A Laptop for Every Kid


Green and White Machine


Am I just going to far with my April stress-induced cynicism? A little optimism wouldn’t kill me. But then again I might just be right in thinking One Laptop Per Child is full of it.

The OLPC Foundation is a non-profit that has been around since January ’05. Their goal is to create a laptop that costs $100 for third/fourth world schoolchildren, the idea being that a computer is the best tool to increase quality in education for these children.

My first thought, I believe, was similar to what most people in this country would think about the project. Genius. Dazzled by the myriad features, I would excitedly spout at friends: “It’s an e-book reader, so kids could simply download free books where they couldn’t get them otherwise. Plus it has all this new low-power technology to extend battery life, it’s got a pull cord to charge it—just like a lawnmower—and governments buy these from the OLPC Foundation for around $150 (the price becomes more realistic), plus it’s got flash memory (no moving parts), huge wireless radio capabilities, and it’s BRIGHT GREEN!”

I’m not lying. But they’re planning on using other colors too.

My second thought.: “Anything that looks this good on paper has to be horseshit.”

I’m in a literature class now about the problems facing African writers. Illiteracy has been an enduring theme. If Africans can’t read the works of their writers, they are forced to write in part for Western audiences. Also, because books can cost more than a month’s food, how are people ever to read the literature of their own nation? The e-book reader could make a huge difference. Literacy is always good, no? But then again, if a government can spend $150 on a laptop, why not spend $150 on the traditional method of teaching people how to read (i.e. real books)?

As far as I can tell, Rwanda, Libya, Nigeria, Thailand, India, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay are the countries that have already signed up to buy the computers right off the production line. But is this a good idea? This is the crux of my project here: is technology always beneficial? I gotta ask: what about cultural imperialism? How will the arrival of the Internet change people’s perceptions of themselves and others? Will the ‘Net bring us together, or shall xenophobia endure in the face of all this inter-global competition?

A guy I work with would chime in now and say “the latter!” He sees the Internet as a vehicle for more oppression, more corporate control, more adverts, less privacy, and a larger gap between the rich and the poor. I absolutely see his point. But I can’t lose hope yet! I’m suppose I’m not fully lost to the dread cynicism. And while the jury that is my head is still out to lunch on the question of the digital divide, mostly I believe that communication and education technology is a boon for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladders. Just as prisons and mental hospitals are the state’s “technologies of power” in Michel Foucault’s mind, a web connect and some intellect have a whole lot of potential to change people’s lots.

But then again, it would be so easy for governments to track people by their laptops, just as the PATRIOT act has enabled the practice in our country.

But the technology would be shared by family members, classmates, and the knowledge and benefits would flow through the community, allowing people to keep in touch and learn at a cheaper cost.

Or, like some other forms of aid, the laptops could become divisive materials in the most impoverished places, causing more trouble than they’re worth like the glass Coke bottle in the unfortunate film The Gods Must be Crazy (if you ever want to see a case study in stereotyping and generalization, watch this movie).

On the other hand, we have the idea of a new “Web 2.0,” a participatory Internet where identity is not constructed at the corporate level, but at the user level. The massive hype over Web 2.0 has helped to create a fair amount of appeal. A mystical place: the Internet, where anyone with the comp and the connect can find themselves a voice in the cybersphere with which to speak freely.

For a real-life example, let’s take a look at Maine, my home state here in the USA. A man named Seymour Papert from my home town of Blue Hill is credited with the idea to distribute a laptop to every seventh-grader in the state. Faced with education problems, a high rate of unemployment, and the digital divide between poor kids and rich kids especially, the state bought over 40,000 laptops and loaned them to students for two years each. The initiative was vigorously debated, and it is not clear whether they have been a major ($41 million worth) help to the kids. Test scores didn’t rise (who cares? Personally I think standardized testing only measures how well teachers prepare the students for the test, not for life). Teachers agree that the laptops have been quite the effective tool for all kinds of hands-on, empowering learning.

(Here’s an interesting (and short!) op ed in opposition to the laptop initiative).

Well, my 14-year-old brother got one and uses it often. When I asked my mother about the program, she agreed that the laptops are useful, even if they don’t raise test scores. “In rural areas,” she said, “libraries aren’t open very late… It’s nice for everybody to have the same access to computers, around the clock.” She did point out that children without an Internet connection at home will have to go to the library or an Internet café, which are both available in my home town.

