Taking the PC out of The OLPC

Something to look forward to

Solving the problem of poverty is easy. All we need to do is to get the government to buy plasma TVs and give them to poor people. Everyone knows that rich people have plasma TVs, and poor people don’t. Plasma TVs are what separates the rich from the poor. Giving poor people a plasma TV would make them rich people. Or even if it didn’t actually make them rich, this would be the most effective first step to address the serious imbalances in economic and social injustice in today’s world of have and have-nots.

Well, actually, any intelligent person knows that the previous paragraph is utter nonsense. But substitute the word ‘notebook computer’ for ‘TV’, and you will become the darling of the leftist elites, who are intent on forcing tax payers to buy millions of notebook computers so they can be distributed to those more worthy than themselves.

We have the international OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project, Australia’s determination to give a notebook to every Aboriginal child, and then Kevin (Pixie) Rudd’s election promise to give one notebook to every school child.

Apparently the average destitute Aboriginal child, struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual molestation and chronic ear infections will get onto the internet to research the solution to his community’s problems.

“Hey Dad, it says here on http://www.social-workers.gov.au that you should stop getting drunk and bashing mum and I. How about going off to AA?”. “Hey Mum – it says here on http://www.healthy-eating.gov.au that diet is an important lifestyle choice. How about some fresh food for dinner?” “Hey bros, I read on http://www.say-no-to-drugs.gov.au that sniffing petrol can damage your brain. I guess we’d better stop doing it now.”

Fly. Pigs. Might.

In African nations, there is a plan to give free notebooks to children who don’t even have electricity. ‘No problem,‘ say the scheme’s advocates, ‘we can attach wind-up generators to them. And they could even be use to supply light in their mud-huts after dark!‘ Are there any intelligent people who find this anything other than totally perverse?

Even The Pixie’s proposal to supply notebooks to Bogans in a first world country is faltering. It seems that the rubbery figures used in estimating the cost of the one-laptop-per-Bogan scheme didn’t take into account that the notebooks have to maintained. You need IT support for them. IT people, dear reader, are those people who command obscene salaries for doing something that the rest of the population don’t even understand. IT support is expensive. More expensive, in fact, than the computers themselves.

The cost of buying a notebook for a motivated, middle-class brat is just the cost of the notebook itself. Within a day, a teen-age computer nerd will strip off the firewall protection and censorship filters, and be happily surfing http://www.horny-cheerleaders.com in between downloading his homework from essays-for-sale.com, and still have time to post party invitations on MySpace.

But how long is a notebook going to last in a mud hut? Or even a tin hut? Or even a Bogan’s school bag, getting thrown around with the footy boots?

Answer: not even until the next federal election. Oops.

And the destitute African children? Apart from sending Nigerian 419 scam letters, there is little in the way of local industry which can benefit from information transfer. Social networking is a great way for bored western teenagers to kill time, but when there are animals to feed, crops to grow and water to fetch, on-line gossip about pop stars is pretty much irrelevant. Commodity prices on the other side of the world won’t help you if you are merely subsistence farming. And great literature is of no interest to someone with an empty stomach.

Doubtless these elitist initiatives will result in someone, somewhere doing something useful, and the proponents will declare the whole fiasco a success. But does anyone think that the hundreds of dollars per unit would not have been better spent on food, medicine, conventional education or even on a mercenary force to topple their corrupt thieving governments?

And that applies for governments other than Australia’s too.

52 thoughts on “Taking the PC out of The OLPC

  1. OLPC is a private initiative (and XO has some great tech involved that’ll help everyone else anyway, all the OSS stuff anyway), though misguided, why should we stop them? If someone doesn’t mind paying $400 to get a laptop which also purchases a second laptop for someone else, why stop them? And, if you look at the specs of the XO, you’ll see that its components are indeed picked out in order to be feasibly charged on a handcrank and also be incredibly resilient to wear and tear. Rudd’s plan (though I’m against it 110%, my brother even refers to his future laptop a ‘pornbox’) also involves OSS (Edubuntu, iirc) and any censorship software installed will be quickly cracked (I might even chip in for it) due to the user structure of Linux and especially Ubuntu and its variants.

