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Monday, July 23, 2007

The $100 Laptop

posted by on July 23 at 16:12 PM


It’s tough. It’s waterproof. It can be powered by a foot pump. It has a small screen built for reading in the bright sunlight of the deserts or the mountains. It will, in theory, allow Andean farmers to check the price of potatoes before going to market and Libyan teenagers to read Moby Dick online and guerillas all over the world to play peaceful games of pong with their adversaries. Right now it costs $176. Its brain-daddy, Nicholas Negroponte, is trying to get it down to $100.

But it’s finally here.

Oh, and Intel has decided to stop playing Rapacious Capitalist and trying to compete with their rival laptop-for-poor-kids (Intel’s Classmate PC cost $225). They’ve joined Negroponte’s nonprofit.

It’s hard for me to imagine a foot-powered internet-trolling laptop for $100, but persons knowledgeable about computers can check the specs here.

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The problem with stuff like this is, it's locked in place. Getting stuck in time on the internet is no boon to anyone. It's a false hope. I guarantee that 99% of these will be broken or idle in a year or two.

Besides, the evidence is conclusive: educational software is full of shit, and counter-productive to education or intelligence.. Putting these kids on computers, when they don't have fucking SHOES, isn't going to teach them ANYTHING. They don't know how to read, and this thing can't teach them.

Which is sad, because the money could go for a LOT more useful things. Like mosquito nets. A million bucks' worth of mosquito nets would save thousands and thousands of lives.

It's sad that Negroponte's lifetime of idle time-wasting bullshit propaganda has finally started to actually damage the lives and prospects of real people, and not just headset-wearing MIT goobs.

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2007 5:39 PM

Fnarf has it right.

A first world solution for a first world perception. I doubt that tribal nomads in Yemen are really clamoring for laptops to read boing boing, buy collectables on EBAY, and of course, surf porn. They might have more important things to do.

Posted by ecce homo | July 23, 2007 5:53 PM

@1 Negroponte has done plenty of real damage in his time. Check out his Honduras and UN action.

Locked in place? How exactly are laptops with downloadable operating systems locked in place? And who mentioned educational software? This all about getting an open source office suite, email, and a basic browser to hundreds of millions of kids, and then just letting them go wild. The point of this isn't that they're loading onto these things weird localized "edutainment software", it's that any software is educational.

Care to back up your "year or two" guarantee with a cash money wager, or are your words as empty as your brain?

Posted by dirge | July 23, 2007 5:58 PM

How modular are these things, hardware-wise? It's not going to be a situation like the Space Shuttle, where all its systems are twenty years out of date because they can't upgrade the thing, is it?

@1 & 2: So either a population is so poor they're on the brink of starvation or they're so wealthy they can universally afford $1500 laptops?

Posted by Ben | July 23, 2007 6:11 PM

A note to anybody else who comments:

Don't think of the absolute poor using this, when the more middle class students will. It's not really a matter of 'get them shoes first', because that's not the group they're targeting.

Posted by David | July 23, 2007 6:19 PM

Is this "downloadable operating system" going to update itself? Who's going to maintain that? Who's going to set it up? Who's going to teach these kids how to write Python and Java? These are kids who up to now have been using chalk on slate; now all of a sudden they're web programmers? How's that work, exactly? These machines are made by people who think "mebibyte" is a useful addition to the language.

"Locked in place" means that the memory, storage (one gig!), and processor are already hopelessly inadequate; god only knows how bad it'll be in a year or two. If it uses a major commercial browser like Firefox, it will require near-constant upgrades, each of which will greatly increase the necessary power; if it DOESN'T use a major commercial browser, as it appears it won't, it will just fail out of the box.

How are they going to achieve something with seriously deprived third-world children that can't even be done in the rich, educated West?

And on the subject of empty brains, at least I know the difference between Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab and John Negroponte of the US State Department.

