Saturday, January 06, 2007

OLPC - What its greatest impact will be

You must have heard of the One Laptop Per Child project. It's an ambitious, even audacious, attempt to raise development standards of poor nations by putting inexpensive computing power into the hands of the next generation of its citizens -- its children. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this initiative. As someone I know wrote 5 years ago, "Open Source is doing what god, government and market have failed to do. It is putting powerful technology within the reach of cash-poor but idea-rich people." The only way OLPC has let down that prophecy is the fact that governments are involved.

To date, governments of the following countries have signed up: Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Thailand and Uruguay. India, to my surprise, has not. India reportedly thinks the scheme is "pedagogically suspect".

I don't know how the project will turn out. I wish it all success, of course. As in all projects, execution will be key to its success or failure.

I would normally dismiss heavy government intervention as being ineffective and a waste of money, but for the success of India's (note the irony here) mid-day meal scheme for schoolchildren. Not only does that scheme provide much-needed nourishment to millions of poor children, it has taken the burden of feeding them off the shoulders of their parents, so the children are encouraged to go to school rather than go to work to feed themselves and their families. School dropout rates have fallen as a result, and "universal primary education" is no longer a mere slogan.

Will the OLPC similarly succeed in raising educational standards in the developing world?

I believe that whatever its track record in that area, OLPC is going to have a major impact on the world for one simple reason. It shows that laptops can be produced for roughly a hundred US dollars each ($135 today, but expected to fall as production ramps up and hardware prices continue to fall). Today, you or I cannot buy an OLPC laptop, because they are only made available to governments for distribution to schoolchildren. However, containing the market impact of such a large influx of cheap laptops in an economy will be like holding back a stream with one's bare hands. The price of laptops in general will experience severe downward pressure in all the countries that OLPC touches.

I cannot overemphasise the beneficial effects of this development. Progress is not so much about invention as about democratisation. Many modern inventions were known even in the nineteenth century (e.g., the automobile). But it was only in the twentieth and twentyfirst centuries that these inventions were mass-produced and made affordable to all. Democratisation achieved much more than mere invention.

OLPC may or may not achieve its ambitious goals of lifting developing nations out of their educational quagmire. But I think it will indirectly democratise computing power. I'm eagerly waiting for that to happen. Watch the fun!

1 comment:

Subbu said...

It is interesting that the Indian government offers no explanation for its view that the project is "pedagogically suspect". I will readily agree with the view that much more needs to be done to provide universal primary education but the OLPC project must be seen as one (of many) major skirmishes that must be fought against the evils of ignorance and darkness. Any assistance must be welcomed especially if well intentioned i.e. if M$ isn't behind it :)