The $100 Laptop – Good idea but not for the intended use.

In Uncategorized on August 4, 2006 at 9:12 pm

I read this one this morning, in the latest print edition of Wired: Wired 14.08: The Laptop Crusade.

The first time I heard about the $100 laptop I felt angry… it was the same anger I felt when I heard, in 1999, that the new US Ambassador to Niger wanted “Internet in all the villages of Niger.” It was just preposterous. Silly. Short sighted. Ignorant. I put that idea into the back of my head and tried to forget I’d ever heard it, let alone who I’d heard it from.

So when I came across this article in Wired I felt the same pangs, until I started to read along and really think about the implications of the project, in its entirety.

Yves Behar, the designer featured in the article, made a good point. He said basically that not all poor people are poor African Villagers. That is a point well taken on my part; I tend to assume that I know poverty from my time in Niger. While I do have a handle on Muslim-Francophone West African Sahelian Poverty, I suppose that there are degrees of poverty where a $100 laptop would be feasible.

But what really got me thinking was the narrowness of this project. It’s almost backward engineering; it’s backward planning, at least. The idea is to design an indestructable laptop that runs on a massive local area network, where the laptop will act as both a master textbook and as a portal to the wider world. People are having visions of bringing the world together through technology and having poor kids leapfrog technologically into the 20th century.

My feeling is that the technology should be tested by the market first. This indestructible $100 laptop should, at a minimum, be tested here before it goes live in a place more like my personal vision of true poverty. The basic idea of networked laptops acting as a universal textbook/looseleaf/notebook, like my old Trapper-keeper, seems like something that would catch on in any modern American school.

Introducing technology out of the blue into a foreign environment is always a hard uphill battle. There are so many different variables that have to be considered around the introduction of this $100 laptop. For example, many school systems may not be functioning, or the teachers are poorly trained, unpaid, or otherwise unmotivated. The same goes for the staff to maintain the network infrsstructure required to make this whole project work.

Finally, I find myself coming back to the idea of holistic development. Kick-ass computer gear is just not going to catch on if the communities have no water, medical care, etc. It seems to me like this kind of thing is being kept in mind with this project.

(Note: I started this post two weeks ago… but my wife is due with baby #2 in the next 2 weeks and I’ve finally been working… so I’m just too busy to blog as much as I’d like!)


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