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2007 6:21 PM

Hopelessly inadequate for what, FNARF? Even if they were only powerful enough to run a Web browser, they'd be useful forever. These kids don't need to run Quakenstein 3D.

Posted by Phil M | July 23, 2007 6:26 PM

Is your web browser the same as it was even two years ago?

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2007 6:28 PM

@6 Whoops that Negroponte egg on my face is delicious. Mmmmmm delicious shame.

I still think you're way off about the computers.

Posted by dirge | July 23, 2007 6:29 PM

@4: Not very... but what kind of upgradability do you really expect from a $100 computer? The internals are all soldered in, except for the battery. It does have USB ports. It's stripped down as possible as is though on the hardware and software sides. They wanted it to be rugged and consume as little power as possible. So if you think in terms of what the top-of-the-line machines do, it's already outdated, but that isn't the point, really.

Posted by Matthew E | July 23, 2007 6:30 PM

My uncle works for a non-profit in the poorest villages in India. Their main focus is water. Year round access to water. People are always asking my uncle things like, "What about women's literacy?" to which my uncle invariably replies, "If people don't have enough water to grow food, they don't have much need to read."

That being said, there are definitely a lot of poor and lower middle-class people in India's cities who would benefit tremendously from learning to use a computer (thanks outsourcing!)

Posted by arduous | July 23, 2007 6:39 PM

But that's the point. If you can't keep up, how is this helping anyone? Call up a local nonprofit here in Seattle and ask them how thrilled they are when people drop off a big load of old 486es as a "donation".

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2007 6:39 PM

"Call up a local nonprofit here in Seattle and ask them how thrilled they are when people drop off a big load of old 486es as a "donation"."

That's exactly right. Hardware isn't (and hasn't been) the issue. Tons of PCs are donated each year. The real problem is training, support, localized apps, etc. All of which Negroponte handwaves away.

Posted by J | July 23, 2007 6:44 PM

A couple years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle had an article about how the computer-for-every-child-mantra is useless in the United States. Kids are better off learning from books and making projects out of construction paper. It's cheaper too. If computer literacy for American public school children isn't remotely worth it here, how are Third World children going to benefit from this?

These laptops cost half of the average Third World income. How many used textbooks could be purchased with that money?

Posted by keshmeshi | July 23, 2007 6:50 PM

Fnarf: No, the Web browsers I use have matured a bit in the past couple years. But none of it matters to a kid out in the middle of nowhere, who can probably do just fine without Flash-based embedded YouTube players and the latest Adblock plugin. I can just imagine the looks of disappointment on all the barefoot little kids: "What? Firefox 1.5? What are we supposed to do with this piece of junk?"

The machines we used 15 years ago would be plenty useful to most kids around the globe if they had similar weight, networkability, and energy requirements to the OLPC machines. These things could be green-screen text terminals and still be useful. The graphics are icing.

Are you really suggesting that in a place where schools can barely afford books, 2005 computer technology would be too far behind the times to be useful? Give me a break.

Posted by Phil m | July 23, 2007 6:51 PM

linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. linux. why is no one talking about LINUX?

Posted by Tux | July 23, 2007 6:53 PM

Keshmeshi, I disagree. Again, my basis for the 3rd World is India, which is a special case because many lower income kids in the cities have learnt some English (English is the official language there), but I think basic knowledge of a computer can make a difference for the lower middle classes.

Most of the articles I've read about the usefulness of computers in schools have focused on the usefulness of a computer to teach things such as history or English or math, etc. But what about the usefulness of a computer to teach ... computers? What about the practical skill of learning to type or surf the web or use basic applications?

Obviously, I don't agree that computers across the board is the answer. I think that Indian villages need things like toilets and wells and things like that. But that doesn't negate the possibilities of what cheap computers could achieve.

Also, I thought the point was that these $100 computers were being donated? Not bought by poor people in the 3rd world....?

Posted by arduous | July 23, 2007 7:00 PM

Tux, tux, tux, tux, tux, tux, tux:

What do you want to hear? This isn't really a technical discussion.

