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WSIS: This Cranked Up Computer Could Close a Gap

Mithre J. Sandrasagra* - TerraViva/IPS

TUNIS, Nov 19 2005 (IPS) - This little green computer runs without electricity or batteries, and it costs 100 dollars. And it could do more than all thhe speeches made at the World Summit on the Information Society to help narrow that ‘digital divide’.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled a prototype of the laptop meant for poor children of the world at a high-profile media extravaganza. The green laptop holds the key to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative introduced by Annan and the developer of the laptop, Prof. Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Negroponte and the Media Lab at MIT see this as a tool that will change the world.

The laptop does need to be developed some more. Fiddling with the prototype, Annan may inadvertently have shown up some of the concerns that critics have with the machine. Annan easily broke the wind-up crank which powers the computer.

But further development is proceeding. The laptops are to be financed mainly through domestic resources and donors, at no cost to the recipients themselves. They would be distributed through education ministries using established textbook channels, Annan said.

TerraViva/IPS spoke with Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of the Harvard-based Global Voices about the OLPC programme and the prototype laptop unveiled here. Global Voices is a project of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, is a non-profit global citizens’ media project. It is a place where people can go to read Internet logs or ‘blogs’ posted by people all over the world – China, Bangladesh, Haiti, Senegal, Tunisia to name a few – on a variety of topics.

OLPC is currently in discussions with five countries – Brazil, China, Thailand, Egypt and South Africa – to distribute up to 15 million test systems to children. In addition, the state of Massachusetts is working with MIT on a plan to distribute the laptops to its schoolchildren.

Q: People in developing countries usually have a hard time finding money to feed their families, how will they afford to maintain this 100-dollar laptop? A: Negroponte’s answer is that ‘people tend to take care of what they own.’ He gives the example that ‘people don’t wash rental cars’. There is much more to it than that. Kofi was fiddling with it and broke the hand crank yesterday. Their hope is for the children themselves to start repair clinics as they become more familiar with the machines.

Q: Will the manufacturers of the machines accept the computers back for repairs? A: Sending the computers back is a good idea. For that though, local collection points would be required. Many more questions need to be asked. Negroponte is a ‘techie’. He has done a great job getting the dialogue started.

Q: What about disposal of the machines which will have a five-year shelf life at best? A: All computer batteries have heavy metals, etc. Joris Komen, of School Net, a non-profit provider of Internet service, hardware and training to Namibia’s schools is very concerned about this. ‘How do we make sure that they don’t end up in landfills and become toxic waste?’ is one of the questions that needs to be answered before these computers start going out. We need more questions and research on the sustainability of this computer.

Q: Given that currently the global production of laptops is under 50 million, can the 100 dollar laptops be built and shipped in the quantities that Negroponte is promising – 100 million to 150 million every year by 2007?

A: The computers have to be manufactured in those kinds of numbers if the price point of 100 dollars is to be achieved. It costs as much to make one microchip as to make one million microchips. The cost lies in setting up the manufacturing infrastructure. The more they build, the cheaper they can make the computer. This computer will change the global laptop market because of the scale of its production.

Q: Where will the computers be built? A: They have to be built by huge manufacturing companies. They will probably be built in China. Another question that remains unanswered is whether local manufacturers in the target countries for the laptop will be allowed licences to set up companies to build them.

Q: Many experts I have spoken to at the WSIS have complained that dumping of low-grade technology in the developing world effectively widens the ‘digital divide’ by keeping it a step behind. Should the West produce a 100-dollar laptops for its own consumption first that can then filter down to the developing world so that we will all be on the same page? A: This is not a low-quality laptop. I could use a wind-up book reader myself. It’s not dumping.

Q: In many regions of the world – for instance, sub-Saharan Africa – people are dying of preventable diseases and starvation. Most of them children. Might something like drinking water be a priority in these regions? Or vaccinations? A: Of course. This is a common concern. But, no one is talking about either/or: HIV drugs or the computer; water or the computer; clothes or the computer. This is a basic education project. Negroponte is hoping to get the price point down to that of a child’s basic complement of school textbooks. The laptop is a critical ‘and’ not a critical ‘or’.

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