Monday, November 12, 2007

One Laptop per Child

Because I know one of the power players in the OLPC organization (I this for the sake of full disclosure) I've been following their effort to design and manufacture a $100 laptop to be made available to the world's poor children.

It seems to me that this has the potential to be a world-changing force for good, but in discussing it with peers I've encountered almost universal skepticism, disdain, and eye-rolling. Since they've rolled out a give one - get one program I thought this was a good time and place to mount a philosophical defense of the effort.

Here are some objections I've heard:
-poor children don't need laptops, they need food and shelter.
-"handouts" are almost universally under-appreciated and squandered.
-the laptops replace schoolbooks in government spending, but are more easily broken or lost (or stolen) than books.

The second two are economic and sociological concerns, so I'll quickly comment on those first, leaving the philosophical angle of the first question for last. It is true that when governments purchase these computers, they are spending money that would have otherwise gone towards text books. So it is worrisome to think of a student who loses his laptop in the first week, finding himself without school books for the next three years. Similar concerns of theft also might arise. The laptops are cute and cuddly in the hopes that they will be universally recognized as "for children," hopefully thereby preventing a robust black market from forming. Note that a given geographic location will be flooded with these things (literally one per child) so the thought is that any adult seen with one would be immediately recognized as having having gotten it illegitimately. As far as this being a "handout" program, meaning that the kids will be less apt to care for the laptop than for something that they have earned, aren't most items acquired by kids "handouts"? Perhaps there is a significant difference in the way an adult treats something they've earned versus something they've been given, but kids hardly earn anything at all! They acquire things from their parents and (in the case of books and pencils) from school, and I'd imagine they'd treat all such handouts more or less the same. If someone wanted to launch a serious objection on these grounds, however, I'm all ears.

The more serious objections from from philosophical worries about giving aid. Conservatives may see this as another hopeless liberal plan to ignore market forces and try to raise the quality of life in the third world by giving, giving, giving (perhaps along the lines of the "handouts do no good" objection). Liberals may see this as misallocation of aid, passing over goods such as food and medicine in favor of luxuries. I think both worries are off base.

First, the liberal worry. Some may think that our obligation is to provide what is most immediately needed by people in the third world. This will of course be food, medicine, and shelter. Money spent on laptops would be better spent on more essential goods, the thought goes. But with a nod to the conservatives, let me point out that unless efforts are made to alter the causes of the squalor, putting band-aids on the wound is doing little good. Picture a machine that makes something fragile on a conveyor belt - lightbulbs, say. The machine is left on, and the conveyor belt keeps running, lightbulbs smashing on the floor as they reach the end. You arrive at the scene and find yourself at end of the conveyor belt, so you start catching the lightbulbs and laying them delicately on the floor. You tire, however, and realize that unless someone turns the damn machine off, the bulbs will come faster than you can catch them. If you turn off the machine yourself you'll be letting X number of bulbs smash (bulbs you could have saved). Surely if you're alone you'll eventually decide to sacrifice a few bulbs and turn the machine off. Giving kids these laptops, I think, will help create a middle class in a given country in as soon as 15 years time. During those 15 years you might imagine that many lives could be saved if the money had been spent on food and medicine, but you would not have cultivated a middle class. As the saying goes, "teach a man to fish..." For this it would certainly be worth some moderate frustration and heartaches in the present day with lost and stolen laptops, and forgone spending on other opportunities.

This helps with the conservative worry. These aren't mere handouts, these are culture-altering, economy-altering handouts. The software on these machines is quite impressive, and kids learn so fast, so imagine the world 15 years from now when kids in rural peru, afganistan, and nigeria have learned not only math and history, but computer programming and english (more advanced with the audio pronounciation tools). Imagine how sophisticated the third world will be in 15 years when every kid in country X has had instant and immediate access to the internet. In my view, this is teaching them to fish, not giving them fish.

The laptops aren't $100 yet, but more like $200. This is just a function of production numbers, though. The more that get ordered, the lower the cost will become. This is why they're letting americans and canadians buy them for a short period of time (you spend $400 and they give you one while donating one to a poor kid). Hopefully then they'll have the production costs down.

It's obvious that I'm somewhat idealistic about this. Perhaps it will be an utter failure despite my optimism. But I think there's enough there for people on all sides of the "giving aid" debate to be supportive of the project.

Look here for a favorable review
and here for a 60 minutes report


  1. It's late, and I don't have a lot of time, but a brief point:

    My objection to the OLPC project is actually not based on any of the objections you've listed.

    Rather, from my experience, (I taught for two years in a rural school in Pakistan--it was a hell of a lot better than the public schools, but left a lot to be desired) I suspect that the most important thing to a child's education is the skill level of the teachers. My sense is that the laptops by themselves aren't a solution given spotty and unskilled teaching. I'll post a little more on this tomorrow, but that was my initial reaction to hearing of the project. Thoughts?

  2. If kids are reliant on the teachers to effectively use the laptops then I think your objection is strong. If anything, though, I would think (and OLPC is hoping) that the laptops will enable kids to be more independent learners. The software is designed to be fun and intuitive, so kids may learn despite bad teaching.

    Further, the laptops will be given to every child in a given geographic region whether or not they attend school. This means that even if the schoolchildren are not any better off, the other children may learn a thing or two. This may be particularly relevant in Pakistan, where I believe only 50% of the children are in school (this statistic comes from one of the OLPC interviews that mentioned Pakistan specifically).

    My optimistic dream is that these laptops will nurture a robust middle class (15 years away at least), and for that to occur I think a small percentage of students need to really benefit from the laptops. As long as they don't make the other kids WORSE off, then on balance I'm hoping they'll do a lot of good in the long run.

    But I'm definately interested in hearing more about how you envision the laptops being embraced by community in which you were teaching in Pakistan. Do you think the kids (and parents) would be excited by them? Would value them? See them as suspicous? Or perhaps just see them as irrelevant toys?

  3. Art, I don't know why this is such a big deal. If some company wants to make inexpensive laptops in an effort to help 3rd world kids that's fine with me. If folks here want to buy them and in the process donate one or two to those kids, that's cool too.

    Would the $$ be better spent in some other way? I dunno. Probably they'd rather have an ox or some chickens, but these are good too.

    Are tax-dollars being spent in this way? Isn't it just a charity like any other? I think I'm missing the meat of the argument here.

  4. I guess the challenge is: if one wants to help the third world, is this plan a good strategy? I had found a lot of folks thinking that it was either inappropriate or misguided, so that's what I wanted to discuss here.

  5. I really like the "mesh" networking idea. If it can get big enough it might bust some important barriers. It looks like a worthwhile project to me.

  6. I'm going to betray my age, but these laptops are far superior to the Osbornes and Kaypros I was unable to scrape together $4,000.00 to buy.

    I know that my daughter taught herself to read and math to the fourth grade level with a computer at about par with these.

    A lot of it depends on how the kid interacts and how they learn, but people are too removed from the old days of nuts and bolts exploration of computers.

    Are computers superior to every other alternative? Who knows, it is one way to find out.

  7. Man, I remember the Osborne! We had the "portable" one that weighed about 50 lbs and had a tiny monochrome screen in the center of the CPU box. I think my father still has it somewhere.

    The learning is cool, but I think the "mesh" idea might serve to reduce some of the tensions that a developing country (or a developed country) might have. It's tough to hate a person for some arbitrary reason when you don't know what they look like or exactly where they live.