Someone’s gotta say it Ryan 30 Nov 2005

60 comments Latest by Jea

While the $100 laptop is nice and all, I can’t help thinking the third world has bigger problems. Like, oh I don’t know, overpopulation, starvation, and disease?

60 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Drew Pickard 30 Nov 05

Yeah, I’m not really sure exactly who their target market really is . .

If starving poor in the third world are really who they’re targeting these to - then I think that’s pretty ignorant.

Your money is better spent and goes many times further buying people food and aid …

I’m just going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s people who are eating, want a computer but can’t afford one.

Dan Boland 30 Nov 05

Ryan, you should read this article from Slate if you haven’t already.

Steve Akers 30 Nov 05

The laptops are meant to improve the education of children. Better educated children have a greater chance of growing into adults capable of solving overpopulation, starvation and disease.

just sayin' 30 Nov 05

Well, you can’t eat a laptop, it’s true, but..

Seems that access to the internet might help people in far-flung places learn about things like:

* Farming techniques/ideas
* Contraception basics
* Healthcare info?

Might also help reduce the myopic tribalism that perpetuates ongoing conflicts, etc.

And besides, think of all the potential Basecamp subscribers

Sean Forman 30 Nov 05

Teach a man to fish…

SH 30 Nov 05

While “overpopulation, starvation, and disease” are major issues, of course, you’re overlooking the impact a tool like this can have for education’s sake. As I recall correctly, that article states these computers are built well to “let children interact with each other while learning” and “Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction - they will be able to open up new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning.”

I don’t really believe they were built so AIDS afflicted communities in 3rd world countries could start using eBay. To assume that is to neglect the very positive opportunities something like this could open up.

Ryan Heneise 30 Nov 05

Your point is well taken, but I think you’re missing the purpose of the $100 laptop program. The root cause of the problems that you mentioned in third-world countries is not poverty, but political and economic corruption. I have not looked very closely at the $100 laptop program, but economic development programs like this are designed to elevate as many people out from under the poverty line as possible, into a state of greater economic influence. As the theory goes, the more people you have with job skills and entrepreneurial ability, the more possibilities for economic improvement.

Phil 30 Nov 05

Seriously…. it’s an investment. You’ve got to take care of daily needs, but if you never get beyond that, people will remain in a pretty sorry state.

dave 30 Nov 05

The $100 laptop is a solution, not a problem.

It’s not clear to me what problem it’s trying to solve; indeed, I suspect that Negroponte & co aren’t completely sure either.

That said, people have been trying to solve the problems of starvation, overpopulation and disease since the existence of starvation, overpopulation and disease. There’s been a great deal of progress, but it’s certainly far from solved.

I think there are two mistaken assumptions in your statement: first, that the resources going into $100 laptops are competing one for one with the resources going into, say, disease prevention. Second, that the best way to fix bad stuff is by focusing directly on the bad stuff. Sometimes by focusing energy on more positive initiatives, sometimes the bad things get fixed by themselves.

RS 30 Nov 05

Here’s a simple but extremely difficult fact: If one has more children than one can feed, and those children have more than they can feed, there is no room for economic growth.

Education is great. But it requires a stable basis.

Pat 30 Nov 05

Why did it “have” to be said? When people went to Iraq to save the animals in the zoo people “had” to say there were more important problems. Why? People were solving problems they knew how to solve. It all seems very “Less Is More” to me.

You don’t ask PETA to fix the power grid…

Ganesh 30 Nov 05

Overpopulation, starvation, and disease are problems in the US and EU as well. Yet, you see these countries invest on all kinds of problems.

There’s enough problems in the world and enough people to focus on solving different aspects. Diversity is inherent in nature and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If third world countries should be blamed for investing in $100 laptops then so called first world countries should also be blamed for spending multiple billions of dollars on potentially non-essential things like space research, SETI, weapons, wars and Christmas gifts.

Its more mature to encourage people in whatever constructive aspirations they have than to sit and find fault.

pqs 30 Nov 05

This is the perfect excuse for people that don’t want to try to change de statu quo.

It is very difficult to erradicate famine, but doing anything else instead of trying to erradicate it is not moral -> We do nothing.

It is usual to listen to people saying, “why are you investing so many effords to introduce free software in third world countries? Maybe it would be better to try to erradicate famine”.Meanwhile, Microsoft is doing mafia lobying to impose his own non-free software.

Joe 30 Nov 05

It’s like the old proverb:

“It’s better to give a man a fishing pole than give him a fish.”

Er. Something like that.