  2. One of the interesting things I observed when I worked in Hong Kong was that many of the international and English speaking schools there have surprisingly few physical resources (often crappy old computers, classrooms without the latest and greatest technology etc.). Alternatively, they do amazing well in terms of how well the children perform on various benchmarks. I found this very surprising given that the schools are generally quite well off, as are the parents. I have inquired about that, and I believe many think spending money on better teachers is more worthwhile than updating computers every year and so forth. Given this, my bet then is that if they actually did a proper study to examine the effect of providing these computers, the effect would be tiny and possibly negative if kids waste too much time playing games on them.

  3. >> OLPC is a private initiative .. why should we stop them?

    I invite you to follow the link to wikipedia:

    “Distribution model: The laptops are sold to governments”.

    See anything wrong here?

    Massive government initiatives don’t don’t suddenly become justified if they involve “great tech”.

  4. The OLPC initiative is a private one, laptops ARE sold to government – the governments of the developing countries who wish to deploy them. The laptops are always deployed in areas where there is infrstructure to support them – this is one of the key principles of the program.

    A second principle is ‘saturation’ meaning you deploy enough in any one area to be useful, particularly as each laptop can mesh network with others in the area.

    The entire program is based on some fairly solid edicational objective, has the support of a wide range of corporations, does not require input from you or me as taxpayers and accepts private donations from those who give a damn and ignores those who don’t.

    The main purchaser of these laptops is governments like Mongolia, Rwanda, PNG etc. Places where there is limited infrastructure, but enough to recharge batteries and in many cases, wireless access to the internet. When an OLPC project is rolled out part of that includes ensuring both of these elementary steps are present.

    It actually a pretty clearly thought out project that requires a committment from the developing world but allows them to access the same technology as the developed world. I thought this would be something you would support – Or are you somehow opposed to governments in the developing world providing a modern education for their children?

  5. Grendel : laptops ARE sold to government – the governments of the developing countries who wish to deploy them

    Yeah right. We should all be so trusting of government’s intentions.

    Looks like you worship at the alter of government, and you believe poor people are too stupid to decide for themselves how they should use and spend whatever precious little capital they have.

    Yes, the poor people are too stupid to know that laptops are the cure to all their ills. They are busy concerning themselves with security, shelter, food and drink when they really need a dual core laptop with Wi-Fi and good battery life to improve their lot.


  6. No wait.. scrap that response.

    I really get a kick out of seeing poor people denied a modern education. Its what gets me out of bed in the morning.

  7. Jono – you approach ignores the reality that we are talking about the developing world – it is not all one big homogonous basket case. Some parts actualyl already have access to security, shelter, food and drink – they want to take the next step in development.

    You make the point yourself “you believe poor people are too stupid to decide themselves how they should use and spend”, well, for many people access to a modern education is exactly what they are asking for. How about you get out there and ask people what it is they want – I did. What I was told was that people want access to the same information I have access to. They can read and write, they eat each night – they have little or no money, but they want to learn.

    Your approach is socialism at its worst – hand out food and let them live on in poverty. My approach is the hand them the fishing rod in the belief that they can not only feed themselves but sell the surplus. Hardly a lefty approach and a damn sight more libertarian than your ‘do nothing’ stance.

    OLPC isn’t asking you for anything – why knock it?

  8. Let’s cut to the chase- Strawman just wants Africans to stay illiterate and poor, so he can have someone to look down on!

  9. # 8 – ‘OLPC ian’t asking you for anything – why knock it?’

    True, it’s not asking us. It’s using our money without ever asking us.

    The purpose of taxes is to fund the minimum state activities (if any) that we need.
    Taxes are NOT for charity. I’d like australians to understand that once and for all.
    Charity, like almost anything else, works better in private hands.

    ‘Mandatory charitiy’ is not charity, is robbery.

  10. Regarding people being too stupid to make their own decisions… that is already how we’re treated in Australia.

    Smoking? Superanuation? Drugs? Education? Gambling? Healthcare? Charity? Self-protection? Drinking? Business?

    The government knows best. Trust uncle Kev.

