Foreign Policy

Tech Delusions

Laptops for the poor.

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In November the nonprofit group One Laptop per Child, an offshoot of MIT's Media Laboratory, unveiled a prototype of a $100 laptop meant for underprivileged kids in remote parts of the developing world. The Linux-based PCs, dubbed "green machines," are equipped with a power-generating crank, a 7.5-inch screen, and lime-colored rubber casing. Their potential benefits have been extolled by everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Kofi Annan.

Despite the hype, the machines won't be hitting your local Wal-Mart anytime soon. As the MIT Web site explains, " the $100 laptops…will not be available for sale. They will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives." The group plans to sell only to governments of poor countries, not to individuals. The minimum order: 1 million machines.

This centralized distribution plan has plenty of critics, who point to design limitations that wouldn't fly if One Laptop per Child were dealing with individuals spending their own cash rather than governments spending other people's money. The computer has no hard drive, it runs at a sluggish 500 megahertz, and CNN reports that the crank must be turned for an arm-straining 10 minutes to access the Internet for a half-hour. When Kofi Annan attempted to demonstrate the laptop's ease of use at a conference in Tunis, the crank snapped off in his hand.

Design flaws aside, no one appears to have asked the intended recipients what they want in information technology. Lee Felsenstein, designer of the Osborne 1–generally acknowledged as the first portable computer–points out that unless someone does ask them, the computers are going to end up in other hands. "They will be sold on gray and black markets to the lower middle class and cities, where there will be a temptation to use them as a new kind of television," he says. "They aren't going to revolutionize education, because they won't be in the places where education will take place."??