Last month, The World Summit on the Information Society, a UN gathering meant to promote "information access for all," held a major conference in Tunisia—a country infamous for heavy-handed internet censorship, run by a man who consistently captures 99.9 percent of the vote. Yet the conference headline-grabber turned out not to be its odd location, nor the howls of protest from press freedom groups, but a digital prototype, unveiled to the expectant masses like an infant savior destined to redeem the digital have-nots: The $100 laptop.
The Linux-based prototype, equipped with four USB ports and wireless broadband capability, sports a full-color display, flash memory, and a 500 MHz processor. More importantly, it's adorable: Bright green, encased in chunky plastic, and powered by a yellow hand crank, the computer blurs the line between PC and plaything. The project is the brainchild of Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, whose One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative wants a "green machine" in the hands of every poor kid in the Third World.
Negroponte calls the laptop a "way for children to 'learn learning'" The machines have been praised by Kofi Annan, Bill Gates, and Rupert Murdoch. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wants $54 million to equip every middle and high school student in the state with one.
That's quite a marketing blitz, but First Worlders who want to buy one of their own are out of luck. OLPC is still tinkering with the finished product, but when it does deliver, the laptops will not be stoking shopper hysteria at Wal-Mart. Explains the MIT Media Lab Web site: "Please note that the $100 laptops…will not be available for sale. They will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives."
For now, OLPC plans to sell only to governments of poor countries, not individuals here or anywhere else. (The minimum order for the stripped down computer is a hefty 1 million machines.) The laptops will thus be sold at $100 a pop to cash-strapped governments and distributed for free, which is as top-down a way to deliver the internet to kids as has ever been proposed.
Gifting, we discover every Holiday Season, is an incredibly inefficient mode of exchange. The first week of January is a customer-service-line filled nightmare, our collective attempt to correct judgments people who love us make about what we really want: sweaters two sizes too big, gadgets we have no use for, toys too uncool to engage in public. The developing world, too, has a closetful of gifts it never asked for and couldn't use: Free food diverted to feed the militias responsible for hunger in the first place, anti-malarial bed nets turned into wedding dresses, newly dug wells abandoned because no one knew how repair them.
Any development guru has internalized this, and few projects get funded without at least a pretense of community feedback. Yet OLPC doesn't question that cheap laptops, dropped into homes unbidden from bureaucratic Santas, will be welcomed. The picture of a raggedy poor kid banging away on a green laptop is nothing if not alluring, and the vision comes wrapped in warm anecdotes. News accounts are filled with a story Negroponte tells about distributing the machines in Cambodia, where, he says, parents wouldn't let their children use them at first for fear they would break. But upon discovering that the laptops, when opened, were the "brightest light source in the house," they came to love them.
Consider for a moment, how bizarre and condescending a story this is: Do poor parents really think of computers as souped-up nightlights? And if they valued them too much to let their kids use them before they discovered the light-producing wonders, why do they value them less when they discovered this added capability? Then consider how little it accords with what we know about technology adoption in the developing countries. It wouldn't be any surprise at all, in Vientiane or Phnom Penh, to find a hut, devoid of plumbing and windows, with a functional DVD player at the center of the home (and a pile of pirated DVDs beside it). This situation is often used to decry a lack of proper priorities, but you certainly can't say that adults aren't willing to pay for electronic toys.
Michael Robertson, Chairman of Linux-distributor Linspire, is among the laptop's critics; he says the company's research indicates poor families will "not buy the cheapest computer available to them, but instead insist on getting a fully functioning computer." They're willing to take out loans and make sacrifices for the real thing rather than settle for a cheap imitation. Other critics point to numerous design limitations that wouldn't fly if OLPC were dealing with individuals spending their own cash rather than with governments spending other people's. The computer has no hard drive; it's sluggish; CNN reports that the crank must be turned for an arm-straining 10 minutes to run Internet on the thing for a half hour. As Kofi Annan attempted to demonstrate the laptop's ease of use at a conference in Tunis, the crank snapped off into his hand.
Negroponte has actually managed to spin the laptop's weaknesses as part of its mystique. The stripped-down green machine is "svelte," he says; your laptop is "obese." But he hasn't had much to say about the most persistent criticism: It's connectivity, not hardware, that is the biggest barrier to putting kids online. And every dollar that a poor government spends on a substandard laptop will be a dollar less to spend on the infrastructure needed to support a network.
The laptop wasn't welcomed with complete uniformity in Tunis; as CNN summarized some complaints: "What people in the developing world really need are water, food, jobs, decent healthcare and sanitation." But perhaps what people in the developing world really need is for bureaucrats to stop telling them what they really need. As Americans tear open a host of well-intentioned, slightly-off presents this week, the good people at the OLPC might consider the familiar plea of cash-strapped people everywhere: Please just send a check.
Kerry Howley is an assistant editor of Reason.