Sunday, February 24, 2008

one laptop per child

A very nice charity related offer went around my company a while back -- as part of the "give one, get one" program (offered by the olpc folks) you had the opportunity to buy one of the olpc laptops, and you would get a second one for free sent to a deserving child in the developing world. My company matched this, so you'd be responsible for 4 laptops. People I never really thought of as particularly charitable went out and bought a laptop, which I thought was quite amazing. I didn't. For some reason i could never really put my finger on, the whole olpc concept made me slightly uncomfortable. I didn't understand why the answer to poverty in Africa was a laptop when getting clean drinking water is such a problem. I understand that this laptop was designed very well, but that design is based on a lot of specifications that i'm not sure make sense. I guess what I'm saying is, why a laptop?

This article sums up my concerns nicely. So often people try to help but end up mis-targeting culturally or not defining the objectives correctly. Is a laptop that's readable in the sun really what's going to help people get out of poverty? Is that what's necessary? Or is it a cool design challenge?

I have this innate sense that what will work in Africa will be deceptively simple. It will be removing cotton subsidies in the US, or a robust, cheap device that filters water for drinking and increases the average lifespan, thereby making people *want* to be successful and entrepreneurial because they will be around to enjoy it. Or maybe it will just be getting the governments stable and honest. Or a successful African entrepreneur who builds a business on the mobile networks (why is this a laptop and not a phone?). It won't be a fancily designed laptop that is the western world's idea of what an african child wants to use.

The charitable world doesn't have a market allowing successful ideas to rise and unsuccessful ones to fail, so how do we evaluate the effectiveness of an effort, when a charity has an incentive to pretend that what it's doing is great, even if it isn't?

This is clearly a very cool laptop, with awesome design principles and creative ideas. Apparently the give one, get one program sold 162,000 laptops. But I think the cool things they did with this laptop are perhaps more targeted towards kids in developed countries, and as such these principles and cool ideas should live and die on the market like any others.

From the article:

Q: We understand that Bill Gates and some others in this business have criticized this initiative as untenable. What is your response to this?

A: I don't respond to such criticism. Because criticizing this project is like criticizing the Church, or the Red Cross.

-Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the $100 laptop movement, as quoted by
The Daily Vanguard, Nigeria


  1. who shared that article with you! :)

    so, in the workshop i attended yesterday, paulo blikstein made the interesting point that we often think "what concepts from our own developed world will work in the developing world" and he turned that on its head as we discussed repurposing -- the reuse of items at a more granulalr level than the whole item -- like break open the tape recorder to use the motor powering the mechanism.

    in brazil, and in many other developing countries, repurposing makes a lot of sense, cost-wise. i think repurposing could actually be a big component of reducing consumption and doing better with the resources we have on this planet. it could help with sustainability and combating climate change.

    his point was that this is a concept that we should think about transfering to the developed world. we specifically responded to this point and many of us said "oh i'm not sure that we can do that, the developed world, particular america, is so different." so is it any wonder that people in developing nations might be like "what the hell is with this laptop?" sure, it has had a lot of smart design go into it.. but.. is it appropriate? how to make it so? how do we inject repurposing into our culture?

    lori and i chatted about this a bit and she was very skeptical that we could do much because our culture is so different. we'd be asking for a big change in behaviors. but she always disagrees with me!

  2. anonymous,

    thank you so much for posting that link! that organization sounds so interesting, and they're here at MIT so maybe i could go visit and find out more about them. how fantastic.


    a little tree shared it with me :)

    repurposing sort of came up in that story of stuff consumption video, didn't it? i think there is a subculture in the US which is quite interested in it. one thing i noticed is that the skills to do repurposing -- using tools, taking things apart, carpentry, soldering, building -- are becoming lost in today's world as we become more specialized. i don't even know how to change a tire! i would just as soon buy a new thing if something broke instead of figuring out how to fix it, which is sad. perhaps if we teach these skills more (make everyone take shop?) we can bring repurposing into our culture.

  3. it's interesting you mention changing a tire.. see hein's recent blog post.

    i don't think everyone needs to be specially educated in this area. i think the tinkering spirit can be developed without you necessarily learning all the skills.. i think it's more that from a young age you need to encourage it.

  4. you know what? I totally agree with each of your points, and I'm now with you, although I was very impressed by David Pogue's review of the XO

  5. Check out this movement called Design for the Other 90%, it's exactly what you're looking for, I think.

  6. You've touched on some fundamental ideas in economics in this post and your intuition is spot-on.

    - Without a price signal there will be a misallocation of resources

    - Poverty cannot be solved by giving gifts or showering money on people. Poverty is only solved when people are given the opportunity to trade freely and have the incentive to create real wealth through enterprise. Ending tariffs would be a great beginning to helping ameliorate penury among African farmers and the continent in general.

    - Bottom up innovation is what brings real progress. You alluded to a cheap device that filters water. These things are the product of innovation and an occasion to trade. They cannot be mandated by central committees, however good their intentions.