Journalists clamour to get a look at the first working prototype of the 0 laptop, unveiled at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis on 16 November. Source: ITU / H. DridiImagine if every child in the world were linked to
the internet. Even in the wastes of the Sahara, the slums of Sao Paulo
or the jungles of Thailand they could do courses in astrophysics,
play on-line games, watch CNN, get spam about Viagra and access the complete works of Shakespeare.

Nicholas
Negroponte, the American technology futurist, is doing more than
imagining it. He is overseeing the manufacture and distribution of 100
million laptops by the end of 2006 to be sold for a mere US$100 each.
The rugged green machine will have a full colour screen which will do
nearly everything except store huge amounts of data. It will also have
USB ports galore, 1 gigabyte of data storage and wireless links to the
internet. Power supply in remote villages? No problem. Negroponte’s
famous Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has
developed a wind-up battery.  

The One Laptop Per Child
project was showcased last month in Tunisia, at the United Nations
summit on information technology. When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan
cranked the computer up, the handle broke, but he was not discouraged.
“Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through
instruction,” he said enthusiastically. “They will be able to open up
new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning.”

So
far the MIT group has knocked the unit cost down to about $130 by
lowering the cost of the display, using free open-source software, and
manufacturing by the million. The governments of China, Brazil,
Thailand, and Egypt are all interested and the governor of
Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, hopes to order 500,000 for schoolchildren.
Manufacturing will begin when 5 to 10 million machines have been
ordered and paid for.

The idea is strongly supported by the IT
industry. Five corporate sponsors, including News Corporation and
Google, have chipped in $2 million each. Negroponte’s luminary
reputation helps. His name is synonymous with MIT’s Media Lab, which
focuses on the human interaction with technology, and he helped to
found Wired magazine. He counts Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell amongst his bosom pals.

Educational goals
The
ultimate real goal of the project is educational, however, not
technological. “This is not about machines,” says Seymour Papert, a
child learning expert who works with Negroponte on the OLPC project.
“It is the next big step toward a vision of learning being transformed
as radically as medicine, communications and entertainment.”  .

In
societies where everyone has access to a computer and nearly everyone
is wired up to the internet, distributing millions of $100 laptops to
children in countries where $1 a day is a fair wage seems a brilliant
idea. But is it? Could it be another utopian project driven by an
unquestioning enthusiasm for technology?

Two experts consulted by MercatorNet were
reassuring. Dr Paul Nightingale, of Sussex University in the UK, an
expert on technology
development, says that the impact of IT in developing countries has
been largely positive. “One technology that has had a big impact on the
very poor has been the mobile phone,” he wrote in an email. “Phone
booths are opening up all over Africa and allow farmers to make sure
that there is a market for their crops. Previously they ran the risk of
taking their good to markets where there were no buyers and the crops
would either be sold for cattle feed or left to rot.”

Another
was Dr Sugata Mitra, of Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. His
own project of a “hole in the wall” computer for poor children has
become world famous. He placed a kiosk with a PC with an internet
connection in a Delhi street with no instructions. Children immediately
began using the machines and quickly became computer literate. He feels
that the laptops will be an extremely effective learning tool. “Our
experiments show an order of magnitude decrease in costs over the
formal system. Even more importantly, computers and the internet will
get cheaper and more effective while teachers will get dearer and of
poorer quality,” he told MercatorNet. “Primary education in rural and disadvantaged communities have no choice but to rely on technology.”

The critics
Others
with experience of using computers for children in developing countries
are more sceptical. Lee Felsenstein, of the Fonly Institute in Silicon
Valley, introduced computers into a remote village in Laos. His company
specialises in low-cost, locally-operated, sustainable systems for
rural communities. He has lots of questions for Negroponte. “So far as
can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user
populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and
cultural constructs,” he writes on his blog. Along with others, he asks
whether the MIT group has studied how to distribute the machines. “If
it goes forward as currently described, the laptops will most likely
wind up in other than students’ hands.” If children get valuable
computers for free, they might end up being sold — or never reaching
them.

From Peru come questions about how laptops will be
integrated into faltering education systems. Eduardo Villanueva
Mansilla, of the Pontificia Universidad Católica, is another sceptical
blogger: “Considering that many developing countries haven’t reached
the point where the goals of education are clear and understood by all
those involved, the main danger of a project like this one is to create
a huge mirage of understanding, one where the main thrust of education
is to turn kids into techno-savvy individuals with the potential to
find and understand all the information they need for themselves,
without consideration of little things like social cohesion, a common
historical frame of reference for all, development of local knowledge,
promotion of aboriginal languages, and a really long list following.
School is about all of them, not just the nice but narrow focus that
OLPC has.”

What effect immersion in Western technology and
culture will have on traditional societies is another issue. “I am sure
that there is little analysis of what the impact will be,” says Dr
Nightingale. But in any case he thinks that it is almost impossible to
predict what changes will occur in a society as a result of
technological change.

And Dr Mitra says optimistically that
India can absorb the challenges offered by exposure to the internet. “I
think it not a question of what the internet will do to such children,
it is a question of what the children will do to the internet. I think
India and her children have a culture that is not easy to change.
Instead of the internet causing cultural change, I think Indian
children will cause cultural change in the internet. This has happened
before — to Alexander, to the Mughals, to the British, to cable TV,
why not to the internet?”

The dark side of the internet
And
no one seems too worried about the tough issue that confronts parents
already hooked up to the internet: pornography. Dr Mitra’s experience
is positive: “In my experiments, access is public and in large groups.
This automatically stops pornographic access. Pornography is a personal
and alone kind of thing. No one does it in public and in heterogenous
groups. After all mum might pass by! In the case of laptops,
pornography could be a problem, though not with under 13-year old
children. Screens must be bright and visible to others. That, more than
any complicated software will stop pornographic access.”

It
does seem that the OLPC initiative is long on technology but short on
social impact. However, the United Nations is committed to building an
“inclusive information society”. It wants to see more than half the
world wired to the internet by 2015. Negroponte’s dream is just one
scheme amongst many which will eventually transform the developing
world. But surely more thought ought to be given to possible drawbacks
of galloping technological change.

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He writes from Melbourne, Australia.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.