Innappropriate Technology

In International Development, Technology on December 2, 2006 at 5:27 am

Those of you interested in international development should be familiar with the term “appropriate technology” – the concept of having the appropriate tools in the hands of the people who will use them. In practical terms, this means not shipping Caterpillar tractors built for commercial farms in the midwest to subsistence farmers in sandy, dry West Africa.

I’ve blogged about it before, but the whole one-laptop-per-child thing is really bugging me. The NYT posted another article about it.

I just can’t understand how this is supposed to work in a poor country where they have no technology, while here in the US and in Europe where we’ve had ample time and resources to use and adapt the same thing, it hasn’t happened. I’ve lived around silicon valley since high school – and I’ve got both family and friends in the education field. They all use technology, but the kids still have to learn handwriting and how to add and subtract on their own. I kind of see this as my parents not allowing my first wristwatch to be digital, so I could learn how to tell time on an analog clock.

I really don’t want to be bursting such an idealistic bubble. I very much admire the motivation and idealism that the MIT and OLPC people have invested in the project – I would just love to hear more from the potential recipients. It was my experience in Niger that the locals would never say no when an aid organization offered them something, regardless of what it was. Anything free is good. I’m almost positive that once this starts getting out into the field, the laptops will start being resold immediately.

This is not to mention a whole host of other things in the NYT article I linked above – things like charging up the machine, replacing the screen lamp – “A child could do it!” I’m just seeing a whole bunch of constant hand-holding and tech support making this totally unsustainable as a development project. You just can’t introduce this into a place that has absolutely no experience with it. Better to get it into more computer-savvy hands for a while to see if they’re a viable learning tool.

  1. -sarcasm on-What, you don’t believe in Negroponte’s implementation miracle? That children with “learn learning” instantly and without help? You must be living in that “reality” thing. -sarcam off-


  2. kudos for a dash of healthy skepticism all around. the no-laptop-left-behind initiative may have a grand impact but it likely to be in the ‘costs and marketing of low-end laptops’ sector with only indirect benefits to the intended recipients.


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