The coming of the tiny cheap computers
August 19, 2007 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Computers get cheap. While Microsoft has seen fit to require a whole new generation of computers to run its latest operating system, a number of manufacturers have started the creation of cheap notebook computers. The list includes the infamous Palm Foleo, mentioned here previously, and the OLPC, mentioned pretty much everywhere previously. But also coming soon is the Asus EEE, a $200-300 notebook running Linux. And Intel's alternative to the OLPC, the Classmate PC. Even as the low cost alternatives to standard computer start to come on sale, the prices for traditional laptops dip ever lower. Can the digital divide, at least hardware wise, be consigned to the dustbin of history?
posted by zabuni (86 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can the digital divide, at least hardware wise, be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Per-capita GDP in Malawi: $555.99

So there's still a hell of a lot of people out there who I doubt would be able to afford to buy their own cheap laptop. And I also imagine they probably have higher priorities than owning a laptop as well. This is where public / communal communication facilities are the most cost-effective and efficient way to empower people.
posted by Jimbob at 1:34 PM on August 19, 2007


That OLPC is just so obnoxious. Rather then trying to create something cheap that people in poor countries might actually want, they create something they think people in poor countries ought to have. And god forbid that some poor African be given root on their own machine!

Their weird fear of the device getting in the hands of adults is also obnoxious. They should use computers until they grow up, and then they turn evil and should get nothing!
posted by delmoi at 1:39 PM on August 19, 2007 [10 favorites]


Corporations in USA (like mine) pay salvage outfits to take older Pentium II and III computers off their hands for scrap so they can make room for newer PCs that can run MS Bloatware. Those older PCs are perfectly acceptable for open source networking, web browsing, word processing, and any number of productivity enhancements. Why not make a plan to use recycled PCs rather than some "revolutionary" new thing that takes forever to implement and leaves most people dissatisfied?
posted by Burhanistan at 1:44 PM on August 19, 2007 [6 favorites]


I agree with Burhanistan; the amount of waste hardware being generated in the first world would be a boon elsewhere. Hell, for a time I used an old, recycled PC running Linux and it did what I needed to do for quite a while. I scored it for free. You can't beat that price.
posted by Jimbob at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2007


No kidding. ISU has always had a 'surplus sale' where old computers could be had for as little as $10. Back when I was in high school they were 386s, now they're PIIIs. It goes on up to $40 and more, but this would be more then adequate. In fact, it would be better since kids would learn on 'standard' technology.
posted by delmoi at 1:50 PM on August 19, 2007


Jimbob:

True. It's a pitty that slim clients haven't taken off more for that, but they never were much cheaper than desktop counterparts. And web apps seem to be the new thing of the future, making thin clients out of browser equipped pcs.

Burhanistan: From what I have heard, salvage efforts would cost almost as much as a low cost pc. Components would have to be replaced; most P2s and P3s have hard drives that are about to go under. And parts replacement for other devices would be a nightmare, given the ages of the computer.
posted by zabuni at 1:52 PM on August 19, 2007


Oh, I remember. These people want to be branded as visionaries and third world saviors.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:54 PM on August 19, 2007


Burhanistan: From what I have heard, salvage efforts would cost almost as much as a low cost pc. Components would have to be replaced; most P2s and P3s have hard drives that are about to go under. And parts replacement for other devices would be a nightmare, given the ages of the computer.

If you wanted to do it on a serious basis, you could create a low-cost PCI card that would do video, ethernet, wifi and have few-gig solid state hard drive (You can get a 1gb SD card for $12 these days). Such a device most cost $12, and could be compatible with most motherboards.