    But more seriously… if you really did trust poor people in making their own decisions then you wouldn’t give them a laptop. You would give them the cash-equivalent and let them choose how to spend the money.

    And then this simply becomes a debate about charity and welfare. And some people (like Sergio) believe that charity is best done voluntarily and by people who actually care.

  11. Great post strawman – I enjoy your posts, but haven’t seen anything from you in a while.

    OLPC may be a private initiative, but they target government, and in particular the misguided notions that stawman highlighted.

    That said, the idea of providing low-cost laptops is a good one – but the Asus EEE-PC ended up producing a better model laptop for a comparable price (at least for the linux model), and now there are many micro-pc’s on offer… and they make a profit doing so. The free market provides.

  12. Worst thing about this, surely, is that this stupid government initiative will raise laptop prices across the board, as demand will go up without an increase in supply.

    So the many folks who don’t happen to fall into one of the ‘disadvantaged’ categories the Rudd Government has targeted, but who need a laptop, will be directly disadvantaged by this.

    A move right out of the USSR textbook!

  13. Instead of substituting “notebook computer” for “TV,” how about substituting “education” instead? OLPC is not a technology project, as its leaders tirelessly insist, but a humanitarian program, with ignorance as its target. I assume that Mr. Humphreys does not object to childhood disease immunization programs. Well, think of the XO as a kind of vaccine against one of the great scourges of the developing (and parts of the developed) world, right up there with disease and hunger and violence. If you reject OLPC as elitist, then offer a more personally palatable and practical alternative that will deliver both knowledge and enlightenment (as the XO is designed to do) to the hundreds of millions of kids whose horizons otherwise will remain as heroic as the view over the backside of the family ox, should they be so lucky. Full disclosure: I am an editorial consultant to OLPC.

  14. >> Let’s cut to the chase- Strawman just wants Africans to
    >> stay illiterate and poor, so he can have someone to
    >> look down on!

    I wouldn’t need Africa for that would I?

    There is no shortage of people to look down on in the world. Looking out the window, I can see a whole bunch of them sitting outside the local pub.

    Africa has probably received more foreign aid than any other continent, and it is the only continent which is poorer and less literate than it was 30 years ago. Spotted the pattern?

  15. Let’s cut to the chase- Strawman doesn’t think governments can solve all the problems of the world!

  16. Neither do I – hence my support of OLPC. It was never a government initiative and still isn’t. It was an educational initiative and very innovative. That innovation sparked the development of the new class we know as Netbooks – so in a sense while the free market is taking advantage of an obvious market for light cheap laptops, they are piggybacking off the idea from a not-for-profit organisation.

    Strawman you suggest that Africa has received more foreign aid and is poorer and less literate than it was 30 years ago – the whole point of this initiative is to create a generation of Africans with access to the knowledge to reverse that. We should applaud any african government that recognises that it has the capacity and the responsibility to provide the tools to make that happen.

  17. >> Strawman you suggest that Africa has received more foreign aid and is poorer
    >> and less literate than it was 30 years ago – the whole point of this initiative
    >> is to create a generation of Africans with access to the knowledge to reverse
    >> that.

    Yes, and the whole point of every other African initiative was to do the same. What has it achieved in Africa over the past 30 years? Worse than nothing. But this time it’s different, yes? This time we have gotten it right! This time we have so much insight into the problems of the third world and the mindsets of their people that we can’t fail!

    That would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

  18. I spent a year or two conversing with two economics undergraduates living in Ghana when I was active in the online forum called supply side university (now defunct). Most of their online time was via Internet cafes and it was clearly a highly rewarding activity from their perspective (but also from mine) and it was an effective means of transmitting new ideas and concepts. I think Internet access is a huge enabler even in poor countries trying to feed themselves. Farmers want to know which local town offers the best price for their produce. Students want access to experts and dialogue.

    I have been a bit dubious about some of these $100 laptop initiatives however I am sold on the fact that communications is an enabler in the underdeveloped world as much as anywhere else. I’d probably expect web enabled mobile phones to be a more realistic option however I haven’t looked in detail at these alternatives.

