Today my friend Jason linked to an MSN article about the $100 laptop initiative: The $100 Laptop: What Went Wrong. Now, I have my issues with the project, which I’ve detailed here before, but the MSN article, it seems to me, missed most of the actual problems with the project and went straight for the non-issues, the solved issues, instead.
Then along comes the latest scheme to actually provide a unique hand-cranked laptop utilizing a small generator to power the thing.
First, I will try to swallow my pet peeve about the word utilize. (Why use the word ‘utilize’ when what you mean is ‘use’? What does the ‘-ize’ do for you? Make you sound smarter? More professional? I don’t get it.)
It’s not a crank, it’s a string that you pull, first off. Second, what do we mean by “a small generator”? A battery? A battery that gets charged by muscles rather than by plugging it in? I feel that the author used the term “a small generator” to make it sound more unweildy, and to me that’s intellectually dishonest. It’s just a battery. Just like the one in your own laptop. But different.
Besides incredible difficulties with the distribution networks in Africa, Zachary wonders who will maintain these machines. Generally speaking, a societal infrastructure with a lot of computers needs a lot of support mechanisms.
“And in today’s world the real value of a computer is it being networked,” says Zachary. “Finding a network in the poor areas is either impossible or very expensive.”
All of these criticisms are rather hallow, since they are addressed by the project. On the first poirnt, I don’t know much about distribution, but I know the project talks about that with the government in question before the deal is inked. As for support: I think it would be nice to provide support to teachers in particular, and I would like to see librarians get involved in that. (Librarians Without Borders, I’m looking at you.) But the people involved in the project are not support folks, it’s not their territory; they need the rest of us to rally around them on that point. Seeing something missing in the project should encourage people with those skills to step up; shouting from the peanut gallery isn’t terribly helpful.
But that’s not the support the author meant; he meant technical support, hardware support. The laptops ship with spare parts; part of the purpose of this project is help nurture a local industry around these computers, to create experts on the hardware in the countries themselves. I agree that there will be a need for these things, but rather than provide it from across the ocean, it would be best to have that expertise grow in the country itself. Again, I think this is something another profession should step in to assist with. What a fantastic project, don’t you think? Go help people in Cambodia or Namibia to become experts at hardware/software support and let them create their own industry. It’s a nice idea, where the computer becomes merely a product in a chain, something that could help improve an economy. I know this is what they’re thinking, and I think they have a point; but a little support to get it started wouldn’t hurt. But the criticism in the MSN article is crude and blunt, not as precise as an article about the project should be.
And as for networking; why, this author clearly doesn’t know a damn thing about the project at all. Doesn’t it sound as if he’s imagining the children of South Africa being handed macbooks, as if the leaders of the project failed to consider that an internet connection would be hard to come by? Reality: a) part of the negotiations include the requirement of the government to set up access points, and particular kinds. After that, the laptops themselves are the network. They use each other to share the signal. The laptop closest to you is your nearest access point. That’s why there’s no off button on the laptops; they’re meant to be running all the time, if only as a piece of the network. The moment I saw that link in the article I wrote it off; if you can say that, you don’t know the first thing about how those laptops were designed. How can you call something folly when you clearly don’t understand it?
But Zachary has a more profound point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” he says. “The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.”
I think this is actually a ridiculous point. This idea is based on the premise that there are only a certain number of people in the world who would do charitable work, and that adding a technology project just drags people away. This is simply not true. I think what the laptop project is doing is creating a piece that those people who don’t know how to help can contribute to in their own way. I don’t see this project stopping Heifer International or even World Vision. People like Sarah McLachlan are still going to donate their video budgets to charity projects in developing nations. I think it’s rather insulting to the very smart folks at MIT to suggest that they haven’t considered the implications of providing these laptops to children in developing nations. And who are we to tell the Cambodians what’s “useful” to them? MIT isn’t foisting these laptops on children; the governments, the education departments and all their advisers, are the ones to make the decision and foot the bill. If it’s not what they want, it’s not what they’re going to get.
Perhaps the organization should be thinking of the hand-cranked generator as serving that purpose alone [lighting the family hut] and not computing. Lights, along with cellular phones and radios, seem more important than laptops.
But…what if the laptop can provide light, VoIP, and streaming radio (which it can)? Do want to focus on one, or provide a cheap (free) solution for all three? This seems like a terribly unimaginative line of criticism.
In fact, this is a massive exercise in futility. And it’s a shame.
It’s awfully satisfying to knock down straw men, isn’t?