That would go a long way towards making the PCs usable.
posted by delmoi at 1:57 PM on August 19, 2007


Err, sorry I was thinking the card might cost $20.
posted by delmoi at 1:58 PM on August 19, 2007


Cell phones are basically already tiny, cheap computers. They have voice and text communication and take photos and video. I think it would be much more useful to a poor farmer who needs to know the price of crops so he doesn't get ripped off by middlemen; someone who needs to speak with a doctor, who could take photos or video of the problem; and illiterate people who could get more out of voice and video than text heavy websites.
posted by stavrogin at 2:00 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


It's also a heck of a lot easier to support a homogeneous hardware platform (OLPC) than it is hundreds of wildly varying recycled PCs. That esoteric collection of assorted junk might be fine for some small community projects (or instruction on how computers are assembled and repaired) but it wouldn't be appropriate for projects of the scope OLPC is concerned with (as I understand it, governments will be ordering millions of the devices.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the Eee PC.
posted by unmake at 2:02 PM on August 19, 2007


stavrogin:

True, and Microsoft said as much back in the day. The only problem I could see with cell phones is that they traditionally aren't nearly as open as a computer, restricting what software can be installed. Might be totally different in countries besides the US though.
posted by zabuni at 2:06 PM on August 19, 2007


Dunno why the digital divide is so high on the list on things to achive? Most people need simpler things:

* Water
* Food
* Shelter
* Health Care
* Security
* Rule of Law

Then we can start with other stuff like ...

* Schools
* Literacy

etc.

I don't see small computers as the silver bullet of education. Way to complex and easy to damage. You need most of all Teachers and parents that allow their kids to go to school. Then you want books ...
posted by homodigitalis at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


Why not make a plan to use recycled PCs rather than some "revolutionary" new thing that takes forever to implement and leaves most people dissatisfied?

Go to a semi poor country (like uh Mexico or Bulgaria) and you will see people using your old maybe-not-so-crappy pc's of yesteryear. Billions of people live in countries that are poorer than those.

Do you people think that an electrical and telecoms grid comes for free? I'm just not sure that a lot of third world countries (you know the really poor ones, ever been to one of those?) are ready to invest billions into building an electric and telecoms grid that will actually make you kindly donated 800 MHz pc's run at all.

Projects like the OLPC is just an attempt to bring computing to places where they just don't have the type of infrastructure that you people seem to take for granted. The OLPC will probably suck but at least it will work. For half the population on this planet your fancy discarded dell is just a useless gray box.
posted by uandt at 2:17 PM on August 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Well, when it comes to the issue of "web apps" and thin clients, this is where we need to know what the people in the third-world are going to be using computers for?

Word-processing? Web-apps are certainly capable of that. To about the level of WordPad, which doesn't require internet access to work.

Or something useful to their communities, like GIS software? Good luck making a web app that copies ArcGIS.

Of course there's middle-ground. And I'm sure smarter people than studied this stuff. But I'm still wondering to exactly what educational purpose those OLPC computers are going to be put to...
posted by Jimbob at 2:18 PM on August 19, 2007


From what I have heard, salvage efforts would cost almost as much as a low cost pc. Components would have to be replaced; most P2s and P3s have hard drives that are about to go under. And parts replacement for other devices would be a nightmare, given the ages of the computer.

I recycle computers as a hobby and rebuild them for giveaways. Very rarely is there anything physically wrong with them. Usually it's corrupted/broken software. Windows, usually. Or a bad configuration.

I've never seen a bad hard drive. Every single free drive I've ever used responded favorably to linux Fdisk or QTParted for formatting and diagnostics. I don't think I've ever seen bad ram, either, but I know it exists somewhere.

What I have seen is bad or damaged motherboards, usually damaged by cheap, failing power supplies or simply from being so filthy and uncleaned somethng finally shorted out or overheated and died.

But I don't see those very often, and I've pulled P3 boxes out of slimy dumpsters that had been rained on all day.


My biggest problem with recycling computers is finding enough time to do. Often, you don't get to use nifty mass-deployment skills like Ghost or RPM on rebuilt computers, because they're a mish-mash.

My other problem is disposing of the cannablized corpses, 'cause you tend to harvest RAM and drives and such from lesser machines to make the rebuilt machines a bit more worthy of continued life.