Benjy 30 Nov 05

It’s so that they can all share with us the potential to split $40 million that their diplomat father hid in an account before being kidnapped…

Geoff 30 Nov 05

I recently attended a talk by someone from intel who described some of the ways techology can help healthcare. As an example, he discussed the process of diagnosing an eye condition that can lead to blindness. Once the patient starts on drugs, there’s a short but somewhat unpredictable window in which to operate, which requires bringing people from the countryside into the city on a weekly basis - for no reason other than to evaluate whether the time is right for the procedure. Many rural people in 3rd world countries can’t afford the constant trips, so they miss the window for the procedure. A laptop and camera system allows a remote diagnosis, which means the patient only has to travel once - making the procedure affordable to a larger percentage of the population. As a result, fewer people go blind.

I’m not a physician or nurse, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this story (I’m reconstructing it from memory, so I’m not even sure I’ve repeated it accurately here). And yes, I know, the purpose of these talks is largely to pump up intel, convince health care providers to spend on hardware, etc, etc. And yes, I’m sure that there are lots of excellent and perhaps better ways to spend this money that don’t involve technology.

But at the same time, I’m sure that stories like this one are pretty common, and that technology (and cheap hardware) may turn out to be valuable tools in the fight against overpopulation, starvation, and disease.

Ritz 30 Nov 05

Wether or not it’s the most important thing people should be focused on seems irrelevant.

If you have passion and skills you can use to help someone in need now, why not give it a try. I know how to make computers, and I want to help. Hmm, maybe I should figure out how to farm or make lots of money I can give away in the next ten years and then go help.

Wait, maybe I could make a bajillion computers right now and make an immediate difference.

Tough call.

Howard Owens 30 Nov 05

Yes, of course, education, greater economic freedom, better communication — these things are of no value and never help a society improve its standard of living. Let’s keep technology from poor countries.

Never mind that educated people who start and run businesses are less likely to have large families and are more likely to create economic growth.

Cameron Fleming 30 Nov 05

I remember someone on the West Wing once claiming that education is the “silver bullet.” I don’t think there are any silver bullets to solve problems of international development. But as a tool, education is pretty powerful.

I don’t think development can be limited to just sending grain and medicine to LDCs. It’s true that it’s very hard to learn on an empty stomach. On the other hand, focusing exclusively on feeding the hungry is just going to create dependence. It’s important to also work on creating the capacity in LDCs to work toward self-sufficiency.

Overpopulation and disease are both excellent examples of the critical need for a focus on education. There is an absolute connection between level of education, level of development and birth rates. It’s why so many Western countries are now facing the dilemma of low birth rates. The truth is that the population of the world is still growing, but it is growing ever more slowly. In fact, the rate of growth is not too far from being negative. Lecturing the people in LDCs about the need for contraceptives is only going to have limited effectiveness. Development — which comes about through education — is the key to reducing birth rates.

I find all these problems overwhelming, which is why I avoided international development studies like the plague. One of the problems I find so troublesome is how to educate young people in LDCs. The logistical challenges are enormous. A $100 laptop might alleviate some of them.

pqs alleges that taking this tack is just an excuse for the status quo. Not so. The easiest thing for Western countries to do is send over bags and bags of grain to assuage our consciences without really caring what happens to them. The harder course — but the right one — is to focus on building a capacity for self-sufficiency. That will only happen when the citizens of LDCs are able to participate substantialy in the global economy, and the currency of that economy is knowledge.

Frankly, I’m surprised. 37signals is so much about trying to solve the world’s problems by design. Isn’t this a perfect example of someone giving it a shot? No field is more desperate for new ideas than international development.

Michal Migurski 30 Nov 05

Cameron’s comment is pretty astute, I think - you solve the problems you know, the way you were taught. Sometimes so-called “wicked problems” have unorthodox solutions. In this case, sending laptops that will help get these populations on the global communications wagon may be more helpful in the long run than air-lifting some extra grain bags. They need food of course, but they need a way to solve their own quandaries even more. If the problem boils down to corrupt regimes preventing social mobility, maybe bags of rice aren’t the most effective answer?

“While Basecamp is nice & all, I can’t help thinking the world has bigger problems than corporate disorganization…”

Daniel Gotilla 30 Nov 05

Sorry, Ryan, this kind of reasoning doesn’t cut it. Let’s take Brazil (where I live) which has publicly announced it’s to participate in the project. First, the current government was elected on a platform of social reform with an emphasis on a huge project to erradicate hunger. The project is doing very well and was one of the main reasons which led the UN to state recently that Latin America will probably be the only region to meet (perhaps surpass) the UN’s Millenium Goal of halving the number of people who go hungry everyday by 2015. Second, population growth here is a modest 1.06%, nowhere near what would be expected from a poor catholic. Third, epidemics in Brazil are rare and far between, definitely not the norm. You’ll find that the major killers here are very much the same as those in developed nations: Heart disease, cancer, diabetes…

Sure we have plenty to do to erradicate corruption: according to Transparency International, Brazil scored a 3.7 this year on their 10-point scale (the US scored 7.6). Its not that easy to get away with it anymore.

