Let them eat computers

Let them eat computers

Mass production will soon begin on XO, the “$100 laptop", or the Rs3,930 laptop, that MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte believes will change the world. Behind the dream of empowering children through technology, however, lies a reality more complicated?and?far?less? idealistic.

Clearly, Negroponte does not mean that his product will directly solve hunger or poverty, but rather that an advance in education will provide the tools to address these problems. If OLPC were a charitable organization distributing laptops to poor children, this would be a noble endeavour. But as it stands, the effort is bound to involve exploitation and corruption. OLPC’s business model actually requires substantial investment from the governments of developing countries, diverting limited resources away from a population’s critical needs. The “$100 laptop," which actually costs $188, can only be purchased at a minimum quantity of 250,000. OLPC targets countries such as Nigeria, where one out of three children suffer from malnutrition. There a $50 million minimum investment could instead be used to feed more than a million children for a year.

OLPC relies on the naïve assumption that governments will distribute laptops free of charge to schoolchildren. This trust in corrupt governments will deprive children and ensure the creation of a robust XO black market.

Beyond exploitation, OLPC feels entitled to a monopoly. When Intel produced a rival low-cost laptop, Negroponte proclaimed that “Intel should be ashamed of itself." While he portrays himself as a humble idealist victimized by an Intel-Microsoft conspiracy to price him out of an emerging market, it’s clear that Negroponte fails to understand a basic market concept.

When governments make purchasing decisions on behalf of the people, they rob the consumer of that freedom. If OLPC wished to compete in the free market, it would target its product directly to the consumer. By opting instead to lobby for government contracts, OLPC ensures that XO is immune from market forces. Negroponte speculates that Intel and Microsoft are punishing him for using an AMD processor and the Linux operating system, but the actual motivation is not personal. By donating more than 100,000 PCs and providing deeply discounted software, Intel and Microsoft are investing in brand recognition. When consumers someday have the means to buy this technology, the hope is that they will choose Intel and Microsoft products. Finally, consumers, not governments, will choose.

If OLPC cannot wait for a laptop market to materialize or distribute XO exclusively by donation, there are other options for realizing the project’s mission. The use of cellphones is skyrocketing in the developing world. By the end of next year, this market will include 50% of the world’s population. Mobile devices are an inexpensive, tested technology, and increasingly offer access to the Internet. Repackaging XO as a cheaper mobile device could excite significant consumer demand and make an immediate impact on education.

Children will suffer if governments divert scarce resources away from essential services. To avoid that, Negroponte should channel his ingenuity into a product in tune with existing markets. Success will be achieved not by forcing technology on kids, but by bringing children to technology.

Daniel Ballon, Ph D, is a Fellow in Technology Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California. Edited excerpts republished with permission from tcsdaily.com