  19. Currently the price of the XO laptop is cheaper than a web enabled phone – however than can rapidly change, particularly if the phones are second hand. Given that the XO is designed specifically as a learning tool for children I think they gain much more value from it than they would from a phone -paticularly since you can cut the price of text books by providing them in electronic form rather than in printed form – a bonus in tropical climates where much used texts can wear quickly.

    Mobile Phones however are already proving to be an amazing enabler for small business in the developing world and Nokia has been working with small business owners to develop features that meet their needs.

  20. Childhood diseas immunization programs are great. So are laptops. So is drinking water. So are olives, and pepperoni pizza, and motorbikes, and scuba diving, and dentists, and shoes, and antibiotics, and many other things.

    What Stephen Michaud fails to see is that we’re not debating whether things are good or bad. We are debating about the process. Should we prefer the freedom approach (yay!) or the statist approach (boo!).

    Statists take it as given that the government should control our lives, and then want to debate about how the government should control us. Therefore, if you oppose a certain government program, they assume that you’re against the underlying activity.

    Of course, they’re entirely wrong. My preference for freedom does NOT imply that I think everybody should use drugs, nobody should go to school, that we should never help people, we should all commit voluntary euthenasian and have abortions, that we should all have a gay marriage, or start a business, or become a prostitute, avoid doctors and carry a gun.

  21. OK John – accepting that point, please respond to this. The Government of Papua New Guinea decides that it will give a laptop to children in its schools to assist them in learning and communicating. The laptop remains the property of the child and was paid for by their government.

    Why is this a ‘statist/freedom’ issue. I would have thought giving people access to knowledge was on the ‘freedon’ side of the ledger.

  22. I wondered if that would be asked – yes, taxes, royalties and aid from Australia, much of which has been misspent in the past and no doubt will be again in the future. However not all government ideas are bad government ideas and in the developing world where there is no market for private education outside a very small elite, education is, and must be, provided by government. Any project that enables the students of today to become the business owners and responsible contributing citizens of tomorrow boosts, not detracts, from the cause of freedom.

  23. I don’t necessarily agree that education, as in primary school and high school education, needs to be provided by the government. However I can see a good case on utilitarian grounds for the government to provide a significant sum of the funding for this purpose. I agree that not all government ideas are bad ideas but the dead weight cost of taxation is substantial and you want to be careful that you are not impoverishing people via government ambition. I tend to think that governments typically go well beyond what is prudent in the way of redistributing resources.

  24. Grendal, education in developed countries was only nationalised in relatively recent times. For much of the industrial revolution, education was a luxury. Why is education so necessary in your opinion to drag people up from poverty? Law, order, security, trade do not require any more than basic literacy and numeracy. You say there is no mass market for education in developing nations, and I’d agree. Markets are not created by governments, they’re created by people freely trading goods and services. People should be free to pursue education for themselves and their children, but it is in itself not a right nor a panacea.

  25. “Why is education so necessary in your opinion to drag people up from poverty?”

    Education is the sole reliable long term cure for poverty. The reason our society is relatively prosperous today is because education became something that was made freely available to all and children ceased having to work from childhood but instead gained the foundations of knowledge that allowed them to choose a path of their own rather than simply following in their father’s trade.

    This gave freedom of choice to the individual and allowed them to maximize their earning potential based on their strengths.

    It did not remove all barriers, but it certainly shifted the biggest one – ignorance.

  26. …My original post was misconstrued a little :/ The laptops are available to private entities as well. When they buy one, a second laptop is sent to a child in a developing country :/ I’m not for governments spending money on something as unnecessary as laptops :/

  27. Grendal, I actually think that the old transfer of skills and capital between generations is what eventually gave people the capital base from which we’ve gained freedom. There is something to be said for a farmer being reluctant to send their sons to school, even free ones if it means that he’ll move to the city and the family loses his labour. Why should he slave in the fields all day he his ungrateful child merely abandons him? If, however, the farmer has developed enough capital to employ labour saving equipment, at this point education becomes not only viable but desirable for his children. Law, order, security and trade will do more to drag people out of poverty than education. An educated populace is a result of development, although of course education has a positive feedback into development.

