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OLPC: Tech salvation or ego trip?

The One Laptop Per Child project: such noble goals, and such messy reality. I've followed the story of the target $100 XO laptop from OLPC since 2005, when MIT's charismatic and well-connected Nicholas Negroponte showed a prototype. Press coverage was laudatory, almost rhapsodic: bringing PCs and the Internet to the world, what could be wrong with that?

Although the present XO unit is very different from that 2005 prototype, that's OK. The first 1961 plan for the Apollo moon-landing showed a rocket whose third stage would “back down” to land, then blast off to go home, while the successful landing just eight years later used a lunar orbiter which mated with an ungainly, fragile landing module. Now there's a radical architectural change, if there ever was one!

But the OLPC project still has me confused. The $100 target appears to always be just around the corner, as soon as volumes get really, really high. All sorts of convoluted gyrations have been announced, including the 2007 “Give One, Get One” promotion where individuals could buy one at $300, and a second one would be donated elsewhere.

[Intel backed away from supporting the AMD-powered XO laptop in January; I never did understand why Intel was involved. And just recently, the director of software security, responsible for designing its anti-malware system, resigned due to a “change in the project's goals and vision.]

Then there are the recent cries of foul play, where Negroponte charged that Intel has been competing unfairly and undercutting the OLPC program by pushing its low-cost “Classmate” PC running Windows instead of the XO's Linux. Gee, I thought competition was good for everyone, and a noble goal doesn't mean you can expect preference versus tough but legitimate competitors.

The more I think about the OLPC project, I get uneasy, not so much for the attempt to develop an ultralow-cost PC (a great demo project), but for the proclaimed mission itself. Do the illiterate masses need a high-tech gadget, when what they really need is clean water and books? Is it an ego trip? A way to cleanse our guilt that we have so much technology at our fingertips, literally, while they have none? Is faith in the PC and Internet a sort of religious movement, to which the masses need to be converted? Will these PCs really be viable out in the field, or will they end up as costly night-lamps or even paperweights? Is this like the 1980's push for PCs in US classrooms, which claimed that without them, the kids would emerge ignorant (while data proves that low-tech classrooms can teach basics as well as high-tech ones)?.

Perhaps a better goal would be a simple and effective solar-powered LED lamp (with manual charging as well) to replace the dreadful kerosene lamps used in so many places. But a lamp lacks the glamour and appeal of a PC, so let's give them what we think they need and will make us feel good.

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