Give a man a computer ...

Give a man a computer ...

Summary: At the end of his piece OLPC backlash continues, Chris Dawson asks his readers to "... explain how we can rationalize the opportunity costs of XO rollouts in OLPC’s target markets?

TOPICS: Hardware

Marc WagnerAt the end of his piece OLPC backlash continues, Chris Dawson asks his readers to "... explain how we can rationalize the opportunity costs of XO rollouts in OLPC’s target markets?" It's a very good question with lots of complex answers, as evidenced by some interesting replies from those in the third world who have benefited greatly by their government's efforts to connect them to the "information superhighway".

John Dvorak's rant aside, if we put the discussion in the context of giving starving children a computer and expecting anything to come of it, the point is made. You can't justify giving a starving kid a laptop. But does the OLPC project really take food out of the mouths of starving children in order to give them a computer? No, it does not!

There are foundations all over the world distributing food and medical supplies to those in need. Besides, delivering food to the people of sub-Saharan is not all that simple ...

Many of you don't remember the "USA for Africa" project (United Support of Artists for Africa) from the middle 1980's -- though you may remember the music! It was a worthy cause for certain but a cause which was in many respects a dismal failure. Why? Because the promoters spent the money on food (which was the point) but did not consider how that food was going to be delivered to the people who needed it most. (For instance, those Africans not living near cities and towns where there were airports, and warehouses, and trucks, and roads.) Much of the food bought from that effort ended up rotting on the tarmac in African airports because there were no arrangements made to get the food to those who were starving. The assumption was that the government of the recipient nation would take care of that.

Times have changed and those professional organizations who distribute food and medical supplies have met a lot of those challenges -- in large part because of the awareness created by "USA for Africa" -- despite its failures.

From the start, Nicholas Negroponte has put the OLPC project in the context of those children of the third world who are not starving. The images he creates are of schoolchildren living in jungle huts, without electricity, without textbooks, but nevertheless near a functioning village with a school and presumably with some kind of wireless access to the Internet. The greatest strength of the OLPC model is that even a lame computer like the XO can store hundreds of textbooks, great literature, and images from around the world. It can easily be argued that in a severely humid environment, such as a rain forest, a weatherized laptop is far more suitable than a library full of books printed on paper.

Now whether one-laptop-per-child makes more sense than one desktop for many children is an entirely different question but the value of bringing information to schoolchildren and their teachers is clear and is indeed the twenty-first century version of teaching a man to fish ...

Topic: Hardware

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  • Your ?USA for Africa? story

    just reminds us that we have to think about the whole problem, not just the lack of (relatively) cheap technology. This project (or its competing projects) has a good chance of success, but not if we ignore the need for delivery of the product, teachers, schools, adequate food and water, adequate shelter at home, and most importantly a peaceful existence free from war.
    Michael Kelly
    • That's why I am concerned ...

      ... that Nicholas Negroponte has not thought things through -- and why I think that competition from Intel will help shake things out.
      M Wagner
      • Is Intel thinking these thing through?

        At least Negroponte has though through the facts that the users of this product may not have a consistent electrical source (if any at all) and that climate and geological issues would require a more rugged design. He's also thought about how to create a networking infrastructure where there is none. What has Intel thought about that Negroponte hasn't?
        Michael Kelly
        • Maybe not ...

          ... but with Intel Competing against the XO, both OLPC and Intel have to think harder about what the customer (the government footing the bill) wants -- not just what Negroponte thinks third-world schoolchildren need.

          Other bloggers have already commented on the shortcomings of mesh networking and OLPC no longer offers a hand-crank for the XO -- and the foot-pedal charger is an extra-cost option.
          M Wagner
          • Costs of the foot pedal will come down over time

            But yes, I agree that competition is always beneficial. We can argue up and down whose strategy will work in the end, but at least with competition you increase the chance of overall success.
            Michael Kelly
          • Come on, quit badmouthing the feature of the OLPC. The mesh networking is

            something that is very innovative and important that the Classmate does not have. Sure, there may be cases where it has to be supplemented to reach all parts of a village, but, it still about 100x better than what the Classmate has.

            And sure, there is no free lunch. OLPC can NOT build foot pedal chargers for free, there has to be a charge, as this project has to be sustainable.
    • All I can say is that education is very important, and you can not give

      other aid without also working on education. I think the computers will be a perfect way to let people in villages see the world around them. Having a lot of people connected and more informed also means better democracy eventually.

      But, there are a lot of other technologies for connectivity that will need to be rolled out as more remote villages get computers. For instance, the long distance self-aiming point-to-point WiFi that Intel was working will be the solution for some countries / situations.
  • Precisely

    Besides, it can't possibly hurt to have tech-savvy farmers and herdsman use computers to figure out how to grow more and better food, or to enable tech-savvy citizens to expose and root out official corruption and repression (endemic in the 3rd world).
    John L. Ries
  • Reality

    I'm guessing that I'm the only person reading this blog who has had real, sustained experience dealing with Africa. Most of that experience was as vendor to the UN supplying logistics to both UNDP and UNICEF.

    It ain't a pretty picture. Unless you pay off things disappear. Even if you do pay off the stuff might walk away. They'd even go so far as to empty out the container and replace the contents with rocks so that the weight difference would not be discovered until it reached its final destination.

    You also have to pay off the customs people. If you don't they simply won't get around clearing the shipment. Then the shipment might be stopped at police or military "checkpoints" in the middle of nowhere. These are simply shakedowns, and you might lose some of whats near the back of the truck.

    Often you have to have things approved at consulates in New York. For that we employed a bunch of "consular document specialists". They were essentially bagmen.

    My guess, hopefully wrong, is that an awful lot of those machines will disappear and reappear on the black market - all at the hands of the same governemnt officials that are supposed to be helping the kids.

    By the way, the same things happen in most of South America, Central America, and, especially, Mexico
    • I kind of doubt these will end up on the black market. These are kid size

      computers, and, if you do not have the code, you can not boot them and start using them. You also have to connect to the school every once in a while, or it will stop working. And, they are bright colored and easy to spot. I don't thing there will be much of a black market for them.

      But, all of what you are talking about has been thought through, lets see how well the technology works.

      By the way, with the Classmate, this has NOT been thought through.
    • Thanks for the 'realitry check' ...

      And these challenges, I'm sure are only the tip of the iceberg. The geopolitics of Africa -- corruption, tribal wars, lack of infrastructure, lack of resources, desertification, disease, hunger -- all make this particular part of the world far too complex for simple answers. It only takes a few greedy people to bring suffering to millions.
      M Wagner
      • The OLPC is not the solution for all problems, it is only a solution for

        education. You can NOT tackle the other problems without also tackling the education problem, or your money will be spent for naught. And, finally, OLPC is only for a PART of the educational problem. The OLPC does very well for the problems it is addressing, and there is no other product that has the features and price point needed for this problem area.
  • Message has been deleted.

    • Hey ZDNet, my post only contained an opinion, since when do you delete

      posts because you do not like the opinion.
  • Good points

    While I think the article's point is diluted by the context of
    other people's articles - the gist of it is quite agreeable.

    Also something that no one asks could play into the situation:
    Why exactly ARE a lot of these children suffering and/or dying
    of hunger, disease, or otherwise?

    Might the right tools of education, collaboration and
    communication be a vital key in helping these kids help
    themselves out of these situations where their basic needs are
    not being met?

    I would argue that in many cases.. maybe even the majority of
    cases, the answer might be Yes.