Consider the consequences: One Laptop Per Child
By Douglas P. Lockwood
November 12, 2007
Has anyone stopped to consider the implications of Nicholas Negroponte's "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) program, and the multitude of "cheap computers for the third world" ideas that have appeared as the result?
I think Negroponte and others are doing something truly amazing for the world (although there is some question about how ready the world is to embrace his vision). I believe in the OLPC program, and the other programs aimed at bringing technology to developing countries.
But I wonder if anyone has ever truly considered the implications of this ideology. Some people have expressed concerns over the lack of equality that can stem from providing these laptops to children in third-world countries and refusing to sell them in the United States of America or other developed countries. Certainly we have children worthy of these machines in our own country, right? These concerns over the inequality evident from providing computers to other countries rather than ours are probably more significant than most of us currently believe. In fact, these concerns barely scratch the surface of the potential impact of OLPC et. al.
One of the fundamental concepts behind these programs is the use of open source technology to provide the software for the machines. This decision, quite naturally, stems from the need to reduce the costs of the machines to make them affordable to developing nations. Early in the OLPC project, Negroponte realized that open source software had another benefit—the freedom to hack into the source code for the programs and re-create them. As Negroponte points out, the children who receive these machines will not only learn to use computers, but they will become programmers and software engineers. This is what concerns me, albeit in a pleasant way.
One possible scenario:
Imagine two children. One child comes from a privileged, developed nation like the U.S.A. We will call her Anne. The other child comes from a poor, remote village in Africa without running water, heat, or electricity. We will call her Akili. Now, in a traditional world, Anne will almost certainly have more opportunities for a "better" life (I use the term very loosely) than Akili. She is likely to attend school for a minimum of 12 years, and most likely go on to college to get a degree in an advanced field so she can earn a lot of money. Akili, on the other hand, is likely to stay in her village struggling for survival from day to day.
Enter Nicholas Negroponte and OLPC. Akili is given her very own laptop computer when she is very young. Anne shares a computer with her family. At first, Anne will most likely find the computer to be an invaluable tool to use in her daily life, while Akili may see it as an interesting toy, but not valuable in her day-to-day life. Within a week, Anne will have registered an e-mail address, filled her Facebook account with pictures of her and her friends, downloaded and installed an instant messaging client to chat with her friends online, and started using the computer to research and complete her homework assignments. In the same time frame, Akili will still be trying to figure out what her computer is for, and why she should spend her valuable time with the thing.
Skip ahead ten years, and the picture changes dramatically. Anne is still spending her time e-mailing and instant messaging her friends, and constantly checking in with her friends via Facebook, although she now has to fight her younger brother for time on the computer. Anne's family has gone through no fewer than three computers in this time, and their current computer and (expensive) software are already outdated. Meanwhile, Akili has kept her same computer (although she has upgraded a few components). She has kept her OS and software running smoothly by ensuring she was always running the latest version of the (free) software available for her computer. She has also decompiled, studied, and improved on the OS and software she is using, and has made significant improvements to the functionality of her computer programs. Akili has made quite a name for herself by sharing her discoveries with software developers worldwide via blogs, e-mail, and discussion groups, and has been offered several jobs with software development firms - some allowing her to stay in Africa, others asking her to move to their country. Akili is only hesitating on taking the next step because she is trying to decide whether to stay in her village with her family, or relocate to a new country where she can be closer to her potential employers. Meanwhile, Anne is constantly being reprimanded for spending time during her part-time job chatting with her friends via IM and checking her e-mail when she should be working.
Certainly, this scenario is overly dramatized, but I don't think it's very far-fetched. The point I'm trying to make is that the "digital divide" is likely to be completely changed in the next few decades. People in affluent countries are typically using restrictive, proprietary software like Microsoft Windows/Office and Macintosh OS. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. I personally enjoy the stability and power of my Microsoft operating system and software. On the other hand, however, people without the financial capital to invest in high-priced proprietary software are typically going to use open source software. The principal trade-off between the two is that proprietary software is generally more powerful and has fewer bugs, while open source software can be personalized for a variety of uses and re-written/re-configured by a knowledgeable user. What tends to happen is that a user of proprietary software will adapt his/her computer use to the limitations of the software, while the user of open source software will adapt the software to his/her needs.
