OLPC smackdown

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Jon Evans, a writer for The Walrus magazine, brings the smackdown on the One Laptop per Child project: 

Meanwhile, the rest of the world has already lapped them. My Acer Aspire One netbook is faster, has more memory, a better screen and keyboard, connects to encrypted Wi-Fi networks, renders Wikipedia correctly, and has a user-friendly interface with many useful applications. There’s no comparison: it’s miles better, for a comparable price. As far as I can tell, the OLPC team so wanted to be revolutionaries that they insisted on reinventing everything at once, and as a result, failed everywhere. (Although to be fair they did inadvertently spur the growth of the netbook market that has since entirely overtaken them.)

But that hardly even matters, because the whole idea of distributing laptops to poor children was completely misguided to begin with. Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone. Tiny villages in Africa have GSM coverage and cell-phone stalls run by local entrepeneurs. You can bank by phone from the Colombian jungle, or get market prices texted to you while fishing off the Indian coast. Mobile phones have permeated the developing world to such an amazing degree that it makes no sense to try and reproduce that existing cultural and technical infrastructure from scratch...

...I hate to say it, but despite all its PR glory and good intentions, it was never more than a bad implementation of a bad idea, and its eventual failure was all but inevitable.

Meanwhile, the folks over at OLPC news offer a rebuttal. But Jon Evans could have buttressed his case further - check out Xbox for the Developing World, which suggests that computers have at best an ambivalent effect on learning, and Xbox for the Developing World II, which asks whether these computers are worth the opportunity cost of $200. 

(Hat tip: Patrick Appel


Ryan Hahn

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