One laptop per child is changing its strategy?

“I have to some degree underestimated the difference between shaking the hand of a head of state and having a check written,” said Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of the nonprofit project. “And yes, it has been a disappointment.”

This is quote from a NY Times article i bumped in following Samantha’s post on facebook. This is a bit sad and interesting at the same time. I don’t know if it was naive of Negraponte to believe that distribution through governments will work in the first place, but i don’t want to think that. I think we have to give credit to man and his vision. Maybe one has to go through the bureaucracy of working with governments before they can examine alternatives. Maybe this is a part of social structures governing our world? Or maybe i am reading too much Durkheim recently :)

So, OLPC are launching a Christmas sale where people in North America could by that laptop for four times the price ($400 instead of $100, but that is still rather cheap) and by doing that donate another one to a kid in developing country. Sounds interesting, but there was one thing that really annoyed me:

“Staff members of the laptop project were concerned that American children might try the pared-down machines and find them lacking compared to their Apple, Hewlett-Packard or Dell laptops.”

I think this indicates a bit of a hypocritical approach. On the one hand you promote development, but on the other you are doing this by offering people a second class tools? Is this how development should work? Something that is not good enough by my standards i will give to the other who in the first place has less? I don’t see why, particularly with such an innovative approach to technology and its potential role into development, this set of mind was characterizing OLCP’s team approach. I would expect them to think out of the box and actually provide that neat, cheap tool that not only wouldn’t be inferior, but would be an equal competitor to the existing, more expensive models. After all they put many years, brains, and money into developing it.

Gladly though, the studies they run among youth this summer showed that the laptops are actually perceived as cool, and i think this is the way it should have been in the first place. Originally the laptop should have been designed to be cool and good, to be a working machine.  Maybe it’s time we rethink the way we think about development in the first place.

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12 Responses to “One laptop per child is changing its strategy?”

  1. One laptop per child is changing its strategy? Says:

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  2. lisa Says:

    On the first point…

    I’m kind of glad this won’t be a top-down distribution. It strikes me that the OLPC alternative distribution mechanism is missing something. Here is what I would see happening: USAID or AUSAID or whateverAID money allocated for digital divide stuff goes directly to the Negroponte foundation (forget what it’s called) rather than to the corrupt/not-quite-trustworthy-with-large-sums governments of the digitally-divided nations top be distributed from the top down on feathering certain people’s nests. Instead the money goes directly to the solution and the aid volunteers (I know AUSAID has them) can distribute and set the $100 laptops up ON THE GROUND from the bottom up in those countries! In this case, any profits from the OLPC sales would be forced to go back into digital inclusion activity.

    On the second point… I think this is more a perception issue than a reality. The $100 laptop is well engineered and I would be proud to have one. Sure, some American will find them less cool, if for no other reason than because they’re cheap — consumerism works like that. Another reason why I don’t really like this alternative OLPC distribution mechanism.

  3. Dima Says:

    I am not sure how efficient the “USAID or AUSAID or whateverAID” in doing what you envision them to do. I am afraid that the AIDS can be as bureaucratic and subject to the same mechanisms as the governments are (I may well be wrong, i just don’t know). I would actually seek to partner with existing initiatives that are dealing with digital divide and have a record of activity.

    However, i have no idea also how the current solution is supposed to work. After someone here buy a laptop and the other one is supposed to be donated – how exactly is it going to be executed? Maybe there is an answer on OLPC website, but i haven’t had a chance to check.

    I agree with you that it is perception issues. The sad part for me was that it was the perception of people who developed it. How can you expect others to appreciate your creation, if you yourself are viewing it as inferior?

  4. Leonid Says:

    Oh, come on. I hope I misunderstood you.
    What do you expect? Do you think you could give every kid in Nigeria an executive level Sony VAIO? A sad but obvious truth of life — beggars shouldn’t be choosers. Of course, things you buy for your own money are always better then something given away.
    “On the one hand you promote development, but on the other you are doing this by offering people a second class tools? Is this how development should work?” Of course, it is. One’s first car is rarely a Porsche. They simply won’t appreciate a good machine. Besides, it perfectly answers their needs — they hardly need anything more than a browser or a text editor.
    OLPC’s main design requirement was cost, not performance or user experience. They needed to squeeze decent hardware (i.e. one, that will be able to boot an OS and some sort of graphical environment) into $100, which is a very impressive engineering goal. They failed, so that now only half of the kids will get a laptop. Of course, they could put another 256Mb of memory in there, but that would reduce a number of kids by another half.
    By the way, about the memory — did you look on its hardware specs? It’s has a 7.5″ display and Geode processor. American kids will find it “lacking”, duh. I think it won’t even be able to boot Windows XP.