I believe, however, that what we really need is education. We have plenty of bright hard-working people here that could prove themselves if they simply had a chance. In his recent book, Thomas Friedman talked about how the world is becoming flat:

When the world was round, say 30 years ago, you would much rather have been born a B+ student in Indianapolis, Indiana, rather than a genius in Bangalore, India. Because the Indian genius, unless he or she could get a visa out of India, really could not plug and play with his or her talent. Today, you do not want to be a B+ student in Indianapolis. You would much rather be a genius in India, because that genius can now innovate at a global level without ever having to emigrate.

However, we need to give these people a chance. They need to have access to these amazing tools and to the huge amount of knowledge that’s available. A computer can do this, it can open doors and give them endless possibilities. Only then will they trully have a chance.

Ed Weaver 30 Nov 05

While I admire the PR that this has generated, my fear is that this idea will ultimately fail. It has been estimated that 3 billion of the world’s population are functionally illiterate (don’t misunderstand - illiterate does not mean unable to learn or that they’re not bright - it just means that they’ve learned through oral means - if interested, read up on “oral learners” or “orality”). It takes a fair amount of literacy to use a computer to learn. Without access to broadband Internet, digital media distribution for the illiterate people groups will be challenging at best (which would be the only way to truly teach them) and there are more cost effective means of “playing” that content.

Bruno Unna 30 Nov 05

This time I don’t get the point, Ryan.

What is the point I’m missing? What does it have to do the USD$100 laptop with the other problems you’re mentioning?

Are you suggesting that the USD$100 laptop project should be somehow… postponed until the other ones get a solution?

Richard 30 Nov 05

It’s an experiment, nobody knows wheter this will help these kids and their people or not, unless somebody tries it.

So maybe education and information will help them to overcome their situation, therefore it’s definitly worth to try.

Bill Preachuk 30 Nov 05

I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of the $100 laptop, because I agree with many here - doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

I strill feel Microcredit, dollar for dollar, is the best way to improve living standards.

JF 30 Nov 05

doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

Wasting something is worse than doing nothing at all.

JF 30 Nov 05

doing something is better than doing nothing at all

I’ll make one other point about this before I duck out…

There are costs — real and opportunity — when you do “something.” Sometimes doing something now means you can’t do something later. So “just trying something” can be far worse than doing nothing at all.

I’m all for action, but action that matters. We can spin our wheels doing things that don’t matter all day.

Cameron Fleming 30 Nov 05

“Opportunity cost” is an important economic concept.

But so is “comparative advantage.”

Tim 30 Nov 05

I figured we were just going to teach them all visual basic, set them up with VPN access and VOIP phones, and outsource our government software development projects to them. ??

But, then I remembered its going to be all open-source software on the notebooks, so they must be planning to open new Dell technical support locations.

Jason Pfeifer 30 Nov 05

I think the benefits that education can have on ‘overpopulation, starvation, and disease’ are being overlooked - not to mention that the three are not neccesarily exclusive ie. if you were to stem off overpopulation it would lead to less starvation (less people to feed), as well as extend what resources are available for disease control.

But anyone who works in said social fields will tell you that the biggest challenge to issues such as contraception is EDUCATING people about it. Well that and the Pope, I guess. Contraception is a constructive solution to both the problems of overpopulation AND disease control.

It is the same case of pulling out a weed by the roots instead of breaking off its branches.

obvious 30 Nov 05

I think a thousand Nigerian-style email scams will flourish, as I recall Nigerias third-biggest contributor to GDP.

brian leroux 30 Nov 05

This post strikes me as a bit of a troll. But whatever, I think its a cool enough project to warrant your bait. It is clear that poverty brings up a host of problems that aren’t easily prioritized.

Bottom line: information should be freely accessible to everyone.

Randy Shapiro 30 Nov 05

I’m really excited about $100 laptops. Because I know I’m gonna score one in an African marketplace for ten bucks two months after they come out.

mike 30 Nov 05

In related questionable priority news: Down here in Louisiana,

Anonymous Coward 30 Nov 05

Yeah…why not just donate all the money spent on the $100 laptop to OXFAM?

