There was a time when a UK academic, Dr. Richard Barbrook, accused the digirati of California of believing in a misleading ideology, the “Californian Ideology“.
According to him Net heavy weights like Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson and Steve Jobs were beholden to this Californian ideology. A weird hybrid ideology that married ideas associated with the right – free market economics – and those that came from the left, counter-culture libertarianism.
“On the West Coast, skilled workers and entrepreneurs in the hypermedia industries form the ‘virtual class’. Like the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms experience both the insecurities and rewards of the marketplace. The Californian Ideology reflects this ambiguity by simultaneously advocating the New Left utopia of the electronic agora and the New Right’s vision of the electronic marketplace.
However both left- and right-wing anarchists ignore the key role of taxpayers’ dollars in the creation of the PC and the Net. The exclusion of public institutions from the construction of cyberspace can only increase the fragmentation of American society into antagonistic, racially-determined classes.”
But today one of the cyber gurus that Barbrook accuses, Nicolas Negroponte, made an announcement that both disproves and supports Barkrook’s contention.
Negroponte, head of the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab announced the wonderful news that the first batch of computers built for the One Laptop Per Child project could reach users by July this year.
The One Laptop Per Child Project aims to deliver the children’s laptop — a potent learning tool created expressly for the world’s poorest children living in its most remote environments.
Originally uploaded by ozymiles.
The laptops will run a bespoke form of Unix operating system where they are encouraged to work on an electronic journal, a log of everything the user has done on the laptop. Because says Negroponte:
“…one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint,” Mr Negroponte said.
“I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.”
The proposed $100 machine will also have a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution.
The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports. The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a peer-to-peer mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data.
Why do children in developing nations need laptops? Why not a desktop computer, or—even better—a recycled desktop machine? Negroponte answers:
Desktops are cheaper, but mobility is important, especially with regard to taking the computer home at night. Kids in the developing world need the newest technology, especially really rugged hardware and innovative software. Recent work with schools in Maine has shown the huge value of using a laptop across all of one’s studies, as well as for play. Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.
Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils—kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful. Furthermore, there are many reasons it is important for a child to own something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.
What about connectivity? Aren’t telecommunications services expensive in the developing world?
When these machines pop out of the box, they will make a mesh network of their own, peer-to-peer. This is something initially developed at MIT and the Media Lab. We are also exploring ways to connect them to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost….We are working with the local governments and the private sector regarding how to reduce the cost of Internet access.
This includes connectivity to the Internet from the mesh through gateways at the schools. And how will these be marketed?
The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Initial discussions have been held with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand. An additional, modest allocation of machines will be used to seed developer communities in a number of other countries. A commercial version of the machine will be explored in parallel.
How will this initiative be structured?
The $100 laptop is being developed by One Laptop per Child (OLPC), a Delaware-based, non-profit organization created by faculty members from the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute laptops that are sufficiently inexpensive to provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education. OLPC is based on constructionist theories of learning pioneered by Seymour Papert and later Alan Kay, as well as the principles expressed in Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital. The founding corporate members are Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Brightstar, Google, Marvell, News Corporation, Nortel, and Red Hat.
To keep the cost down we will market the laptops in very large numbers (millions), directly to ministries of education, which can distribute them like textbooks.
So there you have it. Barbrook was right. Negroponte can not deviler his digital utopia and save the world without the help of not-for-profits, academia and government.
But he was wrong because Negroponte is well on his way to actually have an almost unimaginably positive impact on the lives of poor people in the developing world.