Wednesday, December 26, 2007

My Kingdom for A... Laptop?

I know it's hard for most of us under the age of 40, but try to think back to a time before we all had access to the internet. Wait... go even further than that. Go back, in your mind (unless you have a well-equipped Delorean in your garage), to a time before you had constant access to a computer. It took me a minute, but I was able to dredge up memories of junior high and elementary school when we learned using books and flashcards. When we came home from school, we watched TV, read more books, played in mud, and rode our bikes. I guess my point is - we existed as a successful society prior to 1990.

Some would have us forget this. A noble yet poorly conceived project is currently underway to "provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves." Sounds great, right? It's difficult to argue with such a vision, but unfortunately I must. You see, behind this PR minded language is a real goal of providing laptops to children in developing countries who would otherwise have no access to the tools of the modern age - namely word processing and the internet. It makes for a wonderful 60 Minutes story: a well-off technologist devotes his life to providing learning tools to children who still have dirt on the floors of their schoolhouses. Cameras cover every angle as this man, Nicholas Negroponte, sits with a poor child in the dirt school house, starts up a tonka-toy-ish laptop, and voila! Instant improvement in a child's life.

While the tone of this entry may sound sarcastic and accusatory, one cannot fault Mr. Negroponte for having such a dream. It shames most of us for not being able to see beyond our 8-to-5 routine and our triple-shot lattes. I wish that I had half of Mr. Negroponte's vision and drive. Yet while vision and drive married with a good cause is the stuff of Hollywood dreams, practicality and caution are necessary ingredients in the stew of success... or at least a soup low on harm. The overarching problem with the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project is that while laptops and the internet can be amazing tools used to open the eyes of an entire generation to possibility, those eyes and the children attached to them need some very basic things in their lives before they can effectively learn and make lives for themselves. When these children graduate from school, will they have high tech jobs waiting for them in the developing countries in which they live? Can they afford to eat? Will they live to graduate? Malaria, a disease that has been mostly wiped out in the developed world, each year causes disease in approximately 515 million people and kills between one and three million people.

We also must consider the environmental cost associated with such a large transfer of electronic equipment to third world nations with little or no enviromental regulation. The design of the laptops being mass produced for the OLPC program is durable, usable, cute, and will likely outlast most laptops purchased in the US. However, they are bound to be discarded at some point due to obsolescence or breakage. With potentially millions of units being shipped to Africa alone, no mention of proper disposal or recycling is mentioned on the OLPC website. While we have a responsibility to help bring the third world into the first world, we also have a responsibility not to create a massive environmental disaster, considering the fact that discarded computers and screens can be a major source of toxins and carcinogens.

I would urge readers not to hinder the dreams of the OLPC project, but to focus their philanthropic urges toward causes that can help third world societies create the foundation of a stable civilization - health (yes AIDS is still a problem), education (this means teachers and schools), economic investment, and security. I would also urge the OLPC project to develop a reclamation project in parallel with the deployment of these machines. In fact, if OLPC can recycle discarded laptops, they might even be able to make them cheaper.

While the the 60's, 70's, and 80's were weird decades in the US, life was still pretty good here even without laptops.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I reject the premise. There has NEVER been a time when I didn't have access to a computer. :)

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After further consideration, I find your writing to be deserving of a little more attention. I think that you make an exceptional point about the e-waste problem. Nobody is addressing this, as far as I know, although a project of this scale, and that attracts such future thinking persons, must include at least one person who's talked about it. The dumping of First World e-waste in the Third World is a serious problem.

You said that the deployment of this technology is wasteful, and there are some unmet basic needs that should be addressed first. While certainly, grinding poverty and disease are terrible and depressing, technology just may be able to solve these problems. For example, if every household has access to the Internet, then every household could learn about the serious dangers of malaria, river blindness, typhoid, and other diseases, and what to do to prevent them. These laptops aren't going to enable a doctor in Boston to read the x-rays of a child in rural Libya, but they certainly could enable the dissemination of basic information.

The spread of better technology and communications might do other things, such as promoting understanding and trade, which in turn might lessen the chance of war. That would certainly help fulfill the basic needs of citizens not to be shot and killed.

One thing I can't help but mention is that the laptops are designed to organize themselves into a mesh network. Each village would have an access point or two, but the laptops would transmit data amongst themselves, organizing into a cloud of connection, rather than everybody relying on a direct link. This project would be the world's biggest proof of concept for that technology, and if it worked out, the benefits for countries without developed infrastructure are great.

I believe the laptop vision is extraordinary, and have considered working on the project, or one like it, someday in my future. The unfortunate truth is that I can be sure that the need will be there for my entire working life. It's a good thing somebody got started.

6:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:44 PM  

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