  28. “I actually think that the old transfer of skills and capital between generations is what eventually gave people the capital base from which we’ve gained freedom”

    And yet that structure existed for hundreds of years in feudal societies and only with the coming of universal education did we see a change to a truly commerce based economic and social system.

    Why should a child stay and work on the farm if they have wit and drive of an explorer?

    Not just that, universal education unlocked the potential in commerce, industry, science and other fields of the other half of the population who up until that time were considered useful in home productivity only – Women. Can any society really afford to shunt 50% of the brain mass into home duties?

  29. Grendel – actually technology in terms of mechanised methods of production (eg loom) and steam power were the enablers. Education of the masses was a dividend.

  30. Grendel – you seem to assume that some elite group created prosperity by taxing the farmers and using the proceeds of this forced transfer to educate the farmers children. Something the farmers was clearly unwilling to do themselves. This sort of narrative implies that the farmers were themselves little better than children. Not a narrative I sense very much truth in.

  31. Why should a child study at school if they have the strength and drive to farm?

    😉 Just asking.

  32. I think it all comes down to whether you believe that the government should have the right to take money without consent from one section of the community and redistribute it to another for a project that they feel is in the interest of the “greater good” or whether you feel that people and groups are best left free to engage only in those charitable initiatives that they themselves think are going to be the most beneficial.

  33. Terje – errr no nothing of the kind, farming was merely an example. (to point 32)

    Mechanized production was crucial to industrialization- but did not require educated workers, in fact industrialists desired children as labourers particularly around the looms as they were small and nimble – and expendable.

    It took the laws relating to child working age to get children out of the factories and into schools.

    Education wasn’t a by-product or dividend, it was seen as the cure for many of the social ills that resulted from the sudden expanse of the cities with industrialization.

  34. Grendal, your estimation of education in developing nations is lofty. What exactly is the value of an education when your country is beset by lawlessness, insecurity, corruption and not much more than subsistence? If education gives the individual the freedom to escape the hell hole, all good and well. But what about those left behind? Does the family left behind simply become dependant on remittances from their educated children? This is ok as well, but on the whole, I think whole ammunities will benefit more from grassroots development, not catapulting a relatively few lucky individuals into the 1st world.

  35. Brendan, going back to one of my earlier points – you can’t put all developing nations, or even all regions of some individual countries in an homogeneous ‘basket case’ of failure. The reality is that some places are developing further and faster than others – those that are have greater access and opportunity to take the ‘next step’ beyond subsistence.

    I totally agree that in a country beset by lawlessness, insecurity and corruption, even good education will not prevent poverty – Zimbabwe is a classic example of how a thriving nation can fail.

    But even in Iraq at the worst period of violence in 2006/2007, there were some regions, particularly that governed autonomously by the Kurds, in which there was capacity to move beyond just the basics and into providing education that will ultimately provide the next generation of Kurds with a better opportunity.

    You are right when you suggest that whole communities benefit the best from grassroots development rather than catapulting just one or two into the developed world and this takes us right back to the OLPC program – it is a grassroots, whole community approach that aims to provide children in the developing world the access to the knowledge they need to help develop their own world.

    If you go and read the basic principles of the program you will see that this is in fact the very core of the approach – the technology is merely the enabler.

  36. Grendel, in answer to your question (#22) — the issue of statist/freedom is about whether the government intervenes or whether the govenment does not intervene.

    So the option of having the government intervene (by taxing the business, workers and savers of PNG and using that money to buy laptops for people who will get a questionable benefit from them) is clearly a statist approach.

    A freedom approach would be pretty much the approach used by nearly every country that is currently wealthy. None of those countries got wealthy by over-taxing their businesses, workers and savers.

  37. Grendal, the rich countries did not first have a state school system, and then get wealthy. They became rich societies, and then government decided to allocate wealth, such as by starting public education. Britain industrialised first, and then the powers that be gave them the schools.
    A libertarian approach would be to allow any public authorities to offer library and school services to all, but it should not be compulsory. If parents want to home-school their kids, it should be their choice.

  38. Grendel,

    Why is this going to work? Why won’t it be any different to the failure of rapid industrialisation through import substitution like that of East Asia in the 1960s and 1970s?

