Lap this up

The Internet is Father. The Internet is Mother. The Internet reached out its hand and gave us all life.

So it sort of pains me to say that the goal of achieving one laptop per child may not necessarily be a good thing…

The Mission Statement of the one laptop per child foundation

… is to stimulate local grassroots initiatives designed to enhance and sustain over time the effectiveness of XO laptops as learning tools for children living in lesser-developed countries.

local grass-roots initiatives, sustainability, learning tools, children, lesser-developed countries? Blimey. How worthy is that? These eco-friendly words could never be used to promte a BAD THING, surely?

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a less-developed country, but I seem to remember that, after food*, the crying needs for learning tools were for pencils and paper. Pencils, ffs. They don’t cost more than a couple of pence wholesale. You could probably pass one out to every needy kid in Senegal, say, for less than the cost of a handful of these laptops.

Well the BBC said:

A team of US-based researchers, backed by a billionaire, have re-invented the computer in an attempt to revolutionise education in the developing world.

I love the “backed by a billionaire” touch. Another selfless billionaire who couldn’t possibly be looking for new products and new markets. Or have an interest in spreading consumerist values. Or in getting national governments to support setting up digital network infrastructures.

Who is this mystery philanthropist?

Well, Internet research isn’t an exact science, so bear with me here.

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte? Wow, that name sounds oddly familiar. Well according to wikipedia, among a range of other distinctions, he

is the younger brother of John Negroponte, current United States Deputy Secretary of State.

About whom wikipedia is also pretty forthcoming. It starts with:

He is currently serving as the United States Deputy Secretary of State. Prior to serving in this capacity, he was the first ever Director of National Intelligence.
Negroponte served in the United States Foreign Service, from 1960 to 1997. He had various tours of duty as a United States ambassador, including a three-year ambassadorship to the Philippines, from 1993 to 1996. He subsequently served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from 2001 to 2004, and was ambassador to Iraq from June 2004 to April 2005……

What a career! Studded with involvement in such uncontroversial American adventures as Iraq and anti-Sandanista actions.

From 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. During this time, military aid to Honduras grew from $4 million to $77.4 million a year, and the US began to maintain a significant military presence there, with the goal of providing a bulwark against the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which had overthrown the Somoza government and then created a state with close ties to both Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Now, I know some brothers are estranged and all that. For all I know, the Negroponte extended family observes no kinship rituals. So it’s more than possible that John and Nick don’t even exchange Christmas newsletters. And that they don’t share any social and political goals. So don’t jump to conclusions…..

Just saying.

(Compare and contrast the media fuss over government workers adding the odd “allegedly” to Wikipedia entries with uncritical media presentation of one laptop per child programme. There are also several techy blogs welcoming it as ironing out the digital divide E.g. Live stuff)

* plus a few other things like “staying alive till their tenth birthdays”, “accessible clean water”, “not getting shot”, “not living on the streets” or “not working on rubbish tips” and so on, but let’s not lose our sense of humour here……..

7 thoughts on “Lap this up

  1. Pingback: University Update - Iraq - Lap this up

  2. Heather, I have to disagree with you on this one. I think that knowledge and communications in the hands of the impoverished children will create a whirlwind of change. Pencils are no good when there are no books or teachers. A laptop gives kids access to all the world’s knowledge. Cell phone service is widespread even in the poorest areas, and this is how the machines will connect.

    The only problem I have with Negroponte’s XO boxes is that they’re too expensive. Others in India are working on $10 versions. Either way, these are tools of a revolution.

  3. Well, I have to disagree with Black Sun for a change! While I agree with the ultimate goal, the immediate one should be LITERACY and sustaining life. There’s nothing wrong with a program that would start by providing teachers with recycled laptops that are going to waste here (in the capitol of waste), with an additional program aimed at getting same to the most intellectually advanced students who can both immediately benefit and inspire their fellow students to work hard at educating themselves. This would provide billions in extra capital that can be used for food and shelter and improving the teachers.

    As a side note: I remember Negraponte from his days in Central America. He was not on my list of “good guys”.

  4. Black Sun.

    I agree with you about the value of spreading access to knowledge. I think my problem with this project is to do with the way the issue gets presented without anyone thinking that there may be problems as well as benefits.

    (“”, the comment anti-spam wont let me link) In Wikipedia’s list of countries by per capita income, the bottom 3 countries have a lower per capita income than the cost of one $150 pc. In about 70 countries the annual income per person is less than the cost of 10 of these $150 PCs.

    Who will pay for these computers and the network access? National governments? Charities? The UN?

    They would possibly all be better off making sure there are basic materials and teachers, with access to online resources in central locations. There are more than enough ancient working computers in the world to achieve this. Disposing of unwanted PCs is becoming a pollution problem all by itself.

    John B put the point well. Development goals should be literacy and sustaining life.

  5. Heather and John B,

    I think the discussion here is about “appropriate technology,” and it is an important one. has a lot of this kind of information, and is a great resource. An example of appropriate technology for impoverished countries would be the Lifestraw or solar-powered radios that cost less than a dollar. But information technology also has the ability to change lives in ways that are not always obvious.

    For example, subsistence farmers are now able to access world crop market data on their cell phones and therefore not get ripped off by unscrupulous buyers. Also, widespread ability of cell phones (which are often shared by several if not dozens of people in villages) has enabled people getting by on a dollar a day to have access to microloans to finance things like hand crank water pumps or bicycles. These small tech advances have completely revolutionized the way things are done for tens of millions of the poorest people on earth.

    I would of course be in favor of getting them access to clean drinking water and basic vaccinations–pencils and teachers too! But we cannot discount the role of technology to enable leapfrogging of poor societies to enjoy some of the same advantages we do. Remember when the most basic computers cost thousands?. Now they are $100, heading towards $10. Combined with renewable microenergy devices (that burn cow dung or other biomass, or use microhydro or solar inputs) and you are building the ladder to help huge numbers of people lift and educate themselves.

    I’ll close with one more example of appropriate technology: A plastic water carrier shaped like a wheel. This thing holds somewhere around 40 gallons and can be pulled along the ground to easily transport water from communal wells to where it is needed. I applaud all such efforts to end human suffering through better technology and design.


    Would it matter if even Dick Cheney or Ann Coulter supported such technology, as long as it was helping people?

  6. Black sun

    Ok, you win.

    I think what I and John B were saying is- go for appropriate technology first.

    What makes me uneasy about this is not really who is supporting it, so much as the priorities being set from above in global terms, and by people who may have other cultural and political concerns. I’m not convinced that the people it is aimed at would recognise it as meeting their most pressing educational need.

    Without a long boring rehash of the development courses I did at University a good while ago, I’d have to say it is most likely to help to bring more of the world into the consumer society

    Of course, at the same time, it may give tools to challenge the situation. Being without access to computers and the net is becoming more and more like being illiterate, in terms of being unable to access knowledge. So I am not actually against it, just a bit dubious.

  7. Hi Heather,

    Thanks. I wasn’t hoping to ‘win,’ just to bang the drum a little for science. As far as consumer society is concerned? I think the poorest people are the ones who most *wish* they had a consumer society.

    My hope is that they can build a sustainable consumer society as their living standards rise.

    Anyway, good discussion–keep your great posts coming.


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