Q: Does the world need more computers? (A: probably) • 7 January 2008 • The SnowBlog

Q: Does the world need more computers? (A: probably)

Because I get my news in strange ways, I never know if a story has been covered or not. I'm always surprised to find that no one has heard about something that seems big to me, whereas I suspect I know much less about the McCanns than most Brits. So has there been a segment on t'telly about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, with its Give One, Get One sales approach for getting special 'XO' laptops into the hands of both Western and Third World kids? It's pretty interesting stuff. And it has a slightly Victorian social reform feel to it, in that lots of engineers have got together to Improve The World. Here's a link to the whole site about the project and the laptop. Here's the New York Times covering the story. And if you like hissing at people, here's a story about how Intel seems to have seen the idea of helping poor kids as a way of grabbing some more money. They clearly tried not to be evil - or at least they decided to associate their name with a good cause - but when it came to the crunch they weren't able to restrain their urge to profit. In fact, the very nature of a corporation means they're not allowed to restrain their urge to profit. Registered officers of a company have a legal obligation not to pass up profit opportunities - and no obligation at all (unless you count the moral kind) to give free things to kids in dusty countries. If you read the technical specs (and I'm not for a moment suggesting that you do actually read the technical specs (but I like that stuff)) you can see it's quite an innovative little laptop. The display works in sunlight as well as indoors. It takes very little power, but you can charge it by pulling on a string or hooking up a solar panel. It's packed with specially written, kid-and-teacher-friendly software. And the way each laptop's wireless connection lets it connect with everyone else's to share files and Internet connections is very interesting. These types of 'mesh' networks are actually pretty subversive. If there are enough mesh-enabled computers in the world, then they become their own infrastructure. Instead of using paid-for connections, all the data hops from laptop to laptop for free. It's just like the problem Intel had in the story above: there are ways to engineer things which look good on paper, but they have one terrible flaw: no one gets stinking rich. If little Third-World kids get laptops for free and don't need to pay for Internet connections then those little monsters are effectively taking food out of the mouths of shareholders. It's like the situation over in the music industry. It might suit bands and music lovers if it's easy to download and share music, but what about the big record companies and those artists who feel the need for multiple Bentleys? After all, don't big businesses have a god-given right to take control of things and make money from them? Who wins, when cooperation and collaboration carry the day? Nobody, that's who. With the exception of the little people, and big business is certainly not about giving them a say. But the OLPC initiative appears to be one project where real, commercial-grade design, planning and innovation has gone into something decent and unselfish. The Internet is already a democratising force; how much more democratic will it all be when the unrepresented masses can see, hear and contribute to what the rest of us are talking about? Giving Third-World kids laptops is like giving poor people the vote. Who knows what crazy things they'll do with it? If you read the first NYTimes article then you've seen how the head of the project, Nicholas Negroponte, responded to a question suggesting that poor countries need food, malaria protection and clean water more than they need computers. He said, "Nobody I know would say, By the way, lets hold off on education. Education happens to be a solution to all of those same problems.


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