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It is, in any case, important to recognize that the $100 laptop is not currently being pitched to truly poor countries, although Negroponte certainly envisions them as eventual customers. On the contrary, the five nations currently on track to buy the laptops–Libya, Brazil, Argentina, ­Nigeria, and (even after the coup that removed Prime Minister ­Thaksin) Thailand–all have relatively healthy economies and relatively large state budgets. That makes it considerably easier for them to justify investing in a new technology, particularly one that seems to offer the prospect of mitigating one of the biggest problems they face: the sharp divide between rich and poor. It also means that the $100 laptop could have a bigger impact sooner than it might otherwise, since the students likely to receive it first would use it to expand on skills they already possess; students in very poor countries, by contrast, are more likely to be illiterate and innumerate.

While those involved with OLPC seem genuinely confident that the project will work, it could still be derailed by any number of problems. The laptops could end up being stolen from kids and resold, or the distribution of laptops could simply create a new digital divide. (In Brazil, after all, one million kids will suddenly have laptops, and 44 million won’t.) More important, relying on governments to buy a product guarantees that the process will be capricious (especially in the case of undemocratic regimes), and certainly Negroponte’s failure to get India to commit to the project was a blow to at least its short-term prospects. But even if we don’t know whether OLPC will succeed, we do know that if it does, it will represent a dramatic step forward for both computing and philanthropy.

What OLPC will have done, after all, is figure out how to put computing power in the hands of millions more people by using dramatically new technologies. Just as important, OLPC will, should it succeed, serve as a new model for getting the nonprofit, private, and public sectors to work together efficiently and productively. In part because of frustration with government corruption and bureaucracy, and in part because of the American preference for private rather than public solutions to social problems, the idea of working with governments in the developing world has become increasingly less attractive to philanthropists. But there are problems too big to be solved by NGOs or corporations (or governments, for that matter)–problems that demand new kinds of alliances. OLPC is, in that sense, not just building a new computing machine. It’s also building a new philanthropic machine, one as cobbled together and untraditional as the $100 laptop. The question that remains is just how well either of those machines will really work.

James Surowiecki is the financial columnist at the New Yorker and the author of The Wisdom of Crowds.

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Credit: Illustration by Tara Hardy, Colagene.com

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