So, what does all this mean? It means that it's quite likely that within the next decade or two, almost all software innovations and improvements will be coming from people who have been using open source software, rather than from major organizations. By extension, we can expect that the next great software company(ies) will probably come from what are, today, third-world countries. This software, then, will be used worldwide for both personal and business applications. And, of course, financial and military applications as well. This is a great thing...countries with limited resources will suddenly have an exportable resource (software engineering) that can bring in the financial resources to turn their developing countries into economically-viable first-world countries. What a wonderful opportunity!
The next Microsoft?
But what happens to the current first-world countries? Will they be left behind, perhaps to degenerate into third-world countries themselves? I don't think it will be this extreme, but there is definitely the possibility that today's first-world countries will go through a period of suffering. As computers become more and more important in our day-to-day living in the modern world, people who do not have the technical skills necessary to use them will find it difficult to compete. We have seen over the past few decades how hard it has been for people without a solid foundation of computer literacy to compete with the "digital natives" entering the workplace. But as time goes on, it will take more than just computer literacy to compete...programming will become a valuable asset in any employee and those who have the most knowledge of programming (which will most likely be those that grew up with open source software) will have a distinct advantage over those who only know how to use existing software applications.
Furthermore, we can expect the digital divide will continue to exist in many first-world countries, where the costs of proprietary software (and the expectations from businesses and schools that people use this software) will continue to make it difficult for economically challenged individuals or families to compete with their more affluent peers. Government-sponsored programs to provide computers to struggling individuals and families will likely fail due to the high technological requirements and high costs of proprietary software. Meanwhile, developing countries will have a more equitable access to technology...those who cannot afford the computer hardware they need will have low-cost hardware provided to them through government programs utilizing OLPC and other offers. The software (and updates) for these machines will be free of charge, ensuring that the average individual or family has access to the latest technology.
As OLPC and other programs begin their distribution, it is prudent that people in today's developed nations consider the consequences of these programs. We should all support the programs, which have the potential (not certainty) to change our world forever by bringing equality to every corner of Earth. However, citizens of first-world countries must be careful to remain competitive in the future by embracing open source technology in their own countries and developing programs to bring technological equality to their citizens as well as those in third-world countries. While businesses in the first-world are likely to continue using proprietary software for many years to come, individuals should consider using some open source software for their home use to become familiar with how the technology works, and how well it works with their existing systems. The more familiarity individuals can gain with using and configuring open source and Web-based applications, the more competitive they will remain in the brave new world.
It was once said, "All men are created equal. Smith & Wesson made them that way." Perhaps, someday, we will say, "All people are created equal. Nicholas Negroponte made them that way."
Open source resources:
Once users begin to explore the world of open source software, they will most likely be amazed at the great diversity and functionality of software available for their use. Since the software is typically free of charge, there is no reason not to give it a try.
FireFox, an open source Web browser, has seen wide adoption in many first-world countries, and has brought open source software into many homes.
OpenOffice.org, an open source office suite, is rapidly gaining in popularity, and should be considered by anyone currently using proprietary office software for their home computers.
For users of Microsoft Windows, a great place to get started with open source software is by downloading or purchasing the OpenDisc—a collection of the most popular/useful open source programs available for Microsoft Windows.
For people on the go, Portable Apps (Windows, Macintosh, Linux) give them the opportunity to run open source software on any computer (using the same operating system). These modifications of open source applications allow you to use your favorite open source software at home, at work, and on the road.
Fedora and Ubuntu, two popular open source operating systems, can completely replace Microsoft Windows or Macintosh OS. However, changing your operating system is recommended only for the advanced user who understands the implications of doing so. People interested in trying out a new operating system on their computer can choose to try a Live CD version (a lightweight operating system on a bootable CD that will not remove your existing operating system), or can run the new operating system through the free VMWare Player, which allows you to run a separate virtual computer inside your existing computer.
Wal-Mart has recently started selling a $199 desktop PC that makes use of the open source gOS operating system.
Asus recently released the Eee PC, a low-cost micro laptop computer ideal for the traveler. The Asus Eee PC uses the open source Linux operating system.
OLPC offered its XO laptop to residents of the United States and Canada for two weeks in late 2007 as part of a "give one, get one" program. Individuals could purchase two XO laptops...one would be given to a child in a developing nation, and another would be given to the purchaser. The XO laptop uses a customized version of the open source Linux operating system.
Originally published by and © Douglas P. Lockwood, Lockworld Herald
Consider the consequences: One Laptop Per Child by Douglas P. Lockwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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