Bashing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organisation’s utopian ideals seems to have become something of a sport, and an uncharitable one at that. Details of some supposed transgressions are documented at the OLPC wiki, on a very scrollable page labelled: Controversies. Many relate to the typically asinine politics one would expect to find in any overly academic NGO email inbox or FOSS forum; some are valid criticisms; most have a factual basis; and an overwhelming proportion seem to have issues with OLPC Chairman and Founder, Nicholas Negroponte.
In “The Rise Of The New Global Elite” Chrystia Freeland writes of Philanthrocapitalism:
“What is notable about today’s plutocrats is that they tend to bestow their fortunes in much the same way they made them: entrepreneurially. Rather than merely donate to worthy charities or endow existing institutions (though they of course do this as well), they are using their wealth to test new ways to solve big problems.”
Freeland goes on to quote Matthew Bishop, co-author of the book Philanthrocapitalism, as he describes the phenomenon of the less than ragged-trousered do-gooder to her:
“There is a connection between their ways of thinking as businesspeople and their ways of giving. They are used to operating on a grand scale, and so they operate on a grand scale in their philanthropy as well.”
Operating on a grand scale, to a massive vision, seems to have been what OLPC was all about and the organisation has not been found wanting where it comes to making sweeping statements of intent that have then been corrected by the realities of the project.
At launch in 2005, Negroponte stated the goal was to put laptops in the hands of 100 million children in three years, six years later, the organisation has shipped some 2 million units; At launch Negroponte stated that the first laptop would be powered by a hand-cranked dynamo, six years later issues with the dynamo have finally been fixed and two hours of cranking provides a full charge; In May 2006, Negroponte stated that the target price for the XO was be $100 but expected that by 2008 OLPC would be offering laptops at $140, five years later, the retail price of the new XO 1.75 is estimated to be $165.
For the naysayers knocking OLPC this appears to be fish-in-a-barrel territory.
Well, I’ll make no bones about it, despite the inauspicious retelling above, I come not to bury but to praise. Let me start by saying: What successful entrepreneur doesn’t make outrageous statements of future intent and set tough targets? If it was easy to offer millions of children cheap laptops, everyone would be doing it (although in leading the way, OLPC has made it easier for followers).
So, what has OLPC achieved in the last half decade? In no particular order:
- Distributed almost 2 million low-cost laptops. And in doing so, forced other manufacturers to review their own pricing policies and roadmaps (netbooks anyone?).
- Created a laptop that runs on 2 watts of power (XO 1.75). Thereby solving the dynamo-power issue when running a computer where there is no electricity supply.
- Used Free Open Source Software. Despite being offered discounted Windows and free Mac OS X, OLPC has been true to its Constructivist principles and stuck with FOSS.
- Open Sourced the hardware reference design. OLPC machines are no longer built to a proprietary design, anyone can make their own.
- Raised the profile of IT education as a means to end poverty. Critics often state that the core OLPC management are all hype and no substance. Frankly, who cares how they grab the column inches as long as they do. Every day I meet people who have never heard of OLPC – a non-profit that accepts donations – and have never considered that giving away laptops to the world’s poor is an achievable goal.
Want to get excited about OLPC all over again? Watch this excellent interview with OLPC CTO Ed McNireney at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show.
To the naysayers, before you hang me, I agree: Nicholas Negroponte sometimes says things which make him sound like a dick, don’t we all. But what we don’t do is keep the money rolling in, he does. I agree that hardware is the trivial part, investment in teacher training, connectivity, specialised curriculum development and maintenance is the difficult bit, but unless the goal changes to One Library Per Child the hardware has to come first.
It seems to me that many of the most vocal critics, especially those involved in related projects, have more of an issue with Negroponte’s Philanthrocapitalism than they do with the aims of OLPC. Airing these issues under the pretence of constructive criticism is a classic passive aggressive behaviour that OLPC, and the world’s vulnerable children, could well do without.
And here’s the real roadmap announced in 2009, it’s pretty much on track:
XO 1.75 – The XO 1.75, to be available in early 2011, will be essentially the same industrial design but rubber-bumpered on the outside and in the inside will be an 8.9”, touch-sensitive display. The XO 1.75 will be based on an ARM processor from Marvell that will enable 2x speed at 1/4 the power and is targeted at $150 or less. This ARM-based system will complement the x86-based XO 1.75, which will remain in production, giving deployments a choice of processor platform.”
XO 3.0 – The XO 3.0 is a totally different approach, to be available in 2012 and at a target price well below $100. It will feature a new design using a single sheet of flexible plastic and will be unbreakable and without holes in it.
Yep, it’s a Tablet.