This post is typed on a 99.9% recycled computer. Everything from the UPS and cables to the Thermaltake 450W PSU is recycled. The ram, the motherboard, the processor, the drives, the keyboard and mouse, the monitor - all recycled. The only thing that isn't recycled is the sound card, 'cause I have yet to see someone throw out a decent 5.1 full duplex multichannel sound card suitable for basic digital audio production.
posted by loquacious at 2:22 PM on August 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Because the cost of shipping an old PC isnt worth it. Especially if its had 3-4+ years of use on it. Modern hard drives dont last much longer than that. Now toss in processing costs of trying to figure out which one of these things still has good hardware. Heck, when we recycle computers at work, maybe 1/2 are in running condition. The rest have problems or pulled ram, etc.

Not to mention these are 50-80w space heaters and absolutely have no rugged features. Theyre made to be put in offices with climate control. One of the clever ideas behind the olpc project is to have it be low energy (it can even be run off a foot pump) and more rugged than you're average machine. On top of it, the scale of production economies and technological advances means that its twice as powerful as the beater compaq from work and uses 1/3rd or so the energy(in fact less energy to do the same work!). And has a screen. And has wireless.

The complaints about bloatware aren't convincing when you compare Windows to a full linux install using gnome or kde. The latter choices also blocks users from running the vast number of windows only apps too.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:28 PM on August 19, 2007


Dunno why the digital divide is so high on the list on things to achive? Most people need simpler things

Well, the idea is that computer nerds who want to help cant use their expertise in those other fields. They cant fix your economy or your farms. They can't give you good government, but they can come up with olpc (or similiar programs) and offer it at a price point that is appealing to government programs.

Also, there's a good argument out there that you dont have the things on the top of your list (jobs, infrastructure, etc) because youre missing on the things on the bottom of your list (books, education, information, etc). At least to a certain extent.

I dont think the olpc is designed for substitance farming sub-saharan africa as much as it is for up and coming economies like Libya or Brazil.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:40 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


For reference Brazil's gdp per capita is 12k and Libya's are 8k. Both countries are seriously looking into the olpc.

Somalia is 600 dollars. This is not a good candidate for olpc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:42 PM on August 19, 2007


I think putting affordable, hackable linux boxes into the hands of kids is a good thing.
posted by mecran01 at 3:08 PM on August 19, 2007 [4 favorites]


"Well, the idea is that computer nerds who want to help cant use their expertise in those other fields."

Yeah, cell phones are currently much better for undeveloped countries. Make a $10 mobile instead of a $100 computer ... and a cheap cell tower infrastructure as well.
posted by homodigitalis at 3:13 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


There are many less developed countries where computer use is prevalent amongst kids using internet cafes rather than owning a PC.
I think the hope with these programs is that getting kids connected will jumpstart a lot of the social reform needed to fix up some of their countries.
Imagine trying to be a corrupt dictator when half the population can email or web surf (or SMS).
As for the cell phone alternative, your last cell phone is likely already doing its second life in the third world, where most governments have given up on a landline phone network and are building cell networks.
And I agree with Loquacious, PC hardware is very durable. I have seen a bad hardrive (in a laptop) and had a bad power supply in dozens and dozens of machines that have come through my hands.
Damn Dirty Ape is talking about PC life-span in an environment where time is money, and PC gear is cheap. If the drive looks cactus, toss it. If someone has scrounged the RAM, toss it.
If you have a little more time you can test the hardware, and often ressurrect it, then build a franken-machine, which will often then last indefinitely. But this doesn't make financial sense in a corporate IT office.
posted by bystander at 3:57 PM on August 19, 2007


The Eee looks amazing... I'd actually camp out for that if it's really >$300.
posted by phrontist at 4:05 PM on August 19, 2007


It's amazing how anti-OLPC people are. Who knows if it will succeed, but surely it is worth a try. It may really make a difference in places like Brazil. The savings in text books alone could make it worthwhile. But it may fail. But you never really know until you try.

