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The technology website ZDNet U.K. put it this way: “If Bill Gates and $100 laptop progenitor Nick ­Negroponte were to look at the places without light and listen to those without a voice, a laptop per child would not be first on the list.” Philanthropists’ efforts would be better directed, in other words, to figuring out ways to help the truly needy. The reality is that in most countries, towns don’t even have libraries. Are we really better off spending money on computers instead? When the Indian education secretary wrote his letter in June declaring that India would not be participating in the program, he made precisely this point, arguing that there were more cost-effective ways to improve student performance than buying laptops from OLPC. This objection carries so much weight precisely because of OLPC’s unusual structure. If the organization were purely a charity, building and buying the computers with its own money, we might question its priorities, but we all know that charities spend billions of dollars every year on less-than-urgent projects with which their donors are obsessed. And we accept this, because we assume it’s better that money get spent on some philanthropic endeavor than on none. In the case of OLPC, though, tax dollars are at stake.

Ultimately, the critiques of OLPC can be divided into two types: those having with to do with technology and those having to do with what one might describe as ethics. Some of the technological objections can seem frivolous: a machine with a readable 7.5-inch screen, three USB 2.0 ports, power-saving features, 512 megabytes of flash memory, and a working operating system is not a “gadget.” Some will be answerable only a few months from now, when we find out whether the laptop passes its field tests. As for the argument that cellular phones will be a better route to Internet access in most of the developing world for the foreseeable future, their advantages have to be balanced against their disadvantages: a minuscule screen and no keyboard. “Suggesting that cell phones are an alternative is like saying we can use postage stamps to read textbooks,” Negroponte says. “Books have a purposeful size, based on how the eye works and the ability to engage peripheral and foveal vision at the same time for browsing. It is not by chance that atlases are bigger than timetables.” It is true that connecting the phone to a keyboard and a television would yield what amounts to a personal computer. But that would erode the cost advantage of cell phones and, worse, tether students to particular spots (assuming, of course, that they even have televisions).

And while connecting laptops to the Internet is obviously fundamental to OLPC’s vision of how the project will change kids’ lives, the mesh-networking technology embedded in the laptops will be valuable even when Internet connections aren’t available. “To me, nowadays, a computer that’s not connected to the Net is useless,” Beard says. “But allowing kids in a school to network all of their computers together, even when they’re not on the Net, is actually important from an educational point of view, because it allows them to collaborate and to learn from each other in a way that they wouldn’t have been able to before.” In any case, cell phones don’t need to lose if OLPC wins, and vice versa: on the contrary, it’s clearly best for the developing world if lots of companies and nonprofits are competing to supply them with new technologies.

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Credit: Illustration by Tara Hardy, Colagene.com

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