So it seems as though she’s a convert. Me, I’m still wavering between relentless, unabated optimism and the dark sky cynicism.


15 Responses to “A Laptop for Every Kid”

  1. 1 Anonymous

    My initial reaction to the OLPC initiative was something similar to a roll of the eyes. From a sustainable standpoint, the OLPC project is likely to be unsuccessful. Laptops: something you can pick up, carry, put in a bag, etc.. they get tossed around no matter how careful one is. Their lifespan is short. $2,000 laptops last for maybe 4 years. A $150 laptop for kids resembles playskool digital cameras in my mind. How long does one of these green machines last? How many worn-out laptops are going to accumulate in dumps across the world as they wear out? … then what are these kids left with? What kind of dependency will be created? What about all of the resources used to make them? Environmentally speaking, I’m not quite taken by the idea.

    And then there’s the cultural viewpoint. As a whole, I view each technological advancement as a step towards making us more machine-like and less human-like. It makes me want to throw up. One of the most refreshing, beautiful parts of being in a “third-world” country is that, though they have shitty living situations, they are usually happy. They have each other. They are traditional in forms of entertainment. Laptops? Most kids in third world countries don’t even have balls to play with. They play with rocks. Sticks. They create toys out of every day objects. I think this creativity and lack of materialism on their part is part of what makes them so special and beautiful, part of what keeps them together. What if we distract them with (dun-dun..) THE INTERNET. Then where does their pride go? Their unity? Their culture? Us wealthy, always thinking bigger is better, faster is better, more is better, more technologically advanced is better. ….. Now, now, is it really?
    … so silly we can be.

    “Literacy is always good, no? But then again, if a government can spend $150 on a laptop, why not spend $150 on the traditional method of teaching people how to read (i.e. real books)?”

    Money. as in, money shot. Time and time again technology seems to be replacing the simple ways of doing. Why bring machines into the picture when kids can learn to read with books? If new-school green lap tops can make it to these remote areas, books sure as hell can too. Lack of supplies is a common problem in impoverished schools. Let’s say the Ministry of Education has a budget of $5,000. Alright, sweet, at $150/laptop, that’s 33 and 1/3 laptops. Thirty three kids can learn how to read. Sixty-six if they partner up, though I believe the initiative is titled One Laptop Per Child. How many pads of paper, pencils, chalkboards can be purchased with 5,000? What about desks? I bet there aren’t enough seats in every classroom. Oh, and also, what languages are these e-books going to available in? (let’s not forget the sanctity of mother-tongue) …. Do you see my point? Sigh.. it’s just that the more caught up in technology we get, the further we seem to get from the truth. Doesn’t it feel so good so just spend a day in the woods?

    But lastly, this isn’t my decision. I am not one of those poor children. What do THEY want? Do they want to move into the digital era? If they do: go for it. I have a laptop, I won’t say anyone else can’t. But I would hope that when being presented with such information that the people are approached by a neutral party.. so that they are not pushed towards making the purchase. They need to have all the facts: the pros and cons, unbiased guidance, and the grounds for making an educated decision. And at the end of the day if they want the laptops, give them the laptops. While my simplistic idealism may float my boat, that’s my perspective. I don’t live in the third world. I am a white middle-class North American (who maybe feels guilty for all that I have and therefore am cynical towards materialism in general.. and am possibly unable to see the benefits of technological advances, etc.). Worse than depriving people of the third world from laptops, is depriving them from voicing their own perspectives. What do they want?

  2. 2 David

    Some interesting, if scattered, ideas here, but I get concerned when folks representing themselves as anthropologists (or students of) begin referencing The Gods Must Be Crazy to talk about the potentially divisive and destructive impacts of technology among a group of more than 5 billion people across the world without internet access. Perhaps this is one of the dangers in analyzing the internet access question at such a global level–the slippery slope toward stereotypes and generalizations becomes oh so slippery. I’ll be excited to read more detailed, first-hand anthropological analysis of the CTC…..

  3. 3 sasc

    I probably should have qualified that statement about The Gods Must Be Crazy, David. Thanks. The film is pretty atrocious as far as stereotypes go. As far as analyzing at the global level? I don’t think it could be done at all. This, I think, is another folly of One Laptop Per Child–assuming a universal solution to poverty, as if local factors such as culture didn’t matter.

