Tue 4 Dec 2007
John C. Dvorak, PC Magazine, writes:
Does anyone but me see the OLPC XO-1 as an insulting “let them eat cake” sort of message to the world’s poor?
Hands Across America, Live AID, the Concert for Bangladesh, and so on. The American (and world) public has witnessed one feel-good event (and the ensuing scandals) after another. Each one manages to assuage our guilt about the world’s problems, at least a little. Now these folks think that any sort of participation in these events, or even their good thoughts about world poverty and starvation, actually help. Now they can sleep at night. It doesn’t matter that nothing has really changed.
This is how I view the cute, little One Laptop per Child (OLPC) XO-1 computer, technology designed for the impoverished children of Africa and Alabama. This machine, which is the brainchild of onetime MIT media lab honcho Nick Negroponte, will save the world. His vision is to supply every child with what amounts to an advertising delivery mechanism. Hence the boys at Google are big investors.
Before you cheer for the good guys, ponder a few of these facts taken from a world hunger Web site. In the Asian, African, and Latin American countries, well over 500 million people are living in what the World Bank has called “absolute poverty.” Every year, 15 million children die of hunger. For the price of one missile, a school full of hungry children could eat lunch every day for five years. Throughout the decade, more than 100 million children will die from illness and starvation. The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is well fed, one-third is underfed, and one-third is starving. Since you’ve entered this site, at least 200 people have died of starvation. One in 12 people worldwide is malnourished, including 160 million children under the age of 5. Nearly one in four people, or 1.3 billion—a majority of humanity—live on less than $1 per day, while the world’s 358 billionaires have assets exceeding the combined annual incomes of countries with 45 percent of the world’s people. Let’s include Negroponte and the Google billionaires.
So what to do? Let’s give these kids these little green computers. That will do it! That will solve the poverty problem and everything else, for that matter. Does anyone but me see this as an insulting “let them eat cake” sort of message to the world’s poor?
“Sir, our village has no water!” “Jenkins, get these people some glassware!”
But, wait. Think of how cool it would be! Think of how many families will get to experience the friendly spam-ridden Information Super Ad-way laced with Nigerian scams, hoaxes, porn, blogs, wikis, spam, urban folklore, misinformation, sites selling junk from China, bomb-making instructions, jihad initiatives, communist propaganda, Nazi propaganda, exhortations, movie clips of cats playing the piano, advertising, advertising, and more advertising. Do you now feel better about the world’s problems, knowing that some poor tribesman’s child has a laptop? What African kid doesn’t want access to Slashdot?
Of course, it might be a problem if there is no classroom and he can’t read. The literacy rate in Niger is 13 percent, for example. Hey, give them a computer! And even if someone can read, how many Web sites and wikis are written in SiSwati or isiZulu? Feh. These are just details to ignore.
Every time I bring up this complaint to my Silicon Valley pals—usually as we race down I-280 in their newest Mercedes-Benz S Class sedan while listening to their downloaded music from their iPod to the car’s custom stereo—I get flak. They tell me, “It’s a start. Computers will save the world from poverty. You are just jealous you didn’t think of the idea.”
Yeah, that’s it. I’m jealous.
Apparently, saying anything negative about the OLPC XO-1 computer amounts to heresy in this community. You may as well promote NAMBLA or the KKK. People don’t want to consider the possibility that their well-meaning thoughts are a joke and that a $200 truckload of rice would be of more use than Wi-Fi in the middle of nowhere. There seems to be a notion that the poor in Africa or East Asia are just like the kids in East Palo Alto. Once they get a laptop, there will be no digital divide, will there? People can say, “I did my part!”
So on it goes, with people falling all over themselves, saying how cool the little laptop is and how it fundamentally changes the way laptops work and what computing is all about. It’s waterproof! So, we read long articles about the thing. We see an incredible deer-in-the-headlights Leslie Stahl puff piece about the device on 60 Minutes. No one says it’s a crock. Instead, only the minutiae of implementation and whether Intel should be allowed to make a similar machine are questioned. During the show, Stahl makes the idiotic claim that this is the first laptop in history on which you can read the screen in broad daylight. So much for fact checking. Then there is a tremendous push to get the public to take part in the “Give One, Get One” promotion. “I want one!” says a cohort of mine in a podcast. Apparently, he is going to toss his Mac PowerBook and use this. Who is he kidding?
I was amused at the one critique thrown into the 60 Minutes mix for balance. Negroponte was asked about the devices being stolen from the children. He assuaged the audience by saying that the machine will stop working in a month or so if stolen. Oh, okay. That was good enough for 60 Minutes. I’m thinking, “But it was still stolen!”
Some readers will just perceive these complaints of mine as coming from a grumpy old man who doesn’t like anything. Fine. Stay optimistic. Buy ten. All I can tell you is that, personally, I have never seen such a cavalier and pompous assuredness in my life. As if this whole OLPC scheme is anything other than a naïve fiasco waiting to unfold. I’ll donate my money to hunger relief, thank you.