Give me rice, but give me a laptop too

[Also available from the BBC News website – 10 years of shiny goodness!]

Update: there’s a discussion going on over on Dvorak’s blog.

One of the best things about being on the World Service radio programme Digital Planet each week is that I get to hear about interesting technologies from many different countries and explore the impact that computers and the internet are having in people’s daily lives.

We often follow stories as they develop, coming back to them from time to time to see if early promises have been kept or bold predictions have been borne out.

It’s been nearly three years since Nicholas Negroponte came onto the show to talk about his plan for a low-cost laptop for the developing world. He wanted to build it for under $100 and sell millions to governments who would then give them away to schoolchildren.

Later he set up the One Laptop Per Child project to do this, and we’ve come back to the $100 laptop many times, and in December 2005 we saw the prototype launched at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia.

We have watched as the prototype turned into the XO-1, a radical rethinking of what a laptop should be, with a brand-new user interface, a low-power chip from AMD, the Linux operating system and a low-energy high contrast screen.

And earlier this year we heard schoolchildren in Nigeria tell reporter Jonathan Fildes how excited they were to have their own computers, what they planned to use them for and how good they were.

Not every promise was fulfilled, of course. The computers cost around $180 to make, and instead of millions there are only a few hundred thousand being built in the first year, largely because governments have gone back on the promises they made to buy them in large numbers.

Even the Nigerian government has yet to decide whether to commit funds to the project, and is watching the trial at Abuja’s Galadima primary school with interest.

To make things worse Intel and Microsoft seem to have done everything they could to undermine the project, offering cut-price hardware and discount operating systems in an attempt to keep this remarkable machine, with its Linux operating system and AMD processor, at bay.

Now US journalist John Dvorak has weighed into the debate, dismissing the laptop as a ‘little green computer’ that changes nothing, and arguing that sending food aid to Africa is a better way to solve the continent’s problems.

Dvorak is so wrong that it pains me.

He misrepresents both the laptop’s capabilities and the plans for how it will be used. He ignores the educational uses and its sophisticated mesh network and acts as if the sole purpose is to get online, asking what benefit the ‘spam-ridden Information Super Ad-way laced with Nigerian scams, hoaxes, porn, blogs, wikis, spam, urban folklore, misinformation’ has to offer.

And he demeans the people who will receive the computers, asking his readers if they will feel ‘better about the world’s problems, knowing that some poor tribesman’s child has a laptop’, apparently contrasting a ‘tribesman’ with a real person like himself, safe in his Western affluence.

Dvorak is a controversial, opinionated and immensely influential technology writer, based in the US but read around the world thanks to the same internet that he dismisses as unsuitable for those living in poverty. His comments matter because he may influence those with the power to change people’s lives, especially in governments considering investing in the XO-1, yet he chooses to use his platform to criticise a self-penned parody of the computer and its planned uses.

There are sensible criticisms to be made of OLPC and its work, but Dvorak simply misrepresents their position when he dismisses the whole project as arguing: ‘let’s give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter.’

At WSIS in 2005 I talked to OLPC’s chief technology officer, Mary Lou Jepsen. She led innovations in the screen design, energy consumption and user interface that have resulted in a computer to transform the relationship of the world’s poorest children to the networked economy. She also understands the need for the laptop to fit into the larger development agenda.

The point is not that computers or internet access are as important as clean water, good healthcare, effective education and safe housing. It is that access to computers and the network can make it simpler and easier to deliver those other things, just as access to electric light can vastly improve the quality of people’s lives.

No one starting a business in the rich world would do so without relying on computers and the internet, so why should we hold back those in the poorer countries?

Dvorak seems to have fallen for the Intel and Microsoft line that something they aren’t involved with could not possibly be all that good. The XO-1 is powerful, effective and designed to be used by those with little experience of new technology, and even those who are less than fully literate.

Yes, there will be problems. The computers need to be properly integrated into the educational curriculum; power supplies and stable network connections have to be provided; some will be stolen, some will break, some will not get to the people who need them. But that is not a reason to stop.

A century ago campaigners for a working wage were adamant that just having enough to live on was not enough, that there should be space for culture and enjoyment in life, and in 1912 strikers at a textile factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts are said to have rallied around the slogan ‘We want bread, but we want roses, too!’

Well, we need to give the poor of today’s world rice, and housing, and water, and healthcare, but they need the laptops and all that they symbolise too. Those who argue otherwise, like John Dvorak, would condemn the poor countries to another century of want and dependency by depriving them of access to the technology that has already transformed life for the rich and privileged.

Perhaps he’s just afraid that a Nigerian schoolchild, empowered by the technology entrusted to them, will take him to task for his patronising attitude, or perhaps even turn out to be a better journalist.

It wouldn’t be hard.

Bill’s Links

One Laptop

WSIS report

Dvorak slams OLPC

Bread and Roses:

3 Replies to “Give me rice, but give me a laptop too”

  1. Dvorak’s comments don’t surprise me, particularly. The man’s well known for writing misleading, badl researched and just plain wrong articles. From the way he knocks computer technologies that don’t depend on Microsoft (Apple/Linux, etc), one could be forgiven for thinking he was in the employ of Steve Balmer himself. As it is, it’s unfortunate that one man can reach millions of people, spewing this sort of crap as he goes. Quite frankly, he’s an idiot.

  2. Ha, he’d have been fulminating at public libraries at one point. I thought the argument over educating the poor had been long settled?

    I do kind of agree with some of what FSJ’s blog says though – is it really just about giving access to children – in which case why be concerned about the Classmate or Microsoft bringing their software down to compete? Or turn down Jobs offer of OS X? There is also an agenda of re-ordering the world in other ways, an experiment in how computing could evolve free of commercial interest.

    Which is no bad thing in itself, but as with Western schools it is far too easy to go in and say ‘they will need to know MS Office to compete in the world of work’ or ‘by making them learn Linux they will not be as competitive as India, where they learn Windows’.

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