Yes, OLPC runs GNU/Linux with a custom-made non-deesktop-metaphor GUI. It's the only rational choice for such a machine. (Among other advantages, this choice of OS should help avoid the need for endless upgrades that our criminally-monopolistic neighbors to the east have clearly imposed upon Fnarf.)

Posted by Phil M | July 23, 2007 7:05 PM

Yes, imposing linux on the defenseless poor of the third world is the "obvious choice". That'll change everything. It always has! Now that everybody has seen the light and switched to linux, because it's so much better in every conceivable way, we can continue to spread the Gospel to this new, er, market.

This argument is exactly why people like Negroponte shouldn't be allowed to steal these millions of development dollars. It's harmful and counterproductive.

Posted by fnarf | July 23, 2007 7:49 PM

Uh... What argument?

Posted by Phil M | July 23, 2007 8:33 PM

As the self-appointed voice of reason, I humbly suggest we wait and see. None of us really know enough about this to know if the experiment will be a success. Doesn't seem like anyone knows that.

Posted by NJ Matt | July 23, 2007 8:56 PM

I'm generally with NJ Matt, but still...

An out-of-date browser still displays web pages just fine. The web isn't changing all THAT fast (thank you IE 6), and the biggest push in web development in the past several years is progressive enhancement, meaning the information is still available without the fluff. Try browsing with stylesheets and javascript turned off and you'll see what I mean.

The point of these things is access to information, plain and simple. It's not about hardware or software or any of the specifics of the technology, it's about the INTERNET. Sure, it's filled with crap, but that's just because we have the luxury of filling our days with that crap. Using the web in an educational setting is a completely different thing than browsing YouTube at work.

If they can get these things online even semi-reliably, they have the potential to make a massive difference in people's lives. No, not every kid who touches one, but some of them. I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want to give that a try, especially based on arguments about storage space, browser versions, and all the rest of this crap.

How this is "harmful and counterproductive" is completely beyond me. These are going to hurt somebody? Set someone back? Come on, that's just silly.

Posted by Anthony Hecht | July 23, 2007 9:36 PM

It's counterproductive because it's taking development away from unsexy but immensely valuable things like wells and mosquito nets. Do you know how much a concrete trickling water purifier costs? Almost nothing. Buy them those instead.

Posted by Fnarf | July 23, 2007 9:42 PM

Naw, clean water and other needed infrastructure will come naturally once they elevate themselves after spending time playing minesweeper for 18 hours strait.

Posted by ecce homo | July 23, 2007 9:52 PM

I saw a news story about these and it was clear that the impact they make on the kids lives, and their families when they take these home at night, is profound. I really think a position like FNARF's is a major contributer to keeping most people in this world chasing after their next meal, or pair of shoes, while we waste the days away on the internet at our cushy jobs. This is empowering and enlightening for these kids and before you go claiming it is not in their best interest to join the rest of us on the WWW, why don't you ask them. I gaurentee they want one.

Posted by longball | July 23, 2007 9:54 PM

C'mon FNARF, The idea that money for one charity is a drain on another (money spent on lap tops comes directly out of some magical well and misquito fund) is just totally false reasoning. What is best for these kids is to have clean water AND lap tops, they're not mutually exclusive. Christ, i have both and i bet you do to. I know it's not your intent, but in practice you are saying - sorry kid, you deserve clean water and no malaria, but computers are too much of a frivolity for your poor ass.

Posted by longball | July 23, 2007 9:59 PM

Gotta disagree, Fnarf. Mosquito nets and wells would be great, but then what do you have? Slightly elevated life-expectancy? That's super and all, but then what? They still have no opportunity. None. We use our charity money to basically keep people alive a little longer, and for what? I don't mean to sound insensitive, but how much good does that really do? In the end we have a lot more poor people without malaria who still have no ability to join the modern world.

