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<nettime> Critique One Laptop Per Child Project
Ronda Hauben on Sun, 28 Oct 2007 18:07:47 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Critique One Laptop Per Child Project

'One Laptop Per Child' Program Presented at UN
Will it help to spread the Internet to all?

The "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) program was presented at the United
Nations to ambassadors from the Least Developed Countries and others
who were interested on Oct. 22.

Nicholas Negroponte, the founder and former Chairman of the Media
Center at MIT, was the featured speaker.

His talk was intriguing in several ways.

I have been thinking for some time about what has happened to the
spirit and excitement I saw in Tunis in November 2005 when I went to
the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS).

At that meeting of representatives of the countries who are members of
the UN, many of the speakers spoke about the people in their countries
wanting access to the Internet. Several of the developing countries
sent heads of state to make the plea that their nations and people not
be left behind.

After covering the world summit in Tunis, I realized it would be
good to see what has happened after Tunis. I wondered if there was
any program at the UN to fulfill on the promise made at that summit.
Thus far I had seen little sign of any followup at the UN. Given this
context, much that was presented on Monday by Negroponte was quite

Basically his program is to create a small laptop using little energy
for primary school children in developing countries. Originally the
scaled down laptop would cost $100, but the estimation is that it will
cost around $188 or a little over $200, when the money needed for a
server for a site using a number of laptops is included in the cost.

Negroponte spoke about how the laptop would be connected to the
Internet so it should not be seen as a laptop program but as a way to
connect to the Internet. He stressed that this would be even in places
not connected to electricity, by using generators, solar panels, or
even a hand crank which is part of the laptop.

He said that the focus of his program is on learning and how children
learn. He proposed that the laptop would encourage children to
maintain their passion for learning as they would be learning by
doing, by interacting with the world.

Negroponte also has a scheme to sell the laptops to people who can
afford to pay for two. One of the laptops will be a donation to one
of the programs in a poor country. The buy one give one program is to
be available from November 12. (1) The fact that the laptop is also a
linux box is an incentive for those who appreciate linux to take the
offer seriously.

One striking factor in his presentation got little attention. In
November 2005 Negroponte generated a lot of excitement in Tunis
with his announcement of a similar program. But that program didn't
succeed. In referring to the failure of his earlier program,
Negroponte said that when it came to putting up money to make the
program happen, those promising to provide the money didn't come
through. Reading some background on the earlier program it appears
that he had expected Brazil and Nigeria to place very large orders for
laptops, and that the orders didn't materialize.

There were several other speakers as part of the program at the UN on
Monday. Then several questions were raised. A demonstration of the
laptops followed.

Walter Bender, a former MIT Media Lab Director, is the president of
the nonprofit organization OLPC that Negroponte and others created to
carry out their plan. During the demonstration, Bender was asked if
he could help one to understand how real the program is. The question
referred to the fact that there was already one failure, yet those
involved with OLPC were still making big promises. Bender said to read
his blog as a way to begin to learn about the program. He didn't give
a url, but may been referring to "latest news" section on the OLPC Web

The Wikipedia entry on "$100 Laptop" is helpful in giving not only
some background about the program, but also references to other
programs to provide laptops for children in developing countries.
(3) The Wikipedia entry refers to a critique by Lee Felsenstein of
the OLPC program.(4) Lee Felsenstein is one of the pioneers of the
personal computer movement in the 1970s.

Felsenstein commends Negroponte and the OLPC program for "raising
issues and focusing attention" in a really visible way on the
technical challenge of providing access to the Internet for all
people. He is critical, however, of its top-down structure and the
lack of research before promoting it for orders of multi-million
units. Felsenstein points to the lack of an infrastructure to support
the ICT systems in the areas they are being designed to serve, and
proposes that instead there needs to be large-scale implementation of
community infrastructures to provide the groundwork needed for the
laptops to be functional. Also he questions the notion of promoting
one particular laptop and instead proposes an infrastructure that will
support a variety of different laptops.

Felsenstein's critique demonstrates why it would be appropriate for
the UN to sponsor a program with presentations by those with various
ideas about what is needed to spread Internet connectivity around the
globe, particularly focusing on how to provide the Internet to people
in the poorest countries and most remote regions.

Also it would be helpful to have presentations of critiques of
the Negroponte program as part of any further programs at the UN
promoting this particular program. Hearing about different programs
or at least having some exposure to critiques of OLPC would provide
some perspective to help to judge the soundness of Negroponte's
presentation. During the demonstration at the UN on Monday, some of
the delegates from various countries expressed their reservations
about whether this was a good direction for the efforts of their

The problem of spreading the Internet around the globe remains a
serious challenge. Negroponte's program of asking developing countries
to buy laptops for their primary school children, however, does not
solve this problem. Though the presentation he made at the UN did
succeed in recognizing that there is a need, the fact that the need is
for Internet access is sidestepped by focusing only on laptops.

Negroponte's program doesn't provide a means for the needed research
and exploration to solve the problem of how to spread the Internet to
developing countries and remote regions.

Bender acknowledged that the laptops were not the Internet. He
proposed that they could be considered to be gateways to the Internet.
When one UN representative asked Bender how the laptops would be
connected to the Internet, Bender said that there are satellites out
there and that their owners could probably be convinced to donate some
unused space.

This assumption does not provide much assurance to a country
considering whether to spend a lot of money buying laptops for its
school children. Having to trust that the problem of getting Internet
connectivity for the laptops will be solved in an easy fashion, as
by finding some satellite owner willing to provide the access as a
donation, is not a reliable foundation.

One lesson from how the Internet was developed and spread around
the world is that there was the necessary scientific and technical
research to identify the crucial problems and then the collaboration
among researchers from a number of countries to solve these problems.
(5) This was how, for example, UNIX and then Linux, were developed.
This is how TCP/IP, as the basis for the Internet, was developed.
Negroponte said that he was not doing his program to make money, but
neither has he demonstrated that he is fostering the needed research
methodology to solve the difficult technical and social problem of
providing Internet access for all.


(1) http://www.xogiving.org/

(2) http://laptop.media.mit.edu/laptopnews.nsf/latest/news

(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/$100_laptop

(4) "Problems with the $100 laptop" by Lee Felsenstein


(5) "Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet"



An earlier version of this article appears on the Blog "Netizen
Journalism and the New News" http://taz.de/blogs/netizenblog/

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