Nicholas Negroponte, ex-head of MIT media labs and the driving force behind OLPC is claiming that his brainchild, the $100 laptop, is as vital to a child as a pencil. After a rash of recent press attacking the fundamentals of his project, Negroponte tagged the following soundbite to his response to those who doubt the project’s fundamental premises:
This is not the first time that his line has been trotted out by the OLPC. I came across this first whilst reading the FAQ section of their website:
Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.
This seems to be a dig at just about every other project looking to provide effective ICT access in countries where such resources are not commonly available. It dismisses out of hand the work of organisations such as Computer Aid International, who propose alternative solutions to the issue at hand. Computer Aid repair and refit equipment donated by UK businesses and then donate them to organisations who distribute them in developing markets, such as SchoolNet Africa. Schoolnet Africa then set up computer labs in African schools. Nice to see Mr Negroponte casually dismissing this sort of work.
Computer Aid recently shipped their 70,000th computer. So far, OLPC has delivered nothing but a handful pf prototypes. Even the recently touted news that 4 million laptops have been ordered turns out to be PR spin. So far, Nigeria are closest to ordering, an that order is said to be for 1 million laptops. Talks are underway with the Argentinian, Thai and Brazillian authorities. This is not the same as having 4 million confirmed orders. It is important to realise that the $100 laptop will not enter production until 5 million orders are placed. I think that is why this information has been massaged a little in the recent press. So far, the only definite governmental announcement about $100 laptop has been from India. They denounced the technology as “pedagogically suspect“.
As you can probably tell, I’m not to keen on the $100 laptop. Just before these recent doubts about the $100 laptop sprung up around the net, I posted my thoughts about it pretty clearly in response to comments made on Metafilter about Microsoft’s FlexGo™ system, a pay as you go computer system for emerging markets. Here’s an edited summary of the views I expressed (my comments in the previous links are under the username davehat):
There are strategies in development for enabling the poorest people ICT access, such as the $100 laptop. However, this project is frequently misunderstood. The $100 laptop is not being developed as a consumer product. It will not be for sale to the public (at least initially). Primarily, it will be sold at governmental level for distribution to school children, as they say in the FAQ on their website, under the question “How will these be marketed?”:
The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Initial discussions have been held with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand. An additional, modest allocation of machines will be used to seed developer communities in a number of other countries. A commercial version of the machine will be explored in parallel.
Also from their FAQ, with regards to what the organisation feels is the project’s biggest hurdle, Laptop.org note the following:
The biggest hurdle will be manufacturing 100 million of anything. This is not just a supply-chain problem, but also a design problem. The scale is daunting, but I find myself amazed at what some companies are proposing to us. It feels as though at least half the problems are being solved by mere resolve.
These two bits of information worry me. Why are these products only for sale to governments? Are they really only concerned with production? Other questions that spring to mind are:
- How likely is it that governments in developing countries will pre-order 5 million unproven pieces of technology? (5 million is the minimum pre-paid orders needed for the initiative to go ahead)
- Why are already poor countries being asked to take such a huge risk in such an important area as education?
- How will the governments get the money to pay for these items, given that many cannot afford textbooks?
- How will laptop distribution be monitored once they are received by each government?
- What’s to stop a government buying this subsidised equipment and charging institutions for usage or selling even selling them on at a profit?
- What’s to stop the cost being passed on from the school to the user?
- What’s to stop large scale theft of items from schools?
- What happens if a child loses or is robbed of their equipment?
Some of these questions being asked in this Wiki page, but they are not really being answered thoroughly.
I’m also struck by the profound stupidity of the following statement in the Laptop FAQ under the question about why they are looking exclusively at laptops, not community access centres:
One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful.
This look like wishful thinking to me, a noble abstraction perhaps, but not joined up thinking. Not all kids have pencils. A kid who has a pencil of its own may well create, but an art class has lots of different pencils and people there can help them to develop… If a kid breaks his pencil, s/he will probably be in a position to repair it… If a kid loses his/her pencil, replacing it may be difficult, but not as difficult as replacing a whole computer… Many people sell pencils, none sells the $100 laptop…
I could go on, but you get the picture:
I’d venture that once the following four words were seized upon, “One Laptop Per Child” and the project named accordingly, the developers backed themselves into a corner ideologically. After all, with that name, they aren’t going to develop something that isn’t a laptop or that isn’t on a per person basis, no matter what critical problems they hit, are they?
Given these reservations, I think this project is well meaning, but doomed. However, I would genuinely love to be proved wrong on this. Perhaps one laptop per child should be a looser goal with a longer scale and a more inclusive outlook (what about laptops for kids in non-developing countries, eh?).
I think the Ndiyo initiative is a much sounder proposition for large scale worldwide ICT access. Ultra thin client computers and a PC server running UNIX (virtually) ready to use out of the box. It could be school computer lab in a box. Or an Internet cafe in a box. Or a small company’s expansion costs reduced dramatically.
As far as I can see, the Ndiyo project can be implemented more quickly, more widely and more effectively than $100 laptops.
On a side note, if MS were to seriously get behind an ultra thin client model for developing countries, they may well grab another 3 billion users, though I doubt they will. Like the four words that bind the $100 laptop initiative to such narrow goals, Microsoft constantly by their original mission, that of a PC in every home, running Microsoft.
Since I wrote this, it’s been interesting to see that Microsoft are developing a cheap mobile computer product. As I said though, if they got behind ultra thin clients, they’d be laughing.
I have also been in contact with Sun Microsystems about their “Sun Ray Bus”. The programme is running and they are expanding it. This is good news. I’ll post more about it soon. I have a feeling Mobile Internet Units (MIU) will be seen in Africa some time soon.
For some reason, related posts are not coming up in the “related posts” column to the right, so I have created a new “ICT Development” category for further posts about ICT and development. In a few weeks, I’ll be moving all of this type of talk on to a new site.