$100 Laptops for the Third World? (Guest Post from Suvendra Nath Dutta)

This blog's first guest post, from Suvendra Nath Dutta. Suvendra has been a frequent commentor here for some months, and emailed me with a tip on this $100 laptop initiative at the World Economic Forum.

I suggested he put it together in the form of a post, and the following is what he sent me last night (thanks, Suvendra).

Last week MIT media lab and Prof. Negroponte announced its $100 laptop initiative at the World Economic Forum at Davos. The actual initiative is called "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC). It should be noted that this is the same forum where in the year, 2000, Mr. Bill Gates announced "The world's poorest two billion people desperately need healthcare, not laptops". One presumes that those needs have not been met so dramatically as to make that observation obsolete. In fact a recent NPR program profiled just one problem facing third world children today, hookworm. One of several memorable lines in the program: "The problem is let's remember who gets hookworm: It's the poorest of the poor," says Hotez. "So although there's a huge market for a hookworm vaccine, the commercial market is zero." Putting money where his mouth is, Gates foundation is putting up $2.1 million to develop hookworm vaccines in Brazil.

So what response does the MIT media lab have to all this? As anyone who's heard Prof. Negroponte speak will attest to, it is risky to go take him on in a battle of wits. But his defense of the laptop program is nevertheless quite thin. For instance, this is all he has to say about questions like Mr. Gates statement: "Why do children in developing nations need laptops? Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to "learn learning" through independent interaction and exploration."

So lets try to visualize a use case shall we? While going through the local garbage dump in Kolkata, Sajal comes across an old watch. Unsure whether he should waste his time on it, he whips out his $100 laptop, signs on to the wide area wireless network spanning all of Kolkata (Oh, sorry, the "peer-to-peer network of these laptops cheaply connected to the internet backbone"), and searches Google images for watches. This leads him to a fascinating wikipedia article on watches. Another learning moment served up by OLPC.

Of course many people in India have thought about this at length. Dr. Sugata Mitra has been investigating community based computer access since 2001. He recently recieved the Dewang Mehta (pdf link) award in recognition of his work. Scientists at IISC (also recipients of the Dewang Mehta award), Bangalore have developed the Simputer following a conference on information technology and social development. The Bangalore Declaration that conference produced laid out their vision of where IT would fit into social development in the third world. They viewed IT as an arm in an efficient and egalitarian system of dissemination and cataloguing of information. IT is a critical part of infrastructure that would aid the local government and NGO's supply their services to the people and also allow the people to provide swift and relevant feedback to social providers. A lot of the emphasis was placed was on software that didn't rely on literacy and was regional language based. Given all this, it should be noted that the Simputer that can be bought is anything but IT for the poor people device. At $200 its hardly for the rag picker. In fact one of the items in its Amida's FAQ reads: "3. Isn't a Simputer for poor and illiterate people? It is true that the Amida Simputer is a very affordable computer, and that it is simple enough to be used by people who no prior experience with computers. However, Amida is meant for anyone who wants to work and play."

So what of the OLPC? Here's an answer from Maine. "In September 2002, middle schools in the State of Maine started an incredible journey providing every seventh grade student with his or her own laptop." Instead of the third world, perhaps the OLPC could make sure that every child in the US has a laptop. It could be one step to remove some of the segregation plaguing the US education system. Don't worry about the Third World. They've got the talent, education, technology and motivation to take care of their own. There is a desperate need in the US for a more egalitarian and universal education system. The OLPC could be a step in that direction.

I'll let Suvendra's post speak for itself, and invite readers to respond directly to him in comments. I'll add just one possibly relevant link, to a story about EBay founder Pierre Omidyar's recent endowment of $100 million to microlending programs in India and Bangladesh, which is a huge infusion of cash to a method of "social entrepeneurship" I personally support.