this kind of matters, which makes that other interesting development strategies look absurd. I'm sure they're not and maybe there's indeed enough money out there to intervene on several fronts at the same time.


Posted by: Lorenzo on 17 Nov 05

Thanks for that reply, Lorenzo. I completely understand why the conditions in places like Central Africa would be foremost in your mind. They should be something we *all* worry about.

It's really hard to say whether the introduction of development tools like ultracheap laptops in a place like Brazil (or Kenya, etc.) would have ancillary effects in the broader global south. I suspect so, over time, in that we've seen examples of movements like the "Brasilia Conensus" and a variety of south-south science projects to draw the fates of nations in the developing world closer together. This leads me to suspect that, given enough time, the rising fortunes of the basic-basic nations will spill over to help the worst-off nations. It's by no means guaranteed, and the kind of time that is likely to be needed to see this -- a decade or more -- is far too long to wait.

We know that there's enough money out there to intervene on several fronts simultaneously -- it would cost less than the US is paying for the Iraq war, certainly, and possibly less than the UK is paying. What we're short on is the global will to do so.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 17 Nov 05

I wanted to add that the average household income of 30 million Congolese families is 0.3 €urocent (0.4 dollars). That's for an entire household, not per capita. The average fertility of these households is 6 children per woman.
So the math is cruel: US$ 120 per year per family of 6 children. In such extreme cases, you just have to prioritize.

(If anyone knows of any study showing that there's somekind of trickle-down effect of IT-technologies, then please show it in here; I'm talking about the effect of providing access to IT for, say, the very wealthy poor in Congo (those who make US$ 300 per year per family), on the normal poor (who make US$ 120). If there's proof of this kind of effects for IT, I'd really love to read it.)


Posted by: Lorenzo on 17 Nov 05

"I suspect so, over time, in that we've seen examples of movements like the "Brasilia Conensus" and a variety of south-south science projects to draw the fates of nations in the developing world closer together. This leads me to suspect that, given enough time, the rising fortunes of the basic-basic nations will spill over to help the worst-off nations."
-----

Yes, I agree, there might be long-term effects; we indeed see Brazil, South Africa, India and others in the south creating a fantastic form of south-south exchanges, leading to real power (say the G20, or qua agricultural research and outreach).
But the laptop project is more like a long-term investment - it's a tool to help an entire generation grow. It takes time to yield these more global effects. If it produces more physicians who stay in the South to help the poor, then that's a great thing. But it's the very long-term, we're talking about the timeframe of one generation.



Posted by: Lorenzo on 17 Nov 05

Evidence for trickle-down? I don't know anything about academic studies, and it's hard to compare one region to another.

But look at where technological investments have taken the nations of East Asia - Taiwan, Korea, and now India, China, Indonesia. Places that have skimped on high-tech, where very few go to universities (like Africa in particular) have really fallen behind.

I believe there are two reasons:
(1) Poor education and lack of information results in poor decision-making as adults - from family life to politics, the poor are more likely to make choices that harm themselves and those around them.
(2) Poor education also greatly limits employment options, not just locally, but globally; how many central Africans can work as telephone call center operators? Why can't they? The more such income can come to a poor nation, the more it benefits even those who haven't been able to receive new educational tools.

If the new tools allow the 1% who receive higher education to increase to an equivalent of 2% in some nations, that will do wonders for people in the areas.

The trouble in Congo stems in part from war; would money thrown at health care be lost to carnage? I don't know - I can't claim to know how to rid the world of war, but I think education and information and things like learning other languages is a critical component. This educational stuff can only help.


Posted by: Arthur Smith on 17 Nov 05

Wrote the following 10/25/98:

4% from the Wealthiest 225

The NYTimes of September 27, 1998 had a pictorial run-down of the high points of the most recent UN Human Development Report in the "News of the Week in Review" section of the paper. The last item of the piece really struck me:

"It is estimated that the additional cost of achieving and maintaining universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and clean water and safe sewers for all is roughly $40 billion a year - or less than 4% of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world."

