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It may be difficult for poorer governments to justify spending a good chunk of their education budgets on laptops. But the ­reality of both philanthropic and government spending is that money often goes to projects that do not help as many people, or people who are as needy, as other projects might. These projects may not be perfect, but they can still do tremendous good. In the post-Reconstruction United States, after all, there were lots of worthwhile things Carnegie could have done with his money; in fact, in many of the towns where he built libraries, citizens grumbled that their tax dollars should be going to something that really mattered. Yet in the long run, one would be hard pressed to say that either Carnegie or the taxpayers wasted that money, because the social benefits of disseminating knowledge are so immense.

Similarly, it may be a mistake to assume that technology is something only wealthy nations can afford, and that poorer nations are better off concentrating on basics like health and water. On the contrary, a country can, as the prime minister of Ethiopia recently put it, be “too poor not to invest in information and communications technology.” Information technology is often a useful way of improving connections to the outside world, and thus creating greater possibilities of exchange. And for children, access to new technology promises to speed learning dramatically. “I have not met anybody who claims they are too poor to invest in education, nor anybody that said it was a waste of money,” Negroponte says. “If somebody is dying of hunger, food comes first. If somebody is dying from war, peace comes first. But if the world is going to be a better place, the tools for doing so always include education.”

It may seem curious to buy laptops where there are no libraries, but the promise is that computers will bring the world’s libraries inside a student’s home. Despite the element of wishfulness in this vision, the idea that the Net allows countries to leapfrog traditional stages of development is almost certainly correct. C. K. Prahalad, the University of Michigan professor whose book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid analyzes the tremendous market opportunities in the developing world, argues forcefully that these countries are surprisingly fertile ground for new technologies. “We assume that the poor will not accept technology,” he says. “The truth is, they will accept technology in some ways even more easily than we will, because they have not been socialized to anything else. They accept technology rapidly, as long as that technology is useful. We have a very long forgetting curve. They don’t. They have only a learning curve.”

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Credit: Illustration by Tara Hardy, Colagene.com

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