$100 Laptop – Fact or fiction?

In a post about Negroponte’s OLPC initiative earlier, written earlier this year, I ended by saying:

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.

Broadly echoing these observations, there’s a recent article on Technology Review that critically looks at the $100 laptop:

The simplest and strongest argument against the $100 laptop, though, is that even if it can be built, and even if it will work approximately as well as Negroponte promises it will, it’s still a waste of money. In an ideal world with unlimited government budgets, the argument goes, putting a laptop in the hands of every child would be a marvelous and valuable feat. But in the far-from-ideal worlds of developing countries, which generally have limited budgets and pervasive social problems, millions or billions of dollars’ worth of computers are a luxury that governments can ill afford. Brazil, for instance, which seems likely to buy a million laptops from OLPC as soon as they become available, has around 45 million school-age children: equipping all of them would cost something like $6.3 billion. Given the desperate poverty of many Brazilians, are laptops the best use for that kind of money?

The article is interesting for more than its examination of the laptop, since it also explores the new models of philanthropy that Negroponte and other like him are championing, perhaps harbingers of new models of funding for development in the years to come.

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