    If you can’t read, why have the internet?

  39. Why do you assume they are illiterate? THe program delivers laptops to children who are already in school. Go and have a look for yourself. The program is already running successfully.

  40. >> Why do you assume they are illiterate?
    >> THe program delivers laptops to children who are already
    >> in school. Go and have a look for yourself. The program
    >> is already running successfully.

    Ahh, so it’s the One Laptop Per LITERATE Child project now ..

    [All children are equal but some are more equal than others].

  41. From what I know of the program I’m supportive of it.

    Would you rather government spend $120 on schoolbooks or $100 on a laptop over the course of a child’s education?

    The laptops are built to last and built to work, even in remote communities. They are built capable of reading PDF documents so a single laptop will be able to hold all of a child’s schoolbooks. They will also be able to communicate with each other and provide access to other applications and the internet. They are cheaper, more durable and more easily updated with new material than schoolbooks.

    You can argue the merits of government spending on education. But assuming governments are going to spend money on education the laptops are a better way to spend it than schoolbooks.

    I think a freer education market would end up seeing these laptops being used in poorer schools simply because they are a better investment than books. But rather than have the government pick winners schools should be able to choose how to spend their own money. I’m sure the schools choosing laptops over schoolbooks would have their choice rewarded.

  42. Yeah I reckon it’s beaut mate. Beaut! When I said that by 1990 no child’d live in poverty what I meant was no child would live in poverty and not even have a laptop to play Warcraft on. Kevvie’s great mate.

    And think if you’ve got a laptop you can trade it in for some petrol to sniff. Stimulates the economy and keeps the little shits quite.

  43. >> The laptops are built to last and built to work, even in
    >> remote communities.

    Really? I invite you to
    which reads:

    >> Federal Telecommunications Minister Stephen Conroy says
    >> the program has failed, with 50 per cent of the
    >> computers not working any more because of a lack of IT
    >> back-up support in communities.


    1. What do you think the temperature in a tin shed is?

    2. What do you think the temperature of a notebook in direct sunlight will get up to?

    3. What do you think the temperature tolerance of one of your ‘built-to-last’ notebooks is?


  44. Strawman, I was talking about the XO laptops that have been designed with the needs of remote communities in mind. Not Toshibas that barely work in an office environment- let alone outside.

    Terje- one of the biggest problems with computers is that they are built to have stuff added. Look at consoles. Wii and Playstations never see a blue screen of death (let’s just ignore Xbox). If these XOs are built with a prepacked suite of programs and only the option of adding PDF documents to them I can imagine they’d be stable enough.

    Yes technology has its drawbacks. But personally I believe we should embrace it where it shows merit. As long as embracing technology doesn’t involve more government I am all for it.

  45. Ideally what I’d like is a way to make an investment in a developing country, and not necessarily expect to get a financial return, but to expect a social return on investment, to know that if I supported an organization, or wanted to help people, that the money was used in a balanced way. I think many organizations do that, but there are so many out there, I don’t really know which ones — but I should learn more. Still, it would be nice if there was an easier way to have a balanced way to support organizations that work in the areas of health and education.

    So the best thing I can think of is the idea of being able to buy a share in something like a mutual fund, but where the money goes to non-profits – like a mutual fund that supported some health, some educational causes — whatever the citizens of a given area and others rated as having the most impact. So I’m trying to think of ideas at http://npoex.blogspot.com — and I’m trying to think of a color coded approach, with red (health), green (education, environment0, and blue (water, community): http://tinyurl.com/greenorg – I invite you to take a look, and also to see green.org and to share any thoughts you might have.

    ADMIN: Well, if you’re interested check out http://www.humancapitalproject.wordpress.com

  46. So, can someone tell me — exactly — how much does one of the supposedly indestructible laptops cost? I’ve seen prices between $100 and $399.

    Everything I’ve read seems to obfuscate the true cost.

    Also, if the program is designed to hand over a piece of property worth $100 or more to a remote family which lives on less than that amount for a whole year, it would be logical to assume the family would immediately trade the laptop for cash.

  47. Pingback: One Laptop per Child in Africa « fortySouth

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