  4. well as usual, i probably see things a bit differently. to good ol’ anon above, i agree with a lot of what you are saying, but i have a big issue with assuming that 3rd world cultures don’t want any sort of advancement. i think that’s just as harmful as assuming every child in africa wants to be president of the usa.

    whether you like it or not, the world is advancing in a technological way. personally, i’d rather read a book in the trees over sitting in a lab with glowing screens, but i also recognize that my ability to type and navigate a computer are tools that put me in a better position for employment GLOBALLY than someone who doesn’t.

    reading books and scrolls used to be limited to priests and “scholars.” people were quaintly and simply kept in the dark. literacy was a tool that was not meant for the masses. is technology the same? only those of us…what special..privileged…rich..enough are able to handle? i dunno.

    there is no universal solution to poverty. but there are alternatives to what has currently been tried. dependency as a problem? good luck deglobalizing. we are all dependent, it’s part of being social beings. if we embrace that, that’s when we start working together and helping one another.

    i’m not a tech person. i used to fight it. but i’m don’t want to watch another tool be kept out of the hands of the folks who need tools the most. (ah and to clarify, it’s naive to think tools only come in the form of hammers and nails….linear social evolution is also naive.)

    as always

  5. 5 Anonymous

    dear ms woodsh and others who may have been mis-taken,

    to clarify.. in my previous comment i was not suggesting that the people of the third world do not want advancement. my final plea was that while i have my biases towards technological advancement, my simplistic-retroevolution ideals aren’t what’s significant in this context (that’s just my fantasy speaking). what is realistically significant are the voices and opinions of the people who are directly affected.

    feelings towards laptops & other technological advances will be different for different societies, depending on specific cultural values, etc. like david said, we must be careful not to generalize. it is likely that some societies will want to make technological advancements with laptops, and others won’t. my fear is that because of OUR technological advancements/education/wealth/etc., it is easy for those of us on this side of the fence to get wrapped up in an ethnocentric view of technology. the case i was aiming to present in my comment was not that people don’t want technology, but that we should not just assume they do (or don’t, for that matter). our role, as people of a developed nation with many privileges, is not to enforce our luxuries on others in attempts to make their lives better, but to listen to them. hear their side. and then use our resources to do what we can to help them help themselves.

    my comment is meant to be a reminder that what we may think is great is not what all people might think is great. …. sigh, cultural relativism vs. absolutism, etc.

    … and yes, you bring up quite a good point that laptops are tools too. we should also remember that tools don’t stop with tangible objects. however, the essence of my case is that we shouldn’t fill their toolbox what we feel is appropriate. i am not at all suggesting we “keep” tools from them, but simply that we should ask them what tools they desire to make their toolbox more complete, and then help them acquire such tools (whether those be tangible objects or the intangible, like skills, knowledge, etc.).

    now that i have sufficiently procrastinated, i must get back to work.

  6. anon-

    i appreciate your clarification. ’tis where i stand as well. the empowerment of asking people what THEY think THEY need is often forgotten. looks like 2 sides of the same argument?

    yes. procrastination.

  7. 7 Tom Crowe

    I do not have a strong opinion on this matter but am here solely to express my thoughts. Being a seventh and eigth grader at a public school in Maine, I have first hand experience on the opportunity of having a laptop given to me. Not only has it enriched the work I do in my education, but has connected my class mates and I to the outside world. Coming from a town where there is only 2,000 people, that is a big help. The laptop I received is a great tool and I use it daily. It is my main helping hand in the work I do, well… of course behind the teacher, and no other possession is as valuable to me as it is. Not only the most valuable in price, but even if it had no net value, I would treat it with the same care and pride cause it helps me so much in the work I do. Too bad we can’t give teachers to third world countries for $100 dollars.

  8. 8 Lauren

    The first time that I heard about the laptop initiative was a year ago. I was traveling in Niger (West Africa) and I was staying with a peace corps volunteer in a rural village. This village was in the Sahel (the geographically dry area right below the Sahara) and about a 2 hour camel ride to any sort of main road. The “village” was actually a series homes spread out over 27 kilometers with one tribal leader. It was a farming community that suffered a great deal from the “hunger season”, the time period each year when the food from the previous harvest has run out and the next harvest has not yet occurred. There was no school because no one had enough money to bribe the government to build one. Once every month or so a tax collector would come around and get as much money out of the community as he could and then make empty promises about sending a teacher. The colonial language in Niger is French but the people in this area only spoke Zarma. So, I had the laptop discussion with the village tribal leader but it was translated through the peace corps volunteer that I was staying with.

