I was reading the July, 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics when I saw an item about a laptop computer that could be manufactured for $100 USD. The laptop was designed by the brains at MIT, and the idea is to market the ultra cheap computers in the 3rd World in an attempt to narrow the digital divide. The author of the piece was quick to point out that these computers wouldnít be sold in the United States.
I doubt very many people would want one if they could afford something better. The C-note laptops have a rather flimsy 12Ē projection screen, 1GB of DRAM and flash memory, and (maybe) a 500-MHz microprocessor. The machine will also feature a hand crank to recharge the batteries, 4 USB ports, and Wi-Fi hardware.
There isnít enough memory to support off-the-shelf, plug-and-play operating systems like Windows XP. Instead the machine will have to run Linux, which will certainly delight the open source fans out there while putting a great deal of strain on the intended users. After all, itís not like many people can afford the leisure and money to get an education in machine language coding while living in a slum and scrambling to put food on the table every day.
So far as it goes, I support programs like this as long as it can pay its own way and does not require any money from me. A few more working computers in developing nations might just help out small business owners so far as inventory control and accounting is concerned. Extremely cheap laptops arenít going to transform the 3rd World into a technological powerhouse, though.
There are two reasons why Iím discussing this. The first is that it illustrates a basic gap between the way I view the world, and the basic model that many people who grew up in a high tech culture use to filter reality. I like advanced technology and am a successful user of many types, but I view it as an adjunct of whatís really necessary. Food, clothing, shelter, security from threats. Those are the baseline for a healthy and potentially fulfilling existence, and I think itís obvious that many people in the world suffer through lives where one or more are absent. Itís pretty tough to get excited over cheap laptops when thereís a shortage of clean, disease free water in developing nations.
It seems that most people who make their living with high tech think that it’s more significant than it really is. Read this MIT FAQ page again and you’ll see that the author is operating on the assumption that children simply cannot be educated properly unless they have access to computers and the Internet. Something else that is accepted without question is the idea that the lack of computers has seriously hampered economic development.
Donít get me wrong, the guys at MIT who came up with the laptop program are doing what they can with what they have. They deserve to be lauded for their achievement. But the problem here is not that thereís a ďdigital divideĒ, and injecting high tech into societies that canít compare to our level of sophistication isnít the way to improve conditions. That wonít happen until the majority of the governments of the world reform to the point that they offer rule of law, low levels of corruption, and transparency. This isnít going to happen anytime soon.
I said that there were two reasons why I wanted to bring this to your attention. The second is that I just think itís neat that they managed to put together a working laptop for $100 USD. The handcrank to recharge the batteries is also wicked kewl.