Problems with the OLPC approach
10 Nov. 2005
Top down structure
The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project (http://laptop.media.mit.edu/) rests upon a fundamental assumption that the creation and widespread distribution of a single type of computer will solve the problem of the “digital divide” in the developing world. By creating a laptop computer priced at $100 each (when sold in quantities of millions), the thinking goes, schoolchildren throughout the developing world will all be equipped with powerful tools for learning and exploration.
The educational theories behind this approach were developed by Alan Kay and Seymour Papert starting in the 1970's, and gave us both the LOGO language (Papert) and the concept of the laptop computer (Kay's Dynabook). While their work led to important advances in the shape and use of computers, it has not been generally validated as bringing about new paradigms of child learning. Children do not go out to play bringing along their laptops, and have not been generally observed to create LOGO programs spontaneously.
By marketing the idea to governments and large corporations, the OLPC project adopts a top-down structure. So far as can be seen, no studies are being done among the target user populations to verify the concepts of the hardware, software and cultural constructs. Despite the fact that neither the children, their schools nor their parents will have anything to say in the creation of the design, large orders of multi-million units are planned.
This represents a particularly striking form of a command economy where a market economy is an absolute necessity. The history of command industrial economies, like that of the former Soviet Union, shows that informal mechanisms of distribution develop unbidden. Gray markets (for items legally obtained) and black markets (for illegally obtained merchandise) come into operation. For this reason, among others, we can expect the OLPC laptops to gravitate toward other segments of the population, where money and influence may be available but where budgets are still tight enough to place standard laptops out of reach.
The truth of the assertion that through distinctive design the OLPC laptops will be rendered safe from theft or misappropriation depends upon the moral calculus of the appropriators. So long as they are capable of browser access, the laptops will have value in commercial use. If they can be had, competitive forces will create pressure for businesses to avail themselves of the new tool, as has so far happened with pirated software.
It is also reasonable to predict a reaction against the concept in recipient families. In developing societies children are perceived to have a place in helping the family advance, not in racing ahead and leaving the family behind. Unless it is evident that the laptop will improve the prospects of the family then support within the family may not be forthcoming, and the laptop will more likely be converted to cash.
It would seem apparent that serious social research must be done to determine family, village and societal attitudes before proceeding with a program like OLPC.
Hardware issues – power generation
But what of the absence of reliable electrical power? OLPC statements refer to the hand-cranked generator included in each unit, having a ratio of 100:1 for operating time to crank time. For an optimistically low power drain of 1 watt this implies a 100 watt generator.
A hand crank of 6 inch (15.24 cm) length operating at 2 turns per second would require a tangential force of 11.8 pounds (5.3 kg), assuming 100% efficiency of generation and storage. This would tire a strong adult quite rapidly. It would seem apparent that the figure of 100:1 was arrived at by means other than calculation.
Hardware issues – mesh networking
Questions about connectivity of the OLPC laptop are answered by referring to the wireless mesh networking capability to be built into the device. Each one will link to others nearby, which in turn will link to others until finally one links to something connected to the Internet, whereupon all of the other laptops pass their data through the final link.
This is a nice idea where the “Internet cloud” is reasonably pervasive and only the final 100 meters remain to be bridged. It will not work so well where the distance to the cloud is in the region of tens of kilometers and where that link is not a broadband connection and not reliable due to power outages.
Also, mesh networking depends upon most of the links being operational whenever connectivity is needed. Are we to assume that all of the OLPC laptops will be left running, especially when the effort of battery charging is considerable? Much more likely is that the laptops will have connectivity only in districts of cities where power is reliable and where higher-bandwidth channels are available through wireless access.
Infrastructure and alternatives
It is not advisable to implement technological systems with inadequate infrastructural support. In the case of the OLPC laptop, the lack of power and Internet backhaul capability will present a serious impediment. This problem can be addressed by the large-scale implementation of community ICT systems, which bring immediate economic benefits in terms of extending telecommunications, agricultural information, telemedicine and e-government functions.
In the literature of the OLPC project such suggestions have been brushed aside with the comment that “one does not normally think of community pencils”. Of course, one does not normally think of pencils costing $100 each, and which soak up money needed for traditional pencils. Dr. Theogene Rudasingwa tells of how in Rwanda his schoolteacher had the pupils write on their legs using thorns. Pencils can be quite precious, and in poor schools are indeed treated as community resources.
Once stationary community systems become widespread, bringing the Internet (with attendant local wireless access) and reliable low-wattage electrical power capabilities, the ground will be ready for the kinds of laptops described by OLPC. But in that case a diverse marketplace involving a range of types and uses, forms and allocation of the laptops should be in operation.
The OLPC methodology is far too rigid to succeed at its stated goals. If it goes forward as currently described, the laptops will most likely wind up in other than students' hands, in areas where infrastructure is more likely to be adequate. The content of material available through the laptop is likely to involve advertising merchandise to audiences more likely to have discretionary money.
It is sufficiently discomfiting to consider that the outcome of a massive project like OLPC may be a different form of commercial television for the developing countries. Worse yet would be the preemption of funding for many other projects designed under a community model. Future talk of computer systems for the developing world would meet the dismissive response that “it's been tried and it failed”.
The time will certainly come when the appropriate tool to promote economic development will be a laptop produced very inexpensively in large volume. Before that point it will be necessary to implement systems that provide infrastructure which the laptop will need, in addition to producing tangible economic benefits for their users. OLPC is to be commended for raising issues and focusing attention, and for posing some technological challenges in a highly visible way.
However, the “can do” approach taken by OLPC points in the wrong direction. The solution is not proven to be appropriate, and the distribution model is open to challenge. Despite this, large sums of money are to be committed to the project in advance to fund manufacturing in deals where the customers are government ministries and not the end users.
It is important to begin discussions now that question assumptions and that are open to alternate approaches, lest the outcome be one that diminishes equitable development and that poisons the public trust in ICT as applied in pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty.
(This is the first of a series of posts on this topic.)