In addition, regardless of whether the OLPC succeeds it may bring in a new era of very cheap, solid state storage laptops. These things could even become the 'ebooks' that have been promised for the last 15 years.
posted by sien at 4:11 PM on August 19, 2007 [1 favorite]


The complaints about bloatware aren't convincing when you compare Windows to a full linux install using gnome or kde. The latter choices also blocks users from running the vast number of windows only apps too.

This is nonsense; if you're worried about the size of a "full install" - well, harddrive space is the cheapest thing these days - I challenge you to find a harddrive manufactured in the last 5 years that couldn't fit a full Ubuntu install.

The issue with bloatware is the capacity of the other hardware to run it. I can speak from experience here. The shitty old laptop I'm writing this post on is dual-boot. Windows XP, and Ubuntu. Windows XP takes 8 minutes to boot to a usuable, reasonable state, harddrive not spinning, on this thing. Ubuntu boots in 40 seconds to a usuable state. And applications boot much quicker in Ubuntu, and I'm left with much more RAM free. There's no contest. Windows is bloatware when it comes to old hardware.
posted by Jimbob at 4:14 PM on August 19, 2007


@bystander: I applaud your enthusiasm for old tech, but even teachers in hightech countries often lack the knowhow and resources to fix, use or expand computers.

@sien: I think people are not anti-OLPC, they simply know that a single piece of technology does not mean progress. Solutions have to made with a system approach. As much as I love the small and very smart machine I don't think it changes much.

Many places have to develop and cope with some very basic tech before digging into high tech like that.
posted by homodigitalis at 4:18 PM on August 19, 2007


Their weird fear of the device getting in the hands of adults is also obnoxious. They should use computers until they grow up, and then they turn evil and should get nothing!

Part of me wonders if there is a fear among the big comp corps that if they were to truly produce an ultra-low cost computer for developing countries, that the demand for it here in the industrialized world would swamp the rest of their profits.

Think about all the grandma's and grandpas out there who just use their computer for email/word processing and surfing their favorite news websites. A $150 bare-bones computer would be perfect for them, but it would also keep them from buying a $500 desktop from the same company.

/dons tinfoil hat
posted by Avenger at 4:30 PM on August 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


It's amazing how anti-OLPC people are. Who knows if it will succeed, but surely it is worth a try. It may really make a difference in places like Brazil. The savings in text books alone could make it worthwhile.

I'm amazed at the people that think one needs a computer in order to learn how to read and write. Even though they themselves learned to do it from a regular book, along with the rest of the Western Civilization. Somehow we were able to put a man on the Moon using the computing power of a modern cell phone, but those Brazilian kids can't learn to put letters together without a god damned Pentium III.
If they want to find a cheaper way to dispose of garbage, and/or another market to expand into, that's fine, I guess. What really annoys me is all the bullshit that goes with it. About 3 billion people live on less than 2 dollars a day. A toy that "1. Allows teachers to monitor classroom activity as well as supplement and extend their lectures with interactive material. 2. Allows students to collaborate, exchange information, and review e-learning material. 3. Enables learning through fun, collaboration, and interaction." in places without drinkable water, food, sewers, health care or electricity is great and all, but I fail to see how it would be indispensable in teaching someone to read.
posted by c13 at 6:18 PM on August 19, 2007 [3 favorites]


Imagine trying to be a corrupt dictator when half the population can email or web surf (or SMS).

Heh... Seems to be working just fine for Bush and Cheney.
On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way? I don't mean things like Second Life, Sims or Quake, I mean real countries populated with real people.
posted by c13 at 7:15 PM on August 19, 2007


On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way?

unfortunately some countries like iran and china like to control access to the internet so something like that doesn't happen, so it's hard to say

obviously, THEY believe it could
posted by pyramid termite at 7:41 PM on August 19, 2007


On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way?