Also, many millions of charity dollars are already used to buy mosquito nets and to build wells and give out water purifiers, and have been for decades. Is that the only need? Is it just a matter of getting enough of them, and things will be fine? What's wrong with working other angles? This program doesn't deprive anyone of a mosquito net.

But maybe it does give someone the tools to, I don't know, cure malaria.

Posted by Anthony Hecht | July 23, 2007 10:06 PM

I don't see any female children in the "yay-we-have-laptops" photo.

@11: You said: My uncle works for a non-profit in the poorest villages in India. Their main focus is water. Year round access to water. People are always asking my uncle things like, "What about women's literacy?" to which my uncle invariably replies, "If people don't have enough water to grow food, they don't have much need to read."

If it's not a priority to teach women to read in the poorest villages in India, then they may as well quit teaching the men, too, right? Then I could get behind your hierarchy of needs prioritization: water for all, food for all, reading for all. However, if men are learning to read, then women's literacy is as important if not more so.

The argument that women should wait to be treated equally until other things happen first is an old one, but I have never heard it stated well enough to convince me.

Posted by Diana | July 23, 2007 10:22 PM

Oh my God,

People in this country have no freaking clue.

"Yeah, once we get their drinking water fixed, then they will be able to participate with us on the WWW as global citizens." Thats funny!!!

These people live on what could just as well be a different planet from you and I in our "Cushy" western industrialized republic. They still practice female circumcision, arranged marriage and the caste system. They use witch doctors to burn the soles off their feet to get rid of the demon giving them worms.

Yeah, giving them laptops will no doubt solve all their problems.

Instead, why don't you just leave them the fuck alone, not everything your little techno brains come up with will change the world. Laptops definately won't cut it and gives westerners the mistaken patronizing idea that they are doing something for those less fortunate.

God help you if you actually were lacking in basic needs. A fucking laptop would be the last on your list of shit you want. And any news story showing the opposite, is simply using the same stupid and ignorant bias that modern techno-crazy americans seem so absorbed with.

Better to donate your time building pvc wheelchairs for kids with their legs blown off by land mines, donating latex gloves to missions in bangledesh so they don't have to reuse them, or giving money to the red cross.

Posted by ecce homo | July 23, 2007 10:46 PM

Can't we just ship them all the old Speakeasy Cafe Rainmail terminals instead?

Posted by mookie | July 23, 2007 11:13 PM

Feed men, and then ask of them virtue.

Posted by Eric | July 24, 2007 6:10 AM

Good gods, I'm agreeing with ecce homo. I need a drink.

Posted by supergp | July 24, 2007 6:36 AM

can we please hear from someone other than middle class honky males, PLEASE??? like maybe someone from africa?


Posted by scary tyler moore | July 24, 2007 7:36 AM

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian schoolchildren who received laptops from a U.S. aid organization have used them to explore pornographic sites on the Internet, the official News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported Thursday.

Posted by Detroit | July 24, 2007 7:42 AM

I talk to people from Africa, scary tyler moore. How about giving money to instead?

Posted by Fnarf | July 24, 2007 8:29 AM

@32 - I know, right? Scary.

Posted by Levislade | July 24, 2007 8:36 AM

Gah.. No, ecce homo is completely wrong. It's a completely false and misleading picture to suggest that this program goes into villages with no running water and hands out laptops to kids who have no food or water or shoes. It's just not even close to true, and it completely misses the point. Nobody is being deprived of anything, they're being GIVEN something.

Posted by Anthony Hecht | July 24, 2007 9:17 AM

@28, in the villages my uncle works (I've been there several times) no one knew how to read. Not men, not women. Period. It wasn't a priority because ... people were starving. Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If people are starving, computers aren't going to do much good.

WITH THAT SAID, now that my uncle's NGO has got the water situation largely under control (they've been working in these same villages for over 10 years), they have been implementing other programs. One of the biggest success stories has actually been the "teaching women to use computers" program.

