On the other hand, Christopher, here’s a few things John C. Dvorak misses in his ill-informed screed against the OLPC laptop. I note he didn’t have any qualms about running ahead with his article, which doesn’t seem to be a time-sensitive issue piece, having not talked to MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte or, apparently, anyone else connected with the project.
The same problem with government interference — which Dvorak doesn’t refute, of course — exists with food as it does with more mainstream computer systems. Yes, for $100 you could feed a village — if you could get $100 worth of food past government bureaucrats (on both sides of the delivery route) and clashing warlords. In the metaphorical sense, instead of giving out fish to governments, OLPC is giving out “learn to fish” manuals directly to people (chlidren).
Because the systems have very little value to people with the ready cash to pay for them — why buy a slow laptop with no hard disk for $100 when you can get a workable, more functionally complete one for $300 through a normal retail outlet? — there is no incentive for anyone to divert or seize them. They are at once as worthless and as priceless as a well-used set of the world’s greatest books.
Dvorak is also under the impression that the point is to put “high tech” in kids’ hands. The tech is not the point; it’s a means to an end. This is a tool for connectivity and learning, which is why it can still be useful at what most people in prosperous nations would consider an insufficient level of performance. The OLPC machines are, in educational terms, a rough equivalent to teaching villages how to build infrastructure (remember that Peace Corps commercial with the water pump?); in this case, it’s educating children so they can become contributors to, and thus beneficiaries of, the global information economy.
Linux — in particular, Fedora — has been stripped, adapted, and polished, outfitted with an eye only toward educational possibilities for children. I notice that Dvorak didn’t go to the trouble to mention Microsoft’s silly attempt in cahoots with Intel to push $400 laptops on the same developing nations, with zero emphasis on furthering the educational process for children. If it’s ridiculous to put millions of $100 laptops directly in the hands of children, how ludicrous is to put millions of $400 laptops directly in the hands of third-world governments?
I’m not saying the OLPC plan is perfect, but I do think it’s a valiant attempt to save at least part of the world by thinking outside the box. To paraphrase a friend of mine, how many geniuses do you think we never hear about because they grow up in a place where they can’t make an impact? The OLPC machine is a means to cultivate genius and knowledge wherever it lies — not by forcing children to learn how to run a computer the same way everyone else does, but by making a tool they can use and adapt to trade information and form healthy ideas of cooperation and community.