Laptops Work

This article is part of Can Technology End Poverty?, a forum on the role of information and communication technology in global development.

It is a great shame that such an important debate concerning technology and development follows so obfuscating a lead article.

When I started One Laptop per Child (OLPC) in 2004, I said that owning a connected laptop would help eliminate poverty through education, especially for the 70 million children who have no access whatsoever to schools. I still believe this. But what I have learned since—with two million laptops in 40 countries—is that reducing isolation is an even bigger issue, and that goal will be achieved with technology and only with technology. And not just Microsoft’s: the technology I have in mind is free and open software; no-cost, ubiquitous communications; and laptops or tablets that use so little power that you can charge them with a shake. (By the way, all of our two million laptops in the field today can run Windows, but fewer than a thousand do; the buyers or users have chosen Linux instead.)

Kentaro Toyama is coming from the wrong place, literally and metaphorically. Whenever you see the acronym ICT (information and communication technologies), you can be sure that it reflects an old mindset, from an era when computers were merely the tools of productivity, and primarily used by corporations and government. Ever referred to Facebook as “ICT”? Telecenters are ICT galore, dropped into villages in a patronizing manner for development—4D. Of course they don’t work. Cell phones do work, and there are almost five billion of them.

To lump computers with guns and television, calling them all technology, is naïve at best. Computers are different. They are innately a constructionist medium; you can program them to have behaviors, multiple behaviors. You don’t simply consume or use them for a special purpose. Furthermore, development of any sort—for anybody, rich or poor—is so dependent on the Internet that connectivity is indeed becoming a human right. It is recognized as such by Greece, France, Finland, Spain, and Estonia, and Costa Rica’s supreme court recently affirmed the same.

I was traveling to India five to six times per year when telecenters were being built. Their proponents’ arguments at the time revolved around electronic government: e.g., getting your driver’s license without a five-hour bus ride and another five-hour wait. But driver’s licenses are renewed infrequently. E-government was the last thing on the minds of rural Indians. Alternatively, OLPC triggers communitywide capacity building. Laptops arrive, and generators-for-hire appear, or suddenly, as in Rwanda, the school is electrified. In Peru and Paraguay, local, independent software developers and repair shops start popping up. Laptops get children, their families, their teachers, and governments thinking on new trajectories—every day.

Think of computers differently. Think of them as a medium for learning, as opposed to a medium for teaching. I literally mean that the computer is learning and you (or a child) are teaching it. The best way to learn something is to teach it. Writing a computer program is the most direct way to teach a computer. Since a computer program never works the first time, the user—in this case, a child—has to debug it, to try again, to look at the program’s behavior, iterate, and finally succeed. That process is the closest a child will ever come to understanding how to learn, to learn learning.

At the OLPC launch in Tunis in 2005, Kofi Annan put it this way: “With these tools in hand, children can become more active in their own learning. They can learn by doing, not just through instruction or rote memorization. Moreover, they can open a new front in their education: peer-to-peer learning.”

In OLPC’s view, children are not just objects of teaching, but agents of change. Many of our kids teach their parents how to read and write. I have no better story to tell. The self-esteem of those kids, their passion for learning, their playfulness with ideas: all are transformed by being in control of and deeply engaged in their own learning.

How do you eliminate poverty? The answer is simple: education. How do you provide education? The answer is less simple. It requires more than school, especially in countries such as Nigeria and Pakistan, where 50 percent of the kids do not attend. OLPC leverages the children themselves, bringing the learning medium into their lives 24x7, at a total cost of a dollar per week (that includes buying, maintaining, and connecting the laptop).

OLPC, I admit, was at first quixotic in the extreme. I used to say to people, “Trust me, this works.” Two million laptops and an entire netbook industry later, you do not have to take my word for it. Every pupil in Uruguay has a connected laptop. Peru and Rwanda are soon to follow. Peru has almost a million laptops, nearly all of them in the most remote villages. Our next country, we hope, is Afghanistan, where the United States spends two billion dollars per week on war and two million on education. Huh? Were President Obama to move 0.5 percent from column A to column B, every child could have a connected laptop in less than eighteen months.

Toyama summarizes his argument: “Technology—no matter how well-designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute” (emphasis original). What is he thinking, “a substitute”? And “magnify” is a funny word. It means the enlargement of something that already exists. Imagine I take a five-year-old from the most rural part of India and drop her in Paris for a year. She will speak French by the end of that year. Did Paris magnify her knowledge of French? No. It created it from her potential to learn language. Likewise the computer. It can enable learning from the potential to learn.

Toyama continues, “Few of us would choose PC-based education for our own children.” True, but all of us who can afford a laptop buy one for our kids. Why not do so for poor kids? What about places where there are no teachers or schools? Sure, build schools and train teachers. That will take a long time. For now, spend the dollar a week to buy connected laptops for children who can then teach each other.

People look at bad interventions and judge technology (in general) to be bad. That is gibberish. Forty-four years ago, Robert Kennedy told an audience of thousands of students in South Africa:

Everywhere new technology and communications bring men and nations closer together, the concerns of one inevitably becoming the concerns of all. And our new closeness is stripping away the false masks, the illusion of difference which is at the root of injustice and hate and war.

The new technologies that Kennedy talked and dreamed of can now connect every child on the planet to each other and to the world’s knowledge. Those technologies hold both the promise of education and an end to isolation. And they hold the promise of a world in which the excuses of ignorance and misunderstanding are no longer acceptable, of a future generation that is more tolerant, more just, and more peaceful than our own.


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About the Author

Nicholas Negroponte is founder and Chairman of the OLPC Foundation and Professor at the MIT Media Lab, of which he is cofounder.

Can Technology End Poverty?, a forum on the potential of ICT for global development.

Evgeny Morozov, Texting Toward Utopia

Richard M. Stallman, What Does That Server Really Serve?

Carl Elliott, Our Technologies, Ourselves