Look, the third world is not cut and dried. Like I said, my experience is pretty much limited to India and 3rd world Asia, but not everyone is burning brides and frankly, there are plenty of Indian-Americans who get arranged marriages, ecce homo, so I'm not sure what that has to do anything. But the fact of the matter is, thanks to outsourcing there are a number of jobs available to people of what I'll call the "servant class" for lack of a better word. Did you know that the people taking your order at drive throughs are now often times Indian?

If you're saying to not teach the third world about computers, because they should be getting mosquito nets, then why even teach them to read? Why even teach them history? Or life sciences? Because I guarantee, a knowledge of English and basic computer skills open up far more doors than most school subjects. The fact of the matter is that in this new century, it's the 4 Rs- Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and er... computeRs.

Posted by arduous | July 24, 2007 9:22 AM

that said, fnarf, i STILL want to hear from africans! in person!

kiva is a terrific organization. so is, and partners in health ( i give to both, and i recommend you all do the same. there is a critical need for malaria nets right now.

Posted by scary tyler moore | July 24, 2007 9:48 AM

arduous, you miss my point.

Sure teach them to read, but don't be so ignorant as to assume that the progression from 3 world shit hole to competitive techno-savy progressive democratic capitalists is something that can be achieved, only if we just force more western culture down their throat.

Look I have no doubt that everyone wants an easier life. But you make the mistake of not understanding that people in the third world aren't like people working in poverty in the US. These people don't come from a society that understands or embraces technology, modern communication. The idea that if you just expose them to technology, modern western ideals like "equality" and reruns of "Everybody loves Raymond" then they will rise up against the oppressive cultural taboos that have ruled their lives for 5000 years is simply idiotic.

Again, these people may as well be from mars when it comes down to it.

Of course, I am not talking about the aristocratic class's of these societies who have been sending their children to western boarding schools for generations. They are the exception, and wouldn't need a stupid 100 dollar laptop.

Oh, and for your information, India just elected a woman president and is a measurable distance ahead of the US when it comes to womens rights. Granted, the caste system does little for those at the bottom, but it doesn't effect those on the top. Again, this isn't even remotely an issue that can be solved by $100 laptop.

Please, quit assuming that if you just airdropped some poor villager from central africa, into the middle of Seattle, that they would blossom into the shining example of westernized illumination that you fantasize about.

Posted by ecce homo | July 24, 2007 10:29 AM

india is a measurable distance ahead when it comes to women's rights? like being burned to death if the dowry is insufficient? like husbands not being prosecuted for beating their wives? like hundreds of thousands of women dying from AIDS because indian men refuse to wear condoms?

what the fuck planet you from, 'mo?

Posted by scary tyler moore | July 24, 2007 10:39 AM


Posted by ecce homo | July 24, 2007 10:55 AM

ecce homo, have you ever BEEN to the third world?

no one is saying that exposing third-world children to the internet is going to make people rise up against cultural taboos. but why is that the point?

why isn't the point that there are lower class people in the third world who could be making more money if they knew how to use computers? plain and simple.

look, what this discussion is lacking is an understanding of subtlety. and, i hate to play this card, because i know it seems unfair, but unless you've been to a third world country, and been to the villages and the cities, and have talked to villagers and servants and coolies alike ... i guess you aren't going to get it. i mean anthony gets it, so i guess that's not fair. but, the third world isn't all malaria and aids ridden low-caste girls who are being burned to death and simultaneously beaten. jesus h christ, people.

to provide a personal anecdote, that might be illuminating, there is a girl that my family is very close to. she is the daughter of a servant, she spent her life in a one room apartment with the rest of her family, and in the general course of events, she would have gone on to become a servant. but she's not. she went to school. she is fluent in english, and now she has a good job that has brought her into the middle class. and THAT is the promise of computers and education.

Posted by arduous | July 24, 2007 11:00 AM

So give nigerian villagers laptops and then they won't have to bother growing sweet potatos for their family. Instead they can get a job doing online tech support and then feed their family via the grocery store. Sounds great!!!

