Things no one never needs

One of the things that immediately sent me into “bullshit alert” mode lately was the mention of the (in)famous OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) initiative. For those who don’t know, the idea behind this is to build a 100$ laptop computer that is to be bought be governments and NGOs, and handed out to children in developing countries.

What a brilliantly useless idea.

If you’re really nice, you could say a bunch of computing people tried to use their special skills to help disadvantaged kids. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come up with anything very helpful.

I’m not an expert on developing nations. But I have this strong suspicion that the first things people need are the basics: Food, shelter, medical services. And, yes, education is equally important. But could anybody explain to me how education is best served by dumping those laptops on the kids?

The whole project seems highly academic. In fact, I could easily imagine this as an university project: You come up with a very specific solution to a problem. You spend a lot of time constructing a theoretical framework that shows how your solution is superior to other approaches. And you skillfully avoid to ground your theory against reality.

Just look at the OLPC wiki. It explains the vision. It refutes criticism with lofty language. But you don’t find a concise explanation of what the kids are supposed to do with those computers. Instead, you get talk like this:

Laptops are both a window and a tool: a window into the world and a tool with which to think. They are a wonderful way for all children to “learn learning” through independent interaction and exploration.

What is the alternative for education? The laptop is cheaper than two or three ordinary textbooks, but gives access to the entire wealth of information on the Internet. This is for children who cannot walk to a library, and are out of range of any kind of television, educational, commercial, or otherwise.

Could somebody stop the pain, please?

“A tool with which to think”? What happened to using your brain? And did it occur to those people that the money would be better spent to actually build libraries? Or schools? To train teachers? But that only appears as an afterthought:

Is this project really about getting computers to kids? The answer is an unequivocal yes! But it doesn’t stop there. We also want to get millions of textbooks to kids and give them an excellent education as well. This is an education project, not a laptop project.

Even in our countries we’d think twice before giving each schoolchild a 100$ gadget of dubious use. But to do so in places where education resources are scarce is dangerous.

And I’m pretty sure that for the resources that went into constructing that laptop, you could have come up with project to entitle each child to ten textbooks and access to a real-life teacher.

But that would have been much less flashy, and kept a lot less hardware designers employed.


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