Well cassette tapes are often cited as having helped the Iranian revolution come about, so thats an example of new media being used to change a government. And some people think the internet itself played a role in the Orange Revolution.
I think the biggest governance role for the internet is to prevent countries from sliding into dictatorship. As Pyramid Termite pointed out once dictatorship is in place the medium can be more or less controlled. But I think it would be harder for a dictatorship to arise in a more connected country.
posted by thrako at 7:57 PM on August 19, 2007


On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way?

The "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine.
posted by bobo123 at 7:58 PM on August 19, 2007


So basically one has to "Imagine what great freedom, democracy and happiness email, blogs and access to porn would bring if they were not controlled", but not "Imagine trying to be a corrupt dictator ...." . But imagining things is not quite the same as: "... jumpstarting a lot of the social reforms needed to fix up some of their countries."
As far as Orange revolution goes, if the internet played a role in it, Ukrainians really need to get new IT people or switch to a Mac or something. My wife is from there, believe me, I know.
posted by c13 at 8:06 PM on August 19, 2007


Can the digital divide, at least hardware wise, be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Right, because it's ASUS upper management, and not the labourers whose children are the supposed market for this, that will certainly be taking a pay cut to make a $200 laptop profitable.

Also, the resource wars that swirl around the mining operations in just the sorts of regions these toys are supposed to save will miraculously cease when everyone realizes what a neat idea it is.

Imagine trying to be a corrupt dictator when half the population can email or web surf (or SMS).

Ok.

[imagines]

It looks a lot like America.

This is an answer in search of a question.
posted by poweredbybeard at 8:23 PM on August 19, 2007 [2 favorites]



Part of me wonders if there is a fear among the big comp corps that if they were to truly produce an ultra-low cost computer for developing countries, that the demand for it here in the industrialized world would swamp the rest of their profits.


If there's one thing big corporations are afraid of, it's too much profit. Uh-huh.
posted by nasreddin at 8:23 PM on August 19, 2007


Ugh.

"Also, the resource wars that swirl around the mining operations in just the sorts of regions these toys are supposed to save and which feed the factories producing the laptops will miraculously cease when everyone realizes what a neat idea it is."


posted by poweredbybeard at 8:24 PM on August 19, 2007



Right, because it's ASUS upper management, and not the labourers whose children are the supposed market for this, that will certainly be taking a pay cut to make a $200 laptop profitable.


If they could cut wages to make this more profitable, wouldn't they have already cut wages to make their other products more profitable? I don't see how building more computers is going to make the people building the computers poorer.
posted by thrako at 8:39 PM on August 19, 2007


If there's one thing big corporations are afraid of, it's too much profit. Uh-huh.

Sorry, I must have phrased that wrong. A computer like that would kill their profits, or at least severely limit them, unless they were planning to sell about 5x the numbers that they already do.
posted by Avenger at 9:33 PM on August 19, 2007


thrako beat me to it. The workers' pay is already as low as it can be; it doesn't really change based on what products Asus wants to produce this week. They're already screwing them as hard as they possibly can.

That said, the EEE looks interesting, far more than a hypothetical open market version of the OLPC or that Palm gadget (which might be more enticing if I had a smartphone, I guess, but as it is just seems overpriced).

Still, what really kills my interest in take-anywhere computers is that they're so limited without connectivity. And take-anywhere connectivity from the cellphone companies is punishingly expensive. $400 on a computer as a one-time expense isn't bad, but $700-900 a year for cellular-based broadband is too much.

If the prices on cell broadband come down, or municipal wifi becomes more popular so that it's functionally equivalent to cellular broadband, I could see the market for subnotebooks exploding. But until then they're more novelties than anything.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:49 PM on August 19, 2007


I'm very interested in the small, cheap laptop platform, mainly as a way of getting some writing done while on the move without having to lug about a full laptop... basically as a Psion 5 replacement. The ability to do other things is in the "nice to have" category for me, though battery time is going to be pretty crucial.
posted by Artw at 9:59 PM on August 19, 2007


In addition, regardless of whether the OLPC succeeds it may bring in a new era of very cheap, solid state storage laptops. These things could even become the 'ebooks' that have been promised for the last 15 years.

