Differing Priorities

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 wouldn’t 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 12” 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 isn’t 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, it’s 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 aren’t going to transform the 3rd World into a technological powerhouse, though.

There are two reasons why I’m 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 what’s really necessary. Food, clothing, shelter, security from threats. Those are the baseline for a healthy and potentially fulfilling existence, and I think it’s obvious that many people in the world suffer through lives where one or more are absent. It’s pretty tough to get excited over cheap laptops when there’s 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.

Don’t 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 there’s a “digital divide”, and injecting high tech into societies that can’t compare to our level of sophistication isn’t the way to improve conditions. That won’t 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 isn’t 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 it’s neat that they managed to put together a working laptop for $100 USD. The handcrank to recharge the batteries is also wicked kewl.

8 thoughts on “Differing Priorities”

  1. I ran Linux on a machine very comparable to what you’re describing a few years ago, and it worked fine.

    Honestly, I don’t see where you’re getting the “putting a great deal of strain on the intended users.” Mozilla is quite a bit better than IE, the various Linux email programs are better than Outlook, and the office programs are acceptable, although in my opinion, they’re still worse than Office. With all the programs preloaded at manufacture, there’s essentially no difference from the perspective of the user.

  2. There may be some applications where computers can make a real contribution in impoverished areas; see my post Rural Tech in India
    In general, though, computer technology is much less important than mosquito control or irrigation. I think Bill Gates made this point with regard to vaccination.

  3. Honestly, I don’t see where you’re getting the “putting a great deal of strain on the intended users.”

    It’s been some years since I looked into Linux as an alternative to Windows. At the time you had to know a great deal about your machine to get it to work, although enthusiasts insisted that you could get a huge boost in performance as soon as you jumped through all the hoops. I passed because I have better things to do than spend a few weeks learning how to tweak code. (Although I’m sure that the Linux boosters I talked to way back then couldn’t imagine what would be a better use of my time.)

    If the OS has matured to the point that it’s stable and can be pre-loaded, then my objections disappear.

    Mozilla is quite a bit better than IE,…

    Not in my experience, and I run both of them on my PC.

    So far as which Email program is the best, I haven’t the foggiest. I have a free Email account through Yahoo.com that serves my needs, and I’ve never bothered with all of the other accounts that have been offered to me. (Even the Email services provided through the blogs I write for, though I’d like to thank Jonathan for making sure that I knew about the one through CB.)


  4. I’ll concede that installing Linux used to be quite a bit harder than it is currently. (although repeating that it’s irrelevant, since it will come preloaded) Even in the bad old days, it was amazingly stable, though. In six years of daily use, I’ve never managed to crash it.

    Linux gets quite complicated if you open up the hood, but from the perspective of a day-to-day user (especially one who’s never used Windows before) there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between it and any other GUI-based system. You point the mouse, click, and the program starts up.

  5. You know, of course these laptops wouldn’t be sold in the US. Just like illegal drugs and pirated DVDs aren’t sold in the US. It’s quite easy to control these things. The market can’t do a damn thing about it either.

  6. Observing local culture on a business trip here in the Philippines, while not scraping the bottom of the human wealth barrel, I note that almost everyone has a cell phone, the $12/day income with wife and 8 kids taxi drive to the actual wealthy. A $100 laptop hasn’t sold … yet. Note most people in the lower income levels don’t actually make calls … for “texting is free”. That laptop probably won’t sell, because they don’t need it for e-mail … they already have it.

  7. This to me goes to the problem of what really is the point – subsidizing technology, or creating wealth and prosperity?
    Give a man a $100 laptop and he can surf Internet porn all day. Teach a man to build a laptop from $50 worth of parts and a free OS for a market that he understands, and he can sell it in the marketplace for years…

  8. I think that this example illustrates how few of us are Renaissance men (and women), and the vast difficulty in being in charge of any little part of how the world works is taking the genius of the MIT folks and converting that into something that actually functions in the real world.
    Two notes on the computer stuff…I love Firefox, but it’s Mac-type app in the sense that point-and-click computer users won’t be able to “handle” it. I don’t know that Linux, beyond the basics, helps that at all. However, being that it’s not controlled by a giant corporation or the state (sorry, I sounded like Lew Rockwell there :P), Linux is probably the best option for any type of Third World computing.

    However, I think that they could survive without everyone having computers. Honestly. I did so until halfway through high school, and I find that time to be a nostalgic period of reading many many books and playing outside, as opposed to the overconsumption of electronic devices that I partake in now. With that, I’m off to treadmill a bit and then read about the Civil War. Small steps, small steps.

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