The developing world needs well-developed ideas

One Laptop Per Child is a good finale for a developing culture. It's not a good beginning

Bill Gates doesn't like the One Laptop Per Child project, which he says is too small, too fiddly, and missing the point.

Bill Gates got it right: the $100 portable is not the right tool for the job. He risks being seen as petulant: last year Microsoft was reportedly being "very friendly" towards the project until it got snubbed when Linux was chosen over Windows CE. Also, there's no lack of irony in his criticism of a portable platform in the same breath as he praises Origami. Nevertheless, his conclusion is sound.

We have previously expressed reservations about the project for three reasons: it uses advanced technology of uncertain robustness in places inimical to support, it requires infrastructures both technical and commercial that do not necessarily exist, and it does not seem to have been designed in conjunction with the people who'll use it.

To that we can now add worries that the screen and dynamo technology may not work in the first place, that the project is distracting focus and resources from other more appropriate efforts, and that there seems to be no clear idea how to organise the many disparate efforts necessary to start a developer community ("we could use some ideas… in regard to rollout and community building" says the OLPC Wiki, forlornly).

All of us, from Bill Gates down to Bob Gresham (deputy assistant sales manager at the Bognor Regis PC World) have a pressing imperative to help the developing world, and the enthusiastic response from all quarters for the project shows that attractive ideas push at an open door. But what seems like a good idea in the technological utopia of MIT is not blessed by the mere happenstance of its birth, nor because it fits with our experience of privilege.

Laptops are revolutionising our lives because they nestle comfortably in a cradle of reliable power and ubiquitous communications. What we see as personal technology is in reality part of an enormous machine, a machine that's absent for most of the world's poor. You can't package that in a $100 box. If Bill Gates and $100 laptop progenitor Nick Negroponte were to look at the places without light and listen to those without a voice, a laptop per child would not be first on the list. That can come later: one power socket per village and one megabit per community are much surer foundations for building a future.


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