My immediate thought was to launch a massive, world-wide letter-writing campaign to each of those 225 individuals and ask them to commit to such a project. After all, 4% is less than half the traditional tithe (10%) and I bet that adequate funding for even one of these basic human needs would have synergetic effects that would tend to reduce each of the other costs considerably.

What do you think? Should I go to the library and start researching the Forbes annual list of the richest people? Would you be willing to help?


Posted by: gmoke on 17 Nov 05

Gmoke, no, that's not a good idea. It would be better to go to the library and read about African, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian dictator-billionaires. You will find plenty of them. Think Mobutu, Sani Abacha, Suharto, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Paul Biya, Dos Santos and Savimbi, Mengistu and Pinochet, to name but a few. They have collected several hundred billions.

You then crosscheck who in the Western world got rich by supporting these offshore dictators. Think Shell, Unilever, Wal Mart, De Beers, Anglo-American, Rio Tinto, etc...
Then check your library under: "justice" - maybe your library has a few books about this concept (most do not).

Then, sit down and think about the UN statement you used. It's no use pumping money into countries when their states are being used by the West as neocolonial instruments of domination and exploitation.

Finally, look at who are the new colonizers who are installing new offshore dictators, and you'll find that China is very active on this front, especially in Africa.

There's plenty of money in Africa and the developing world. The point is to keep it there. But we prefer to take it away, and then act paternalistically, because we like to be the big daddies of the world, helping those poor southerners, don't we?


Posted by: Lorenzo on 18 Nov 05

Has the MIT team published anything on their pilot projects? Comments like these make me think they're up to something:

"Another obstacle is the online access schoolchildren in repressive regimes will gain. “I do tell governments we’re selling you a Trojan horse,” Negroponte said, adding it’s really up to the children as to what they access from the Internet."

"Access to information" is pretty vague. AIDS prevention and treatment information, political information, market prices for your parent's main commodity, land deed information: those are all a bit more specific, or at least suggestive. Some of these were mentionned here before.

More than access to information, this is also a communication device. Amortized over 5 years, it costs as much as textbooks, but that's as far as you can stretch the comparison.

BTW, the pledge for buying this laptop is slowly growing. Apparently a retail model may be posible (see the comments on the right):
http://www.pledgebank.com/100laptop


Posted by: Daniel Haran on 18 Nov 05

My cheaputer post is now up, here.


Posted by: Alex on 21 Nov 05

It is unfortunate that the debate over implementing technology in the developing world always centers around the economic implications. What about the cultural? The idea of one laptop-per-child seems to follow a very western, first-world model of property. Perhaps in other parts of the world, technology resources that are shared community resources might fill the need of the community, save costs, and be less culturally invasive than the personal technology model. Would keeping technological resources as community resources rather than personal resources also aid in the sharing of knowledge, both in the use of the technology and in applications for the technology?


Posted by: Geoffrey Hing on 21 Nov 05

I have a lot of reservations about $100 laptop project. How will they be used? Will the students know what to do with them? Who will help the students to make good use of them? What kind of content should they be accessing? What activities should they be doing online?

Personally I would prioritise food, clean water and disease eradication/prevention. Laptops aren't much use when you have an empty belly.

I worked in West Africa for 2 years


Posted by: Niall Watts on 28 Nov 05

Why do people lack food, clean water, health care and so on? Is it an absolute lack of these things, or is it a lack of political power? A Trojan horse that led to a global, direct democracy might be a good thing.


Posted by: John Kintree on 28 Nov 05

it is true that poor people need food first of all. Still, if you manage to give them food it could only last for a day or a month...
what they really need is to know how to make food; they need to KNOW: know their rights and possibilities.
Education and knowledge is their only escape from oppression, both cultural and political.
The ODL could make a difference, in time, if given the chance. We should not only consider Africa. Think of South America, Asia or even European countries that have less access to knowledge than you can imagine. These kids have no PCs at home or at school because they are too expansive. ODL could make a difference in these cases.


Posted by: niki ale on 30 Nov 05



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