Cheap computers for kids in the developing world: what could possibly be wrong with that?
Even if you don't know it by its official name, you've no doubt read about the XO computer project: it's the program to get $100 laptop computers into the hands of Third World children, to enable them to join the digital age, get an online education and — with luck — find a path out of their current poverty and isolation.
All very laudable ambitions. And when we first read about it a few years ago, the idea sounded particularly appealing. After all, standard laptops cost 800 bucks or more at the time. Just as important, the XO promised all sorts of interesting features designed specifically for life in the developing world, including rabbit ears to pick up wireless signals, open source software to allows users —especially teachers — to modify applications to regional needs, a built-in camera, a high contrast screen for outdoor use, high impact packaging, and even a hand crank for use without electrical power.
Since the original announcement, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, offering additional free services on the machine, including a free year's subscription to T-Mobile's Hotspot Wi-Fi service, and a free copy of SimCity installed on every machine.
From the first time I heard about it, the XO seemed like a good idea. Having spent a fair amount of time in recent years in some of the more remote corners of southern Africa, I had a pretty good sense of the general need of local folks there, especially children, for some kind of access to computers and the Web if they were ever going to break the cycle of extreme poverty in which they found themselves.
That said, even from the beginning, I had three concerns about the project.
First, and here I have to admit some real prejudice, the project was coming out of MIT. Now, don't get me wrong. MIT is a great university and produces some of our finest engineers. But I've been covering tech now for almost three decades, and through it all, I have seen one next big idea after another come out of that university, especially the MIT Media Lab, and I can't think of a single one that has ever found success in the real world.
These announcements always make entertaining reading, in a kind of Popular Science, circa 1958 way ("Atomic Cars!"), but despite all of the hype — and Nicholas Negroponte, former director and now chairman emeritus of the lab, is one of the greatest promoters of our time — they never seem to actually happen.
Second, and this was much more philosophical, I had some concerns about the underlying philosophy — noble as it was — behind the program. I have seen a lot of do-gooder projects in Africa, all done with good-hearted intentions by wealthy folks in the developed world, and nearly all have failed. Why? For a number of reasons.
A lack of understanding about the local culture, the sheer imperviousness of corrupt local governments, and expectations for a regional infrastructure that doesn't exist, are just the start.
There is also a lack of the long-term commitment that enables these projects to survive past the first rush of enthusiasm by everyone involved, a top-down strategy that doesn't build the necessary grass roots support, and most of all, a kind of unconscious attitude of charity and pity by rich westerners that is immediately detected by the uneducated, but far from ignorant, recipients.