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LINUX-L  2007

LINUX-L 2007

Subject:

Re: OLPC demo @ UF this Saturday

From:

Gavin Baker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Platform Independent Linux List! <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 14 Apr 2007 00:51:30 -0400

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>> The OLPC project is an ambitious project to equip the world's children
>> with a uniquely designed laptop powered by Linux and open source
>> software.
>
> Not that the idea of the hand-crank computer isn't cool... but
> I'm curious whether clean drinking water for all children would be more
> useful to them than a laptop computer.
>
> http://money.cnn.com/2006/02/16/technology/business2_futureboy0216/index.htm
>
>
> Lately I've been saddened that so much effort goes into projects such as
> OLPC but there is a lack of movement to effect really important social
> change.

I'm glad I get this list as a digest, and thus missed the ensuing
barrage, but I do want to make a quick comment about this.

With all due respect to the commenter, I'm really frustrated with this
line of thinking (which is often found on Slashdot threads about the
OLPC, etc.) There are certainly many grounds on which one could
criticize the OLPC project, but we should really put to rest the "don't
they need food first" rhetoric.

Human development is an entire academic field of study, in the pursuit
of which many brilliant individuals have dedicated their careers and
many billions of dollars have been committed. It is not, in short, a
simple endeavor with clear-cut answers. It is a wicked problem.

That is not to say there are no solutions. But when I hear someone make
the comment "don't they need food first?," I (as a political scientist)
feel probably about the way that many of you (as computer professionals)
feel when you hear someone make the comment, "can't someone make a
computer that just works?"

If a computer is a complex enough system that we never realistically
expect it to be 100% bug-free, then how much more complex is the world
system that encompasses the diverse set of political, social, cultural,
and economic contexts as exist among the world's developing countries?

It may indeed prove to be the case that securing reliable access to
potable water for the world's population is a more efficient alternative
than the OLPC project's goals. But there are serious disagreements among
the practitioners and professors of development as to whether this is
the case, and testing the hypothesis is the most resolute way to resolve
them. No reasonable person, I think, takes this as a statement that
clean water is unimportant. They're chicken-and-egg problems, so we
should expect reasonable people to disagree on the best means to reach
the same end.

It is also worth recalling that there is great diversity among the
developing countries. One country participating in the OLPC pilot
program, Uruguay, has a per capita GDP of more than $10,000 USD. In
other parts of the developing world, huge swaths of society live on less
than $1 USD a day. Clearly different countries have different needs, and
to suggest that the only valuable endeavor is ensuring access to
food/water/some other basic resource is not a particularly helpful
suggestion to those who have more or less solved that problem, and are
now trying to tackle issues like connectivity, IT literacy, and
education, to improve the country's footing in the global economy as
something more than an exporter of avocados and manufacturer of athletic
shoes.

Everyone has the right to decide whether to give their $ to Oxfam or to
OLPC, and I will not criticize your decision either way. But to be so
broadly dismissive of the idea is not just wrong, in my opinion, it is
dead wrong. No one expects OLPC to solve all the world's problems of
development, and it may well prove to be a colossal failure -- but it
may have its role as an efficient and effective program to improve
education and expand ICT access to the world's poor. I think it is only
fair to reserve our judgment until we see what happens.

If anyone would like references to links or books on this broad, deep
subject, please don't hesitate to contact me off-list.

Going back to writing that paper on Uruguay,

Gavin
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