Somehow, I suspect this is real impetus behind the OLPC: use charity-driven economies of scale to make laptops cheap for the first world. Yay for us! We're compassionate and we can finally spill coffee on the notebook without throwing a hissy-fit.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:06 PM on August 19, 2007


Of course, then you have this.

You can pretty much guarantee in the end that governments are going to neuter these systems as much as possible to "protect their citizens from themselves". The OLPCs could be a wonderful tool for education; they could be even a more wonderful tool for propaganda and providing kids with only "approved information" because, ultimately, they won't have control over the system and the content it provides.
posted by mstefan at 10:12 PM on August 19, 2007


Of course, then you have this.

Well, at least they've learned some anatomy.
posted by c13 at 10:18 PM on August 19, 2007


loq: An ex roomie of mine at the time did hardware maintenance for a large public university. Admittedly, that's a large universe of PCs to draw from, but he got bad RAM on a not irregular basis. It's true; the first thing to fail was generally the cheap OEM motherboard (damn you Gateway!), but I'm other things failed too. I'm not convinced that because the first thing to go bad was the motherboard that the others didn't do so later. The lifetime of the students was on the scale of the lifecycle of a computer, so the only ones kicking around after a long time were the leftovers made into clusters for the poorer departments, and those tended to be short-lived experiments in the face of Moore's Law. Also, harddisk failure is an industry, and I've had it, so I believe.

As others have pointed out, the labor to prepare those machines is very expensive on the scale we're talking about. Now, if you could get cheap indian/chinese labor to prep discarded machines, that would be something to think about.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:47 AM on August 20, 2007


People often talk about all the countries that need water and food before laptops. Personally I've never been to one.
All the countires I've been to (places like China, Turkey, Russia, Malaysia, Ukraine etc.) seemed to be crying out for something like the OLPC.
The school I worked at in Malaysia had a couple of full-on $1000 laptops, for use amongst 100 kids. I think they would have preferred to have 20 OLPCs.
posted by greytape at 7:12 AM on August 20, 2007


I think very few people in this thread have pointed it out, so it bears repeating: Desktop computers require an infrastructure to run from, much the same way that landlines require physical connections. Just as many countries are abandoning landlines and using cellular to provide coverage, the OLPC laptop is attempting to provide computer access without the need for the usual infrastructure we here on Metafilter take for granted.

Sure, computers do not automatically equal better education. On the other hand, we all know that, as with many things, the younger you start doing something, the better you tend to be. Our world relies more and more on technology for day-to-day functioning. What the hell is wrong with trying to ensure that kids in less developed countries get a chance to get comfortable using tech? It isn't the ultimate goal of civilization, but just think for a minute: How many of us work in the tech industry, or at least work in jobs requiring computer use? If computer access enables a kid to learn a marketable skill, he or she can earn a living. Most people from poorer backgrounds who actually do make it out tend to give back to their family, financially. There's a snowball effect. This is not THE way to help those fortunate than ourselves, but it is A way to try. Why shit on the effort? If you think you can do it better, by all means give it a shot.

Personally, I don't think it would be possible to build an effective grassroots campaign capable of collecting, fixing and distributing used / refurbished systems outside of already industrialized countries. Without corporate support, an effort could be made, but not in the places that would benefit the most. Overhead and training costs would swamp the program. Shipping and distribution costs would be very hard to overcome.

