$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.


Anonymous said...

There is a newly literate, aspirational lower middle class who will benefit from such a program.

The dirt poor will not benefit, but thats no reason to stop the program.

Theres a billion people that need uplifting!

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

I agree, and as I said free/cheap distribution of laptops even within US can have very significant positive impact on education. See work by Chris Dede on this. My complaint was against the bombastic claims of one laptop per child and educational benefits in the third world context. Prof. Surajit Sen organized a meeting in India on science education which highlighted some pretty fundamental gaps which no amount of technology will resolve.

Abi said...

I just came here from a Desi Pundit post that linked one of my post and yours, which appeared within a day of each other.

Thank you, Suvendra, for saying a lot of things that must be said. When this initiative was announced way back in April, there was also another news item which reported that many schools (I mean many-many-many; like 95+ % in Bihar!) in the public sector lacked a proper girls toilet. A somwhat smaller percentage of schools (and still a majority) in several other states lacked a water tap. The list of our problems is long: lack of blackboards, lack of buildings, lack of teachers, and lack of students! Clearly, Indian government (and probably those of other poor nations, too) has more urgent tasks that demand its attention.

I linked to both these news items in a post to express my strong opposition to the 100 dollar laptop initiative back in April; I haven't seen any reason to change my opinion since then.

The basic problem with this OLPC initiative is that it puts a gun on government's head and says $100 million, or else ... If they 'sell' the laptops through regular outlets, I would have a lot more respect for the product and for Negroponte. His marketing strategy seems to be to bulldoze the governments of the poor countries into acquiescence.

I found a recent post by Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman, in which he previewed Negroponte's laptop which, to be fair, apprears to have achieved quite a few breakthroughs in design. In a comment to this post, someone suggested that he would pay $400 for this laptop if he knows that a poor kid in a poor country can get one for free.

Now, that seems to be a good idea; no government money is involved, private donors take all the burden, and some kids benefit along the way; the kid may not be the poorest of the poor, but if he/she is from a lower middle class (as the anonymous commenter has said), it is still a great thing! It will leave the government to keep fucking up its regular work; it won't have to fuck up further by spending exorbitant amounts of money on Negroponte's wet dreams.

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...


I read your post. Of course you are right. I'd get one of those laptops right away if they were on the market. But that's true for Simputer as well. Why not set up something like that for Simputer, instead of waiting for someone else to do it? Is there someway they can be marketed in the US with the thought that you buy one for yourself and another for a kid in India?

Abi said...

Suvendra, Simputer's price would put anyone out of the charity ballgame. Its main problem right now is that the lowest end version with a monochrome monitor sells at 200 dollars.

Consider this: when it was unveiled in 2001, we were all excited about a 200 dollar simputer; since then, the price of low end PCcs have fallen from around 500 dollars down to about 200 dollars now, while the Simputer's price hasn't budged. This is something that has been dogging the Simputer developers, all of whom are my colleagues.

This hundred dollar laptop promises something else: it is probably the first PC-type thingy developed specifically for school children. All the available indications are that it is likely to be fabulous. However, by asking each interested government to fork out $100 million dollars upfront, aren't they also signalling that it is unlikely to fly even at 200 dollars in the marketplace? Asking poor people to do the job of the VCs and bankroll the development of some fancy thing is sick. What if OLPC turns out to be One Lemon of a PC? Can the governments seek a refund?

At least the Simputer developers were and are gutsy: they went to the marketplace first, and are still hanging in there.

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Ash said...

so here we go ranting on how this will not help a certain economic class..
while i agree that it will not help the rag pickers child,but, I think that it will help a lot of the aspiring middle class....it will help the Govt. of India's clerk's son who does not go rummaging through trash cans...and it will help the poor school teacher's child, whose imagination could be unlocked via this...

so instead of focussing on the class that it will not help, why dont we try to focus on folks it could help, and try to make a difference for them!!