To be or not to be – The $100 laptop

Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child Child (OLPC) initiative was launched amidst great fanfare a few years ago. Its promise – to put in the hands of millions of children the essential computing hardware so as to facilitate their entry into the information society.

The so-called $100 laptop is perhaps no longer economically possible. And yet, the monicker stuck, even in the face of ridicule by industry giants such as Intel and Microsoft.

The debate between those promoting the $100 laptop and those who say that it is a well intentioned but ultimately pyrrhic idea is often shrill, with no real progress of moving either side closer to any common understanding of the possible uses and potential of the laptop.

I’ve always found the idea to be useful for Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). Negroponte’s laptop is designed to withstand the austere conditions of under developed communities, environments where the laptop I use to type this post would not even survive a day. For sure, there are ruggedised laptops, but these are far too expensive to even distributing on the scale that Negroponte envisions for his own laptop.

A cheap, affordable, rugged and capable PC, running software that allows users to effectively communicate with each other, create and access content on the web and distribute content that’s created by them amongst larger communities opens up what we take for granted in our urban hubs to rural communities, the inhabitants of an information hinterland that defines to date what is called the digital divide.

Sophisticated community and alternative mediation frameworks, such as those I’ve explored in a paper titled Online Dispute Resolution, Mobile Telephony and Internet Community Radios, can be significantly augmented by computing devices that operate in the vernacular (and English). Much of what I’ve envisioned here for micro, meso and macro level regional & national frameworks for ODR that cross-fertilise information and knowledge can piggyback on the wider availability of devices such as the $100 laptop.

The $100 is primarily thought of as a machine for education. What may be also useful is to envision ways through which the laptop can augment existing communal knowledge and wisdom. To “educate” communities is to assume that they do not already possess vital wisdom and experience, that in cases such as Sri Lanka, underpin ADR mechanisms. It also assumes that knowledge from outside facilitated through the $100 laptop can uplift the living conditions of marginalised communities. For sure, this may well be the case, but a great degree of humility and sensitivity is required to avoid a collateral arrogance that comes with the notion of educating the poor.

Central to the idea of education in Negroponte’s vision is to augment the capacity of children to better engage with the information society – English, math, general knowledge, critical & analytical thinking, basic programming skills, content creation skills – the bedrock of the information society.

However, the true utility of the $100 laptop for social empowerment is also questioned. Most recently, as was posted here, the Indians have argued against the introduction of the $100 laptop.

The Indian Ministry of Education dismissed the laptop as “pedagogically suspect”. Education Secretary Sudeep Banerjee said: “We cannot visualise a situation for decades when we can go beyone the pilot stage. We need classrooms and teachers more urgently than fancy tools.”

Importantly, the spotlight on the $100 has taken away attention from a wide spectrum of other devices, such as smartphones and the Simputer, in achieving some of the same goals as Negroponte’s device. Debate on whether we should be taking of developing smarter mobile phones is interesting, given the ubiquitous mobile footprints in most of the regions and countries that the $100 will be introduced in.

Simputer

Other devices, such as the Simputer, are also worth looking at – PDA’s that are cheap, run on open source software, operate in the vernacular, have colour screens, can connect to WiFi and mobile networks and enable users to create, store and distribute their own content.

In pushing one or the other technology, what many miss out on is the value of complementarity. No single device is going to bridge the digital divide. Designing systems that use the best fit for the local, regional and national levels requires a concert of technologies, access mechanisms, last mile delivery mechanisms, content storage and distribution technologies and devices.

A little over two years ago, I introduced what I called hybridity to ODR theorists and practitioners. At the time, many felt that ODR was inextricably entwined with PC’s, which I contested vehemently. Today, ODR visionaries are talking about a more democratic ODR systems design – where even those who do not have access to PC’s can avail themselves of the usefulness the so-called Fourth Estate of technology brings with it to dispute resolution processes.

$100 laptop needs to be seen in this light – not as a panacea for those forgotten by our information society, but as a means through which greater numbers of people will be able to see their unique imprint on the digital landscapes of governance and democracy.

As this author cautions, the $100 laptop needs to be seen in a critical light:

Negroponte has an attractive vision. Then again, MIT’s Media Lab has never lacked vision. It should shame nobody to ask about delivery, appropriateness and long-term strategy. Utopias are never cheap.

I would go further and stress again the need to look at the design of systems that go the last mile, facilitate content creation in the vernacular, are able to bring communities together through conversations that built trust and share knowledge, hold parochial politicians to account, facilitate democratic governance and the rule of law, promote transparency and in doing all this, contribute, in however small measure, to the general betterment of all communities.

Let’s be clear – the $100 won’t achieve this. But along with a range of other technologies – mobile phones, PDA’s, mesh networking, radios and PC’s – if used right, it does have a pretty darn good chance of helping achieve, for instance in the case of Sri Lanka, that which we need the most.

Just and sustainable peace.

One Comment on “To be or not to be – The $100 laptop”

  1. Lakshan
    July 28, 2006 at 8:04 pm #

    Whether it be a $ 100 laptop or smartphone or Pentium Dual Core machine won’t matter, if the children are not taught how to make best use of that piece of tool. What normally happens is they become slaves of the technology.

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