    He was so enraged at the idea that an aid organization would try to bring his village $100 computers. He told me about all the problems that his village faced and he wondered what they would do with the computers. There would be no teacher around to help them use them and the computers would certainly not enhance the non-existent school curriculum that they had. Maybe they could sell the computers at the market for food, he mused. I don’t think that Niger is going to be purchasing laptops anytime soon or that this village, Baliara will actually see any of the computers, but that wasn’t really the point of this leader’s anger. He is a very smart man who knew exactly what problems his community had and if he had the power (or the resources) he knew exactly what he would do to fix the problems. He told me about the computers as an example of how insanely ridiculous aid agencies and initiatives are.

    I’m not saying that we should not give people the chance to empower themselves, be educated, and enter into the digital/technological world. I just agree along with members of this small village in Niger that there are many more problems to be solved before a laptop for every child would actually be a good developmental goal.

  9. 9 Thad Bell

    I believe that this nexus of this village “in the sahel” of Niger and “the laptop initive”(my quotes) is a brilliant juxtaposition of realities, and an excellent moment to infect any mind that will absorb it with a bit of my own(possibly toxic?) thoughts.
    But first a little about me, I stay at home with my children. My wife is an overeducated over accheving, globe trotting, computer programmer, my background is high school and auto repair, if someone told me I’d be a stay at home parent(the mommy)20 years ago I’d have dismissed them as pixillated. I am 45, I’ve been alot of place and I’ve seen alot of things. Back to the point—–
    GIVE to people what THEY say they need not what you believe they need. When the former is done, progress empowers the individual. When the latter is done you the (individual) giver’s power or control over the(individual) receiver is intensified(sometimes to the point of “ownership” of the receiver, a heavy burden for the giver.).
    Set aside getting credit for the good deed, do the deed anyway.
    Holding down one end of humanity to help the other end enrages both. One end feels held back and has had their free will(their very human-ness) usurped and the other end has been poisoned, made to feel incompetent, inferior and de-humanized by your “meddling”.
    The reality, sadly, is that when you do GIVE, some of your efforts will be siphoned off by the opressive individuals of this world(to empower themselves and solidify their grip on the lives of individuals under their control.). This is not a new phenomema, it is as old as trading sex for favor.
    GIVE ANYWAY but give to the individual, as an individual. GIVE what you, as an individual, have created and what other individuals have GIVEN you, not what you have been able to appropriate from the individual by government or guilt.
    Do not dispair at the scope of your project, a house is not built with one brick in one day. An enlightened one once said: “A house built by discontented labor with stolen brick is poisoned and will not stand the test of time.” or sumpthin’ like that?

  10. 10 Anonymous


    there is this australian aboriginal quote that says something along the lines of..

    do not help us because you want to save us,
    but if your salvation is wrapped up in ours, come
    we will work together.

    … the general comment consensus seems to be suggesting similar views.

  11. 11 Elizabeth M. Rivera-Hudders

    I first learned of the OLPC initiative in school (I’m an MIS student in Puerto Rico). Around here, obviously, the idea has been greeted with enthusiasm. I agree with most comments that aid initiatives cannot be giver-centered; those ideas are doomed to failure. And, certainly, people who do not have enough to eat, or teachers, have no desire for computers. Nor do they desire books. I’m told by a friend who once taught in several places in Africa (I’m sorry, I can’t remember the countries now) one of the villages he visited used donated books as toilet paper for the missionaries. Books are also useless if no one can read them, and there is no teaching support to go with them. Even worse if they are in a foreign language. However, a cheap, large scale laptop initiative could be quite useful in other places of the world where they can serve to improve access to information and develop useful skills. There are many other places in the spectrum between the Sahel and Silicon Valley. Are cheap laptops going to end world hunger and poverty? Probably not. But I think it’s worth waiting to see what they can accomplish.

  12. I have to sons, age 11 and 12, that would love this computer.
    How do I get one or two?

  13. Incredible, such a valuable web-site.

  14. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually
    something that I think I would never understand. It seems too
    complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

  15. I think what you typed made a great deal of sense. But,
    what about this? suppose you were to write a awesome headline?

    I am not suggesting your information isn’t solid, but what if you added something that grabbed folk’s attention?
    I mean A Laptop for Every Kid | A World Among Worlds is a little vanilla.
    You could peek at Yahoo’s front page and watch how they write article headlines to grab people to open the links. You might add a related video or a related picture or two to get people interested about what you’ve written.
    In my opinion, it might bring your posts a little livelier.

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