  5. Leonid Says:

    And now to something completely different. I think making OLPCs available in developed countries is a huge mistake.
    According to Ela, most of the humanitarian aid arriving to a third world country never even leave the airport. Corrupt officials just move the container into another plain and sell it back to Europe or America.
    If it is unavailable in America, it will make stolen ones much easier to track.
    Or, they can just sell them in pink or orange. :).

  6. Dima Says:

    I am afraid you understood me correctly. I think that many of approaches to development are screwed these days. You cannot really “develop” by consciously developing second class citizens. Why bother than? What good will it do? Maybe it is better just leave it as is then? Let the weak die and the strong mind diamonds… But if you are talking about development the underlying logic is that you are treating others as equally human as you are. And if you are doing that, why is it OK to provide them with second class tools? I can somehow by into this idea when you are talking about recycling hardware, and using whatever you already got. But this thing was in advance developed for developmental purposes, so why consciously developing a bad product even if it is cheap? I doubt that refurbishing an old computer would cost over $100 and that one would answer the needs for text and browser.

    The idea that “they hardly need anything more than a browser or a text editor” is not only arrogant. What is it based on? Check out Nokia experience for example. They figured out that people do not want the outdated mobiles when they are actually buying those in Africa. And guess what, they are also finding creative uses to it, not just the basic conversation. I think this idea of “they don’t need much” is part of the way we tend to think about development in general. Again, if you do not expect them to “develop” to the same level as you are, why bother?

    And as to corruption, of course it is there. This is why i think distributing it via governments was a mistake in the firs place. However, saying that most humanitarian aid is turned around is a bit of exaggeration. Although i don’t have the figures, i wouldn’t just cancel it out. I would use local, established NGOs to do the job of distributing and laptops and implementing the educational programs. not the governments.

    I also don’t think that anyone would track stolen $100 or $200 laptops by looking at what people are using in a public park. It just makes more sense simply to make them available for general public.

    And guess what, it is not supposed to run Windows XP :) It is all actually open source and i guess from all people you might love it. But we will find out how good or bad of a machine it is just in about two months.

  7. Leonid Says:

    And guess what, it is not supposed to run Windows XP :) It is all actually open source and i guess from all people you might love it.
    Look at the wording in my comment — it says “OS” and “graphical environment” when talking about OLPC and “Windows XP” about what American kids won’t like about it. :)
    Fast calculation. The amount of the computers they can manufacture and give away is inversely proportional to the cost. They failed to design a $100 laptop, but managed to design a $185 one. That means that in every hundred of designated recipients, exactly 46 remain without a computer. Let’s add another 256 Mb RAM. It is indispensable — without it, it takes Windows 20 extra seconds to boot. Another 60 dollars, which makes it another 13 computers less. But the remaining 41 (out of initial 100) will receive a first-class citizens boot time.
    And they really don’t need much. You want to teach these people basic computer literacy. So OK, this computer won’t be able to boot Vista and won’t run even games published 5 years ago. I’m sure that those that do receive this laptop will appreciate an ability to play. But you have two options:
    a) reach some number of people and theoretically be able to teach them MatLab, or b) reach twice (or trice) this number and teach them Google.
    Btw, do you insist on 6.1 audio support or simple stereo will do? I doubt that a computer with stereo-only sound would sell in America.
    Last thing, you somehow tend to get emotional about it. Think about it pragmatically. “Second class tools”, “why bother”, “what good will it do” are just words. Second-class tools have 60% functionality of the first-class ones, but come at a fraction of the price and are more then capable of doing the job. It will do the good of bridging a gap a bit. Some day, when all the African children will complain about suboptimal performance in Photoshop, we’ll have to come up with new ideas.

  8. PressPosts / User / Cooooot / Submitted Says:

    http://pressposts.com/Technology/One-laptop-per-child-is-changing-its-strategy/

    Submited post on PressPosts.com – “One laptop per child is changing its strategy?”

  9. lisa Says:

    Dima, perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I definitely don’t envision the national aid organisations playing any active role in distributing $100 laptops, precisely because they are difficult beaurocracies like you mentioned.

    No, I am talking about the aid *money*! Australia, for instance, apparently allocates 1% of the national annual budget via AusAID on development. Of course, the reality is that it is spent on detention centres in Nauru and on contracts for Australian companies to do stuff in the developing Asia Pacific countries, but if that money is genuinely ear-marked for aid then a proposal is possible for it to be spent on Negroponte laptops which are then distributed via on-the-ground volunteer networks or local NGOs you speak of.

  10. Nadya Says:

    I don’t want to sound cynical, but IMHO kids in developing countries would benefit much more from improved health care than from laptops…

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