Don Wilson 30 Nov 05

I’d buy one on eBay. :)

eh 30 Nov 05

it’s important to understand the underlying philosophies the people pushing these things have.

they see computers as being potentially every bit as good as a teacher for learning. they advocate styles of learning much more like a professor acts to his graduate students — an advisor, not a lecturer. they call this “guide on the side”, with the traditional teacher-student relationship being “sage on the stage.”

the problem is not all students are mature enough for that, and if you have to rediscover everything on your own, you’ll understand it much better but you won’t get very far.

even graduate students don’t waste time making all the mistakes people who came before them made (i’m thinking math/physics here where there’s so much knowledge that the unimportant stuff is just kind of forgotten).

Anonymous Coward 30 Nov 05

There are so many assumptions being made here.

1. That wi-fi and connectivity is everywhere. Jesus, I can’t even get wi-fi down the street. “Connectivity” is so much more than having a laptop. Kids with $100 laptops will *NOT* be connected.

2. The vast majority of these kids are illiterate and of the ones that can speak, nearly 0% speak english. The web is basically in english. The web as you and I know it will do them next to NO good.

3. These kids don’t even have time to sit in front of a computer and play with it. They are working because they need to work to help feed the family. The picture of the cute black kids on a computer screen is made in America, not in Nairobi. They have problems you and I can’t even dream of. At the moment LEARNING isn’t one of them - eating is.

4. This problem is so deep, but RS is right: a foundation is needed first. Some stability so they can find the space and passion to learn. Kids in America have laptops and it’s not doing them a whole lot of good (check the studies on that).

5. At least they’ll have porn.

~bc 30 Nov 05

It’s education, not laptops: the machines will be eBook readers as well, and they can usurp someof the money that’s already being spent by these governments on education. I agree the laptops don’t feed starving people, but education does. Just indirectly.

I agree with the help where you can attitude: Negroponte can do this. And his work will benefit all of us.

If I saw you with one of these machines you bought off eBay, I’d kick your ass. Hopefully everyone else here would, too. You’ll be able to buy a clone made by the same manufacturers for $200 in a year, wait your turn, asshole.

For the “not everyone has WiFi” comment, these machines create automatic WiFi mesh networks in the villages, even when the machine is off, it acts as a node. If one node has a connection to any type of internet, via cell or satellite even, then the whole village has a connection. That’s impressive.

Jay 01 Dec 05

I imagine these laptops are not going to be distributed to the poorest of the poor who (unfortunately) probably would have no use for them. Machines like this will probably end up in the hands of kids who have some education, but do not have the tools or opportunities to improve thier situations. Perhaps for some of those types of kids learning how to use a computer will give them the umph that they need to go out and succeed.

This program, like any other philanthropic program, has to be targetted towards the right people. You don’t give malaria medication to an AIDS patient, and similarly a laptop is not going to help illiterate kid who is starving to death. However, when targetted properly I can see the $100 laptop doing enormous good.

Miguel 01 Dec 05

Among other things, technology is pushing India and China forward and out of developing country status. Technology is simply one more tool. Like any tool, say medecine, free food or low cost loans from the World Bank, it can be applied more or less correctly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Negroponte’s idea. It just needs to be applied effectively.

Meri 01 Dec 05

I was born and grew up in a third world country, so let me speak up quickly.

The first thing to point out here is that not everyone in a third world country is dying of starvation, overpopulation or disease. Yes, FAR too many people are. Yes, it’s a major problem. But it is not the reality of life in the third world that everyone is struggling to survive! Even when these are the big problems, the big priorities, education is one of the big ways to solve them.

South Africa is definitely a third world country. Yes, it’s got crazy history so some bits are pretty damn first world, but work with me here. In South Africa, I’d say the biggest problems are:
1) HIV
2) Unemployment
3) Lack of decent housing

The biggest thing that you can do to help the top two problems there is educate children. Lack of decent housing can get sorted out as more people get educated, employed and manage to build houses out of materials like bricks rather than cardboard.

The point of the $100 laptop is so not the web.

The point of the $100 laptop is that it is a cheaper way to give kids books.

I was lucky — growing up my parents were just about middle class. I went to a decent school, with proper funding. I even had textbooks. Nevertheless, one of the biggest problems we had was that the textbooks we had weren’t up-to-date. After the end of Apartheid we still had to use the old history books (which were absolutely HORRENDOUS), which teachers pointing out the bits that were particularly racist and telling us to disregard.

The real value I can see for this project is to supply schools with the information resources they need. Not for the next step to be an Africa-wide wifi network. Hell, even in Europe wifi is fairly few and far between — and even when you find it it’s damn expensive.

