Tuesday, November 08, 2005

If:Book Critique of MIT's $100 Laptop Project

Over at If:Book, Ben Vershbow has an interesting critique of MIT's $100 Laptop project. Vershblow wonders if the "one laptop per child" movement will, ultimately, solve the problems endemic to the developing world or if it's (good intentioned) snake-oil cure-all to a problem that's more of a concern for us than those on the ground. More importantly, however, Vershbow is concerned about the focus on the "packaging" rather than the content, and he's concerned about the fact there hasn't been much discussion about creating an infrastructure to support those laptops:
The open source movement is behind One Laptop Per Child in a big way, and with them comes the belief that if you give the kids tools, they will teach themselves and grope their way to success. It's a lovely thought, and may prove true in some instances. But nothing can substitute for a good teacher. Or a good text. It's easy to think dreamy thoughts about technology emptied of content -- ready, like those [Container Store] aisles of containers, drawers and crates, to be filled with our hopes and anxieties, to be filled with little brown hands reaching for the stars. But that's too easy. And more than a little dangerous.

Dropping cheap, well-designed laptops into disadvantaged classrooms around the world may make a lot of money for the manufacturers and earn brownie points for governments. And it's a great feel-good story for everyone in the thousand-dollar laptop West. But it could make a mess on the ground.
There's also a disturbing comparison between the laptop program and the pharmaceutical industries pushing of baby formula on the developing world and the problems its created.

I haven't had enough time to take all this in, nor have I been following the laptop program well enough to make offer much critical analysis, but what all this brings to mind for me is the United States' movement in the 1990s to put an internet-connected computer into every classroom. We focused on supplying hardware without developing a supporting infrastructure, which ultimately led to a lot of computers collecting a lot of dust. One difference here is that the computers will be given to the children who may be more likely to play and learn than the average US adult, but I'm wondering how much of this expectation is rooted in cultural bias. Will a kid, who lives without electricity and running water, really take to a computer in a way that children in modernized cultures, kids who see older children and adults using computers if not at home at least in the media and in public spaces? What I'm getting at here is that we have an assumption that children "take" to technologies, but do we have any data, any studies, that show children take to technologies that aren't already a common part of their everyday experience?

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