Accept, there aren't grocery stores to speak of, and you are then forcing them to become dependent on a rickity infrastructure and corrupt governments to provide them with food. Yeah great.

And I spent 7 months in bangladesh, working as a nurse at a mission, and another 2 months in Dhaka until I contracted dysentary. I know exactly what I am talking about.

You have NO idea what poverty really means. And no fucking laptop is going to raise people out of it.

Posted by ecce homo | July 24, 2007 11:14 AM


show me yours and i'll show you mine.

Posted by scary tyler moore | July 24, 2007 11:25 AM

What I'm hearing most people here saying, both pro and con, is that resource allocation needs to be a top priority, and I'm reasonably confident that in most of the areas of the world where these laptops are going to be used that's the case.

The question then becomes, "what exactly constitutes a 'resource'?"

Certainly basic needs - food, clothing, shelter, health care, are always going to be the primary resource needs in any severely impoverished community, and those needs aren't going to be addressed by dropping $100 computers out of the back of trucks.

But, as a couple of people have pointed out in prior comments, assuming that every impoverished community has exactly the same level of resource deficits creates a false analogy. Some may have adequate water, yet lack hygiene or medical resources; others may have all three, but lack energy resources - or food resources, etc., etc.

Assuming that all impoverished communities are at exactly the same level of resource-deficit fails to take into account the fact that in many other communities - those where the problems of basic needs have been solved or are on the way to being solved - the idea of $100 laptops CAN have significant impact on raising the living standards of members of those communities, IF one believes that INFORMATION is also a resource, and one that these communities lack, need, and to which they should have access.

The idea here, as I understand it at least, is to provide cheap, reliable, durable, and long-term access to that particular resource, and these machines seem well suited to that purpose. So what if the processors aren't top-of-the-line or the memory capacity is minimal? The only pertinent consideration that needs to be addressed is whether these machines do in fact provide basic access to the resource for which they were designed, and from what I've seen they would seem to be more than adequate to the task at hand.

Posted by COMTE | July 24, 2007 11:32 AM

No one is saying that this program will end third-world poverty. Where does anyone even make that suggestion, ecce? This is ONE program, seeking to help in ONE way. It in no way relieves the need for other programs, nor does it solve all problems, nor would anyone make such a ludicrous claim.

So this argument is pointless. You basically keep saying that this program is worthless because it won't solve poverty and cure all disease. Getting affordable AIDS drugs to Africa doesn't solve poverty either. Should we stop doing that? Mosquito nets similarly will not get anyone a job. Pointless, too, I suppose.

And yes, I have spent time in India and other third-world countries too, but that doesn't mean shit. This is just common sense.

It's mind-bogglingly cynical to suggest that the goal of this program is to get people jobs in tech-support, even putting aside that that would be an AMAZING result. They will have access to information, and they will gain the skills to have a chance to change their situation.

Again, and for the last time, they're not giving laptops to the very poorest of the poor--the starving, the thirsty, the plagued--in lieu of giving them life-saving aid. They are giving these to the relatively well-off, who are not struggling to survive, they are struggling to advance.

Posted by Anthony Hecht | July 24, 2007 11:34 AM


The idea that money for one charity is a drain on another (money spent on lap tops comes directly out of some magical well and misquito fund) is just totally false reasoning. What is best for these kids is to have clean water AND lap tops...

It depends on the source. If, as Fnarf implied, this money is coming out of development grants, then it's definitely a drain on other, more worthy charities. Grants draw from one particular pool of money such as, say, the Gates Foundation. Those foundations don't magically find more money every time they receive a new grant application.

And, no, it's best for these kids to have clean water, books, and jobs. That photo was taken in Africa. How many desk jobs and computer jobs do you think are available there? Virtually none and it's likely to stay that way for a long time, if not forever.

Posted by keshmeshi | July 24, 2007 1:44 PM

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