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'One Laptop Per Child' Program Presented at UN
Will it help to spread the Internet to all?
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2007-10-26 09:18 (KST)   
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.

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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 appealing.

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 didn셳 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 didn셳 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 didn셳 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 didn셳 give a url, but may been referring to 쐋atest news section on the OLPC Web site.(2)

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 쐒aising 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.

Felsenstein셲 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 Negroponte셲 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 countries.

The problem of spreading the Internet around the globe remains a serious challenge. Negroponte셲 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.

Negroponte셲 program doesn셳 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) Give One Today

(2) OLPC news

(3) $100_laptop

(4) 쏱roblems with the $100 laptop by Lee Felsenstein

(5) 쏯etizens: 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/
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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