Knowledge is a wonderful thing, and the more we can do to give people access to knowledge the better off the world will be. That's always been the vision underlying Nicholas Negroponte's bold "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) Initiative, which aims to put $100 laptops in the hands of people across the globe (especially in less-developed countries).
It's a noble goal and one that's almost impossible to argue with in theory. But, like everything else in this world that begins with good intentions, at some point you have to get around to dealing with basic economics, political realities and other technical issues. And those are the sort of growing pains that the OLPC project is experiencing right now. James Surowiecki brilliantly documents all this in an excellent article in this month's MIT Technology Review entitled "Philanthropy's New Prototype."
Surowiecki provides a short history of other philanthropic endeavors from the past century, such as Andrew Carnegie's remarkably successful campaign to bring public libraries to even the smallest American communities. He then compares Negroponte's OLPC Initiative to those efforts. Surowiecki notes that OLPC is ambitious not only in its goal of putting a laptop into the hands of every child, but in the way it proposes to structure the program to make it happen.
"But even if we don't know whether OLPC will succeed, we do know that if it does, it will represent a dramatic step forward for both computing and philanthropy. What OLPC will have done, after all, is figure out how to put computing power in the hands of millions more people by using dramatically new technologies. Just as important, OLPC will, should it succeed, serve as a new model for getting the nonprofit, private, and public sectors to work together efficiently and productively. In part because of frustration with government corruption and bureaucracy, and in part because of the American preference for private rather than public solutions to social problems, the idea of working with governments in the developing world has become increasingly less attractive to philanthropists. But there are problems too big to be solved by NGOs or corporations (or governments, for that matter)--problems that demand new kinds of alliances. OLPC is, in that sense, not just building a new computing machine. It's also building a new philanthropic machine, one as cobbled together and untraditional as the $100 laptop. The question that remains is just how well either of those machines will really work."
I have no idea whether the OLPC will come to serve as "a new model for getting the nonprofit, private, and public sectors to work together efficiently and productively." But I want to comment on a few other things here related to the technology and approach proposed by Negroponte and the OLPC program.
Before doing so I just want to add that few people in this field have had more influence on my own thinking about digital economy issues than Nicholas Negroponte. He is the author of the brilliant Being Digital (1995), one of the finest, most forward-looking books ever penned about digital economy & culture issues. (Ithiel de Sola Pool's amazing Technologies of Freedom (1983) is the only book that has had more of an influence on me). Being Digital is an eloquent paean to the digital age and convergence culture, and it is still as fresh today as it was when he penned it 11 years ago. And I still miss Negroponte's wonderful column that used to appear on the last page of Wired magazine each month. (Bring it back Nick!)
That being said, I've always thought that there was something a bit too "cart before the horse"-ish about Negroponte's OLPC vision. Look at it this way. Imagine for a moment that you where Bill Gates or Warren Buffett and had billions to throw around. Would you be willing to toss at least a small stack of it to the OLPC folks and see what comes of it? I think many of us would be tempted to say: "Sure, why not?"
Then again, I very much appreciate the approach that Gates and Buffett and using right now of zeroing in on some very basic health and human welfare needs and putting huge amounts of their collective resources at work to solve those problems. Malaria, AIDS, Tuberculosis, etc. This is very important stuff; far more important, in fact, than anything that the OLPC project might ever hope to accomplish. I think a good case should be made that food, shelter, clean water, basic health and electricity should all come before laptops and Internet access. At a minimum, putting food in their stomachs and roofs over their heads should certainly take precedent to putting computers on their laps.
Moreover, fundamental human rights and capitalistic freedoms are not even recognized in many less-developed nations that OLPC would likely target. This is a serious problem. If citizens have no guarantee that their life, liberty and property rights are secure, one wonders what good a laptop is going to do them.
There are even more practical questions here about what good those laptops would do if some very basic training was not offered. I don't want to sound elitist about this but I wonder if the citizens of extremely undeveloped countries have the education needed to put these laptops to good use. Do they know how to type? Also, if something quite basic goes wrong with the machine, will they know what to do, or will anyone nearby receive the basic training necessary to help solve those problems?
And even if the target population is advanced or educated enough, are laptops really the best choice of a device to subsidize? I think a better case could be made for PDAs instead. They can do almost everything a small laptop can do these days but do it cheaper, with less power, and (perhaps most importantly) be more easily hidden should some government thugs show up and want to confiscate them. Moreover, PDAs would also double as easy-to-use portable phones that would make it easier for citizens to communicate with each other than would laptops. And that added portability and voice communications capability might make it easier for populations to mobilize if they wanted to organize a protest or even revolt against a repressive government.
Having made all these skeptical points, I hope that some philanthropist out there will be willing to toss a little cash at the OLPC program, at least on an experimental basis. There may be some countries that are not so impoverished and that respect basic human rights that could really benefit from this program. And if it works -- and assuming we can get those other, more serious health and security problems addressed above under control -- then perhaps the OLPC program could gradually spread to less developed countries next.
But if I was Gates or Buffett, I think I'd keep my philanthropic efforts focused on exactly what they are currently working on and worry about laptops later. The world is full of opportunity costs and complex trade-offs, and this issue is no different. A dollar spent on subsidizing the diffusion of laptops could be a dollar not spent inoculating a child against a deadly disease, or getting them other basic necessities of life. I think I know where I'd put my money if I had a few billion to spend.