Tuesday, December 5, 2006

OLPC - Is it a good idea?

Probably by now you've heard of Nicholas Negroponte's project called One Laptop Per Child or OLPC. The general purpose of the project is to devise a computer that costs not more than US$100 to manufacture including software and yet make it fully featured with useful applications so that these can be sold / donated to developing countries.

The idea is noble to say the least - give poor children a laptop to help their education and give them essential skills to compete in the developed countries of the world. There are also notable potential benefits of this project such as generating income by connecting small communities to the Internet where they have access to the world market and can sell authentic handmade items that they would otherwise not make or sell without any tourism. That's not to mention the computer skills that these children will invariably learn and be able to turn into viable computer services later in life.

I don't believe that one laptop per child is feasible however. Even if you could do it, it probably isn't a good idea to give each child one. Having fewer laptops than children promotes cooperation and sharing and in some senses team-building. If each child has their own laptop, they can simply sit alone and go off into their own world. Children who may not grasp the concepts as readily as others would likely feel isolated and have poorer self-esteem.

When I was growing up we did not have one computer per child in school or at home. We nearly always had to share and that need to share scarce resources was not a problem as much as it was a benefit that encouraged collaboration on computer projects.

Aside from the philosophical and ethical aspects of OLPC there's the technical and logistical issues:
  • There are a lot of children in the developing world; more than can reasonably be accommodated by this project
  • Not every child will want or be able to use a laptop
  • Clearly Microsoft and Apple will want a steak in this project in order to push their operating systems, even if the laptops are not pre-installed with either OS
  • How will these machines hold up in some of the more arid climates without overheating?
  • What kind of infrastructure will need to be put in place to make these laptops usable? Clearly electricity and probably some sort of Internet access are necessary, but who's going to pay for the infrastructure to be put in place? When factored in to the cost of the laptops, the price far exceeds US$100
While I think it's a worthy goal, I don't agree with the project in its current form. I think there a much greater need to work on problems of hunger, overpopulation, AIDS, and general lack of education before laptops are handed out to kids who don't know how to use them and are too weak from hunger to carry it around with them.

If the goal is to bring computerization and the Internet to developing countries, then that can be achieved with a couple of desktop computers per classroom, not by handing out plastic laptops to everyone. As a member of the "modern developed" world I personally find laptops to be annoying and harder to use than a traditional desktop computer. I would not wish a laptop on my enemies as a means of learning about computers and the Internet.

Let's leave the laptops where they are and address humanistic problems one at a time in order beginning with most important for survival, i.e. food, disease, and education.


wayan said...

The project does have its feasibility issues. Have you seen the OLPC goal of $150 Billion dollars for start up?


Brian Masinick said...

I think in 11 years there have been MANY changes - such as Raspberry units and greatly decreasing silicon costs, so this really has become much more feasible than it was then. You can get real working computer systems for under a $100 easily - either old hardware or small, simple, inexpensive components. We have both today; I'm not sure we had it then, but the expectation was that the cost would come down and it has - DRAMATICALLY so!