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Carnegie is usually talked about today as a precursor to people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, multi­billionaires who have dedicated most of their wealth to philanthropic endeavors. But when you look at the way Carnegie built libraries–seeding institutions around the country and encouraging local involvement in the hope of convincing people of the virtues of free access to knowledge–what it calls to mind most is not Gates’s prodigious effort to fund the fight against infectious diseases but, rather, an endeavor called One Laptop per Child (OLPC)–or, as it’s colloquially known, the $100 laptop.

The $100 laptop sprang from the fertile, utopian mind of tech guru Nicholas Negroponte, who is the cofounder and chairman emeritus of the MIT Media Lab, a successful venture capitalist, and the author of Being Digital, the 1995 paean to the digital economy. The concept behind the project, which Negroponte unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, less than two years ago, is as simple as its name: give all children in the developing world laptop computers of their own. If we achieved that, he believes, we could bridge what’s usually termed the “digital divide.” The laptops would offer children everywhere the opportunity to benefit from the Internet and would enable them to work with and learn from each other in new ways. OLPC, the nonprofit organization that Negroponte set up to manage the project, has taken responsibility for designing the computer and engaging an outside manufacturer to produce it. But the nonprofit is not going to buy the computers. That, at least for now, is the responsibility of governments, and Negroponte has said that the $100 laptop will not go into production until he has firm commitments from governments to buy at least five million units. Would (or should) any government be willing to lay out the cash? Negroponte answers that question with characteristic bluntness. “Look at the math: even the poorest country spends about $200 per year per child. We’ve estimated what a connected, unlimited-Internet-access $100 laptop will cost to own and run: $30 per year. That has got to be the very best investment you can make. Period.”

Despite the appeal of this vision, Negroponte’s project has attracted skepticism as well as support. In part, that’s because of Negroponte himself, whose self-assured optimism makes him a permanent lightning rod. More than that, though, OLPC is effectively trying to do two dramatic things at the same time. It’s trying to lower the cost of computing to the point where it’s accessible to the world’s poor–which is to say, to most of the world’s population. And it’s trying to succeed with a new model of philanthropy, albeit one that harks back to Carnegie–blending private, nonprofit, and governmental interests to create a project of vast scale and scope on a budget that is, even by philanthropic standards, surprisingly small.

Of course, this will only work if OLPC can deliver on its promise, and the problem is that at this moment you cannot buy anything resembling a computer, much less a portable one, for a hundred dollars. OLPC had to design and build an entirely new kind of laptop from scratch–one that would endure rough handling, function even in the absence of a steady power supply, and allow easy networking and Internet access, and whose readable if small screen would use startlingly inexpensive technology. Not surprisingly, critics doubted that it was possible. Yet in the past year, Negroponte has lined up an impressive array of partners to furnish the innards of the computer, including AMD and Red Hat, while Quanta, the Taiwanese manufacturer that currently makes around a third of the world’s laptops, is on board to manufacture the machines.

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