A laptop in every pot

The old saying that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer applies to cyberspace, too: these maps comparing router and population density show that the developing world has a long way to go to catch up to North America, Western Europe and Japan when it comes to getting online. The One Laptop Per Child project aims to change all that, designing, constructing and distributing Internet-ready laptops to children in developing countries.

The organization, founded by Nicholas Negroponte, is not the first to embark on this mission – earlier efforts include the Simputer and the Ndiyo – but it has been the most successful so far. A big part of their job has been designing a laptop that can be used in a variety of situations and under sometimes harsh conditions: the computer, called the XO, is substantially sturdier than most, with a thick plastic case and flash-memory hard drive to let it survive falls and other impacts and a rubber keyboard and seal that protect it from water.

The differences are aesthetic as well as functional: the XO, with its friendly green and white case, looks more like a toy than a computer. Its screen can rotate and swivel, allowing it to be used in either laptop or tablet configurations. While it comes with a built-in microphone and video camera, as well as graphics and music programs, its most essential feature is its antenna, which allows it to access wireless networks from a significant distance away: the “ears” (antennae) of the XO act as a relay for the Internet to the next XO, further in the bush. The network sustains itself, regardless of the infrastructure of the country. While the hand-crank found on early models is gone, a solar panel and a pull-string are available to provide the two watts of power the XO requires.

Another part of the XO's appeal is that in many developing countries teachers are very scarce, and generally prefer to teach in cities than in more distant areas. This means that in rural areas school children can go for days, weeks, without seeing a teacher. The XO is intended to be a ‘school in a box': it is always there, doesn't need any equipment besides itself, and governments can add programs to cover the country's curriculum.

Supporters of the project have generally been swayed by its clever design; critics have focused on the politics. One early criticism, that there were children going without computers in the United States, eventually led to an announcement that the XO would be made available there – and the launch of the “Buy One, Get One” campaign that would give people in North America a chance to get an XO while also putting one in the hands of a child in the developing world.

A broader question raised by critics is whether children in developing countries want or need a laptop. Dr. Igwe Aja-Nwachuku, Nigeria's education minister, said in an interview with the BBC "What is the sense of introducing One Laptop per Child when they don't have seats to sit down and learn; when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, where they don't have facilities?" Nigeria has, in fact, cancelled its original order of one million laptops, and commitments from countries including Brazil and Thailand have evaporated.

One reason for the XO's setbacks has been price: originally intended to retail for around $100 US, they are currently priced at $199. However, Negroponte told an audience at the American Academy for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting that he expected the price to fall to its original target by the end of 2009, and to reach $50 by 2011.

Some critics, though, question whether putting a laptop on the desk of every child is a good idea at any price, wondering whether the money could be better spent elsewhere. In the words of John Dvorak, “in the Asian, African, and Latin American countries, well over 500 million people are living in what the World Bank has called ‘absolute poverty.' Every year, 15 million children die of hunger… One in 12 people worldwide is malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of 5.” If we imagine a finite pool of aid money, then diverting some of it to support the XO means taking it away from projects aimed at providing food, shelter and clean water to developing countries. Similarly, some have suggested that this is just another form of colonialism, training children in developing countries to consume the West's technology rather than their own – an argument supported by the efforts of Microsoft and Intel to make sure that their technology, rather than the XO's, is adopted in the developing world.

Many of these objections are drawn from the underlying assumption that the developing world will follow the same path that the West has in going online. Much of the evidence, though, suggests otherwise. In many developing countries cell phones have put the power to communicate in the hands of people who never had access to landlines, and the same may happen with the Internet. Instead of acting as passive consumers of Western media, many developing nations have begun to use the Web for their own purposes: Ushahidi, is one example. Another is Global Voices, a compilation of blogs from all over the world – including a number of nations where blogging is the only way for citizens to communicate without censorship. Already, students using the XO in Uruguay have begun creating and posting content of importance to them, such as this film of a calf being born. If giving each child a laptop means giving her a voice, it's hard to argue against it.

For Classroom Discussion

  • What features do you think a laptop should have to be usable in developing nations? Why?
  • Which do you think is more important in a classroom computer, affordability or functionality (what it can do and how well)?
  • How are computers used in your school? Do you think they will be used in similar ways in developing nations, or differently? Why? If they would be used differently, how do you think they would be used?
  • Do you think that international developments should give money to support the One Laptop Project Per Child project? If so, why? If not, what do you think should be a higher priority?
  • Why might some developing countries have decided the One Laptop Per Child project is not for them? Do you think their reasons are good ones?
  • Is it a good thing for developing countries to be connected to the Internet? Why or why not?