Home' Technology Review : November December 2006 Contents 54 FEATURE STORY
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would not be participating in the pro-
gram, he made precisely this point, argu-
ing that there were more cost-e ective
ways to improve student performance
than buying laptops from OLPC. This
objection carries so much weight pre-
cisely because of OLPC s unusual struc-
ture. If the organization were purely a
charity, building and buying the com-
puters with its own money, we might
question its priorities, but we all know
that charities spend billions of dollars
every year on less-than-urgent projects
with which their donors are obsessed.
And we accept this, because we assume
it s better that money get spent on some
philanthropic endeavor than on none.
In the case of OLPC, though, tax dol-
lars are at stake.
Ultimately, the critiques of OLPC
can be divided into two types: those
having with to do with technology and
those having to do with what one might describe as eth-
ics. Some of the technological objections can seem frivo-
lous: a machine with a readable 7.5-inch screen, three USB
2.0 ports, power-saving features, 512 megabytes of ash
memory, and a working operating system is not a "gadget."
Some will be answerable only a few months from now,
when we nd out whether the laptop passes its eld tests.
As for the argument that cellular phones will be a better
route to Internet access in most of the developing world for
the foreseeable future, their advantages have to be balanced
against their disadvantages: a minuscule screen and no key-
board. "Suggesting that cell phones are an alternative is
like saying we can use postage stamps to read textbooks,"
Negroponte says. "Books have a purposeful size, based
on how the eye works and the ability to engage peripheral
and foveal vision at the same time for browsing. It is not
by chance that atlases are bigger than timetables." It is tr ue
that connecting the phone to a keyboard and a television
would yield what amounts to a personal computer. But that
would erode the cost advantage of cell phones and, worse,
tether students to particular spots (assuming, of course,
that they even have televisions).
And while connecting laptops to the Internet is obvi-
ously fundamental to OLPC s vision of how the project
will change kids lives, the mesh-networking technology
embedded in the laptops will be valuable even when Inter-
net connections aren t available. "To me, nowadays, a com-
puter that s not connected to the Net is useless," Beard says.
"But allowing kids in a school to network all of their com-
puters together, even when they re not on the Net, is actu-
ally important from an educational point of view, because
it allows them to collaborate and to learn from each other
in a way that they wouldn t have been able to before." In
any case, cell phones don t need to lose if OLPC wins, and
vice versa: on the contrary, it s clearly best for the develop-
ing world if lots of companies and nonpro ts are compet-
ing to supply them with new technologies.
It may be di cult for poorer governments to justify
spending a good chunk of their education budgets on lap-
tops. But the reality of both philanthropic and government
spending is that money often goes to projects that do not
help as many people, or people who are as needy, as other
projects might. These projects may not be perfect, but they
can still do tremendous good. In the post-Reconstr uction
United States, after all, there were lots of worthwhile things
Carnegie could have done with his money; in fact, in many
of the towns where he built libraries, citizens grumbled
that their tax dollars should be going to something that
really mattered. Yet in the long run, one would be hard
pressed to say that either Carnegie or the taxpayers wasted
that money, because the social bene ts of disseminating
knowledge are so immense.
Similarly, it may be a mistake to assume that technology
is something only wealthy nations can a ord, and that
poorer nations are better o concentrating on basics like
health and water. On the contrary, a country can, as the
PLUGGED IN Nicholas Negroponte and United Nations secretary-
general Kofi Annan promote One Laptop per Child at the World
Summit on the Information Society in November 2005. Annan
called the initiative "a truly moving expression of global solidarity."
ERIC FERERBERG/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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