Third world habitant 01 Dec 05

48 people beat me, but I have to say it anyway:

Overpopulation, starvation, and disease solution: Education of course!!!

FriedGeek 01 Dec 05

I agree, while these devices are nice to be able to offer, I think there are bigger problems. A few other things come to mind:
- If warlords are stealing or misdirecting most of what’s going into a region what makes you think they won’t want these as well?
- I remember kids in large US cities being killed for their iPods, what will keep that from happening in 3rd world countries?
I would think that some of these should have been customized to help make the in country aid groups better equipped and more efficient.

Josue Salazar 01 Dec 05

Living in Latin America, i’ve heard a lot about this on local news.

There are much bigger problems to worry about here. There are more important ways to invest money (as previously said, medication, food, etc), not that education isn’t important in and of itself, but if a kid doesn’t have food to eat, what good would a computer do?.

And besides, it’s a program that will simply not work. Negroponte was in Chile a while ago, pitching the idea to the government, and if i remember correctly, the minimum “investment” (purchase) had to be $10 (maybe $100) million dollars.

There’s not one Thrid World (this is not a good term) country who will be willing to stop paying for medication/food and use the money to buy laptops for everyone. It’s just not a priority.

Muammar Kris Khaira 01 Dec 05

Well-educated people have a better chance of survival.

Meri said it right — “it’s not about web.. it’s about giving kids books”. If I was running a project like this, I’d distribute a local copy of Wikipedia along with them. Think books and education, not Ajax Web 2.0 overkill, spam, porn and e-commerce.

And if you think there are better things to be done, why don’t you start?

By the way, I live in Malaysia, a “third world country” where there’s ample food, but not enough education, electricity and computers. This is but one of many such countries in the third world.

Darrel 01 Dec 05

They do have bigger problems. That shouldn’t stop people from being able to access affordable technology solutions, though.

Jon 01 Dec 05

This argument is about as good as:

“Why are we working on medicine to help people with their sexual performance when we could be curing cancer?”

“Why are we building libraries when there are so many homeless people on the streets?”

“Why are we splurging on food on Thanksgiving when there are starving children in Ethiopia?”

Your post was practically a cliche.

Mike 01 Dec 05

Has anyone considered the support ramifications of this? How will uneducated children figure out how to use a Linux system? Mesh Networks: sounds complicated. These things likely won’t administer themselves. I have a degree in CompSci and I have enough trouble using Linux…

Jeff 01 Dec 05

Most (all?) of the third world’s problems stem from bad government. The best way to defeat bad government is through giving education and communication capabilities. The $100 laptop could go a ways toward remedying some of these issues.

Nah, I don’t think that’s what these guys had in mind, either, but there is an upside.

Of course, if we really wanted to help the most people as cost-effectively as possible, we’d put DDT back into production to stop malaria…

Sam 02 Dec 05

If these laptops are sent to africa, expect an influx of nigerian email scams in about 5 years.

GuyfromBrazil 04 Dec 05

Two things I read in blogs these days:

Russell Beatie saying that the new upgrade firmware for the PSP sucked but he got his other PSP that he hasnt upgraded and could play SOCOM online with that one, without glitches. Here’s me thinking “JESUS F*CK HE’S GOT TWO PSPs”.

Someone posted on Boing Boing about under $100 gift guides. One was a 3Gen iPod hacked with Linux. “Price: As low as $30! Maybe free if you ask around!” Here’s me thinking “SWEET MARY MOTHER OF GOD THEY CAN GET 20GB MP3 PLAYERS FREE BY ASKING AROUND, BECAUSE THEY’RE ‘OLD’ AND ‘MUTANT’”

If you live inside a society where people can afford this kind of electronic luxury, it’s hard to understand other realities. It’s amazing that the guys from MIT get it.

ikemstar 05 Dec 05

Starvation, over-population, malnutrition, disease… sounds like New Orle* - sorry! - the Third world for true…
Sheesh. You’d think these kids slapping these clever web2.0 applications would have a better sense of how the world works, but clearly not. Why deny these clever, underprivileged kids the same opportunity that you have? Wouldn’t you skip a coupla meals for a phat laptop? You afraid these kids might bootstrap themselves up from poverty, bypass their corrupt infrastructure and work it out for themselves? Run you out of a job?

“How will uneducated children figure out how to use a Linux system?”.
Gee. I got a feeling kids clever enough to flourish in a harsh environment will work it out for themselves. Go figure.

Talk about a lack of vision/ ambition. Gooooo Negroponte!!!

Jea 06 Dec 05

Geez Ryan-
You seem to be born in a family of MORONS.