OLPC's $100 Laptop: Internet Before Immunizations or Something More?

by Molly Kenney

Five years after the idea was originally proposed, production began last week on the much-touted $100 laptop, according to the BBC. The idea belonged to technology guru Nicholas Negroponte, who founded One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Negroponte’s plan is to provide low-cost laptops for children in developing countries. And today for a limited time, OLPC further extends its idea by offering a $100 laptop to families in a few developed countries if they also buy one for a child in a developing country.* As soon as the laptops roll off the assembly line, kids in Uruguay will have durable, easily rechargeable computers with WiFi and a camera. (Uruguay is the first country designated by OLPC to take part in the program.)

The concept has proven attractive to several countries, including Uruguay (which ordered 100,000 laptops) and Mongolia (which has a plan to provide computers for all children aged six to ten). But since OLPC's plans were announced in 2002, the program has been criticized for its disregard of the bigger picture in developing countries. Critics argue that the internet is secondary to vital public health, education, and other infrastructural needs in underdeveloped nations. Do children really need the internet before immunizations?

Negroponte argues that it’s all about education, not technology. That education goes far beyond the classroom and the child who gets the laptop. Families will share the technology, and medical advice, educational resources, and various media will all become readily accessible. This technology also has the potential to form social networks of an incredible magnitude. In the way that citizens of Darfur helped inform the world of that nation’s atrocities via the internet, affordable computers open international channels of communication and put that task in the hands of the generation preparing to enter into full societal participation. People previously without any access to media could become citizen journalists, share marketing ideas, and communicate political messages to people within their country and around the world. A pretty democratic product for $100? It seems well worth the money and the attention.

Also, the $100 laptop raises the issue of aid sustainability. Health care and education can be assisted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and sometimes government groups, but training doctors and teachers is a labor-intensive, staff-heavy, and often expensive undertaking. However, the $100 laptop is designed so that a child can teach himself to use it, and, OLPC predicts, teach others, providing material and knowledge resources. It’s in the spirit of teaching a man to fish rather than giving him the fish. In this case though it is giving him easy to use tools for fishing so he can teach himself.

While it’s reasonable to prioritize issues like public health and education, affordable and widely useful aid like OLPC must be considered an option for governments to help lots of citizens for little money. It’s by no means a panacea, but One Laptop Per Child puts all sorts of opportunity just a click away.

*OLPC is now running a program it calls Give 1 Get 1, a short-term program in North America that allows consumers to buy one laptop for their own child and one for a child in a developing nation.

(The promotional photo is from One Laptop Per Child.)

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rebecca carpenter said...

Hi Molly,

Thanks for your post about the new XO laptop from the OLPC campaign.

If you're interested in winning one of these laptops, check out Razoo's "Good Travels" contest, which encourages travelers to do good while one the road. Five 2nd prize contest winners will receive the new XO laptop (and 5 laptops will be donated to children in developing nations).

By the way, the grand prize of the contest is a trip for two anywhere in the world to put good into action (via ResponsibleTravel.com).

You can learn more about it and enter here: http://beta.razoo.com/good_travels


Razoo. Come Together, Change Your World.

Rick Rockwell said...

An article in The Washington Post further clarifies OLPC's program.

Notably, it is NOT a $100 laptop although that is the eventual goal. The laptops cost $187 to manufacture, currently, and list for about $200.

If you want to participate in the Get 1 Give 1 campaign, the cost is about $400, and the opportunity to do so is only available until Nov. 26.

Arguably, OLPC would improve its campaign if it made the program available in North America for a bit longer. And maybe if they extended such a giving program to Europe too.

mkenney said...

BBC News has put together a slideshow on the first schools to get the "$100 laptop." Take a look if you're interested. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/629/629/7113548.stm

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