The $100 Laptop

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The $100 laptop is nearly ready, but does it compute?
MIT project has fans, but critics see a Western ideal imposed on world's poor
Michele Henry - January 21st 2007.

To Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Coke bottle was a boon.

The tribe found many uses for the sturdy container when it broke through the clouds as if falling from the African sky. Their only exposure to western culture, in fact, was tossed from a passing aircraft in the opening scene of the 1980 runaway hit The Gods Must be Crazy.

Hailing it as a gift from the almighty, the Bushmen used the bottle to knead dough and crush nuts. But, when too many people wanted to use it, it incited envy, hatred and violence in the formerly peaceful tribe.

A far-fetched scenario from a faux-documentary almost 30 years ago, but its message is relevant today. It provides a cautionary note as the One Laptop per Child initiative gains momentum. The brainchild of academics, the program pledges to drop personal computers into developing nations and into the laps of every impoverished child.

Jennifer Harold has seen how technology can be a lifeline for people living in the most remote parts of the world.

Spending almost four years in Africa, the Toronto-based director of regional programs for World Vision witnessed the effects of cellphones and the Internet first hand. A non-governmental organization, World Vision is committed to improving quality of life for impoverished children.

Harold saw shepherds in the Mauritanian countryside call friends in cities to get competitive prices to sell their herds. She saw villagers in Congo, who earn only $1 a day, recognize potential signs of bird flu after a radio station, set up locally, transmitted information about the deadly virus. Volunteer broadcasters found the news on the Web moments earlier.

Harold, 47, sees the same promise in the One Laptop per Child initiative to give computers to impoverished children who live in the developing world.

The brainchild of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) academics, One Laptop per Child aims to hand the globe's poorest kids a learning tool in the form of a practically indestructible, ultra low-cost computer.

It can be thrown to the ground, fired up by a hand crank if necessary and is priced at around $100 (U.S.).

Founded in 2003, One Laptop per Child hopes to "leapfrog decades of development," its website says, to transform the way underprivileged children learn, and help eradicate poverty.

Starting (by some reports) as early as this July, the much-heralded laptops will be sold to governments of developing nations and given to school-age children; Libya, Uruguay and Rwanda have recently committed to the program.

Dozens of other countries have shown interest. Timothy Anderson, executive director of World Computer Exchange Canada, which sends refurbished computers to developing countries with the same mission, says trying to foster education by buying paper materials and textbooks is pricey and problematic because information changes.

These countries are making a "bold" decision, he says, to go a different way. Harold, who holds a master's degree in international development and rural planning, firmly believes technology is as important as clean water and sanitation something many of the children in the developing world go without. Something money spent on computers could help buy.

"It's hard to pit laptops and technology against clean water," she says. "The children need both." Withholding technology until basic needs are met poses a new dilemma, she thinks. "How can we hold them back when the rest of the world goes ahead? That's a different ethical decision to make."

Cellphones are a case in point, she says. Introduced less than a decade ago into the developing world, they've transformed life for the same people who might qualify for One Laptop per Child. They've helped connect families divided by physical barriers.

"In the same way those countries jumped over land lines, they are jumping over paper books and going straight to electronic-based information," she says.

But One Laptop per Child is not without its critics. They cite financial, safety, logistical and ethical concerns with dropping such a powerful tool into the hands of the technologically inexperienced.

Dr. Alejandro Jadad, founder of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, a Toronto-based organization committed to improving health through technology, believes that to forge ahead with this initiative is to put the cart before the horse the power cord before the socket.

There have been no studies measuring the impacts of such a tool on a vulnerable population, he says.

"Fifty per cent of adults in north America are functionally illiterate," says Jadad, who received the Distinguished Lecturer award from Health Canada last year for his contributions to health and the health system.

"That means that even though they can read, they cannot understand basic information related to their health. And we expect these kids to be functionally literate."

And he warns: "Give a human a tool and it can be used as a weapon."

Jadad considers the ways: the kids could be left open to an unknown world.

It could expose them to Western ideals they'll never attain. It could provide a platform for indoctrination and censorship. It could leave kids vulnerable to sexual predators, bullying and control.

One Laptop per Child could allow them to break free from poverty and become agents of change.

"Or it could expose the gaping cognitive gap," Jadad says. "We could be replaced by computers, self-destruct or destroy the planet."

Which way the scales will tip, Jadad believes, could depend on what kinds of training the children are given.

Reached by email, Walter Bender, president of Software and Content at One Laptop per Child, responded by citing a study from Argentina. He writes, "most kids learn to use computers on their own. They don't need training; they don't use manuals: they teach themselves and each other through a process of exploration, iteration, and discovery."

But that's not good enough for Jadad. Gadgets alone won't help anyone, he says.

"By themselves they are not going to produce a miracle. It's not up to kids to make decisions alone. We should be enabling them, coaching them."

To Liss Jeffrey, director of the McLuhan Global Research Network, and lecturer in communications at the University of Toronto, there is a more pressing problem amid this debate: the project's sustainability.

Connecting Earth's most remote, under-serviced and poorest areas to the Internet is a "phenomenally expensive" proposition.

The start-up funding is donated, she adds. But what happens down the line?

To the Kalahari Bushmen in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy, the sudden introduction of a Western artefact a Coke bottle that fell from the sky caused a multitude of problems.

Without proper guidance, strategies to share the object , or someone to explain the wiles of Western culture to the Bushmen, the new tool threatened their very existence.

The Xi character was appointed to throw the "evil thing" over the edge of a cliff.

Jeffrey fears that One Laptop per Child could lead to similar problems.

The initiative may be too Western and too individualistic to survive, she says, especially for many remote cultures, which emphasize community.

The best way to plant a seed and see it grow, she thinks, is to get locals involved in making decisions rather than thrusting Western ideals into their lives.

Jeffrey suggests setting up "telecentres" libraries that house technology for public use in addition to handing out laptops.

"It's a grave mistake to in effect limit the strategy to individuals," she says. "You need to be more flexible."

Despite those concerns Jeffrey applauds One Laptop per Child's vision, calling the effort "a wonderful example of collaborative work."

Nicholas Negroponte has been promoting this idea of the $100 PC for the developing world for a while now, and he's now showing off the proposed prototype with specs and some more details on how to implement the plan. The design calls for a laptop with 500 MHz processor, 1GB memory, four USB ports and a dual-mode display usable in full-color or in black-and-white, sunlight-readable mode. Power will be provided either via conventional electric current, batteries, or via a windup crank attached to the side of the notebook for usage in remote regions without a power grid.

The systems will be WiFi-enabled and able to connect via cellular networks, as well as including built-in mesh networking allowing multiple machines to share a single internet connection. Negroponte is working with MIT and five companies (Google, AMD, News Corp., Red Hat and BrightStar) to develop an ambitious 5 to 15 million test systems within the year, to be purchased at $100 a pop by governments in Brazil, China, Thailand, Egypt and South Africa and distributed for free to students. They're also now considering licensing the design for third parties to commercialize, with revenue cycling back into the One Laptop Per Child project.

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