As for corporate involvement itself, well hell, companies don't do anything without an eye on profitability. Either a corporate action is intended to make money directly, or it is intended to make you feel good about the company due to it's altruistic actions, prompting you to be more inclined to purchase from them in the future, creating indirect profits from their action. Could a cheap, rugged, simple laptop help kids in developing countries? Probably, yes. Could it also be marketed to wealthier families as a low-cost laptop intended for kids? Of course. There has already been enough interest in this thread alone to suggest that many of us would be interested in owning such a device, for many different reasons. What does that say about the efforts to bring this idea to fruition?
posted by caution live frogs at 7:18 AM on August 20, 2007


Ok, so I'm a poor kid with a cheap laptop in a third world country. What's to keep the local strongmen from enlisting me as a spammer, goldfarmer, or source of other cheap tech labor? It ought to be the "One Laptop Per Sweatshop."
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:02 AM on August 20, 2007


anotherpanacea: In practice, the answer to your question is "nothing", though I expect that OLPC advocates and open-sourceniks would have an answer that gave more credence to the idea that some emergent property of humans-in-networks would prevent that.

And I'm a bit of a luddite with regard to technological solutions to emerging problems. Technology got us here, in no small aprt becvause we always seem to assume that technology will move us on from here before the nature of the 'here' we've brought oursevles into becomes a non-survivable problem. Shorter version: As quickly as we create problems with tech, we can solve them.

Nevertheless, I still think it's probably a good thing, and in no small part because I think the intuition of the technophiliac geeks who dream up stuff like OLPC and the Simputer (I don't care if it's been a miserable failure, I still want one) are right that we ultimately have to solve technological problems through technology. Where I part ways with them is in the idea that the solution has to be primarily technological. It has to be primarily human.

Where's the OLPC and it's ilk on that spectrum? I'm not sure. I think OLPC et al are great examples of people tricking fellow-travellers into letting them do something cool. With something as large and expansive as OLPC, there are usually a bunch of factions involved who all think that they're putting one over on most of the other factions: Some of them are geeks who want to build something cool; some of them are epople who generally want to help kids in the third world; some of them (a lot of them, I think) are people who just want to burnish their image. But if it helps people to spread information more effectively -- e.g., if it helps people in Rwanda learn to farm more effectively, or helps farmers in India negotiate better prices for their crops, or helps somebody figure out a new and novel way to do something -- then it's probably a good thing on the net, whatever the motivations of the people involved.

BTW, I understand delmoi's objections regarding the incessant talk about keeping the things away from kids, but there are two angles to that (and see previous para): For one thing, there's just the practical fact that if you give it to adults, you're undercutting the cost of "business" computers, and doing economic harm to the computer market -- you're creating a market where it's just not cost-effective to make a computer that would actually help those kids once they've grown up; for another thing more you say you want to keep it away from adults, the more certain adults will want it, which will burnish it's mistique. It's just pragmatics; it's annoying, sure, but it's probably something that needs to be considered.
posted by lodurr at 10:37 AM on August 20, 2007


... all that having been said, of course, I want one of those little Asus boxes. It bears a strong resemblance to the Sony PIctureBook I paid nearly $2K for back in '01, and that my wife still uses when she wants something to work with in a coffee shop. It's an ideal size and speed, if you don't have to run Windows. I'd gladly carry it in preference to my 12" PowerBook, since a) it's at most half the size and weight, and b) represents a much smaller capital loss if it gets lost or stolen.
posted by lodurr at 10:39 AM on August 20, 2007


loquacious: I've never seen a bad hard drive. Every single free drive I've ever used responded favorably to linux Fdisk or QTParted for formatting and diagnostics.

I'm not sure of QTParted's diagnostic ability, but you might want to verify the readability of the entire hard drive. In the cases I've seen recently, they fail silently, not letting you know that they've become (in part) write-only drives.
posted by Pronoiac at 12:52 PM on August 20, 2007


I'm very interested in the small, cheap laptop platform, mainly as a way of getting some writing done while on the move without having to lug about a full laptop...

Then check out the Alphasmart Neo. 700 hours on a single battery charge!
posted by storybored at 2:29 PM on August 20, 2007


Features-wise that's kind of interesting, but I'm going to have to add "not looking like a handbag" to my list of requirements.

Did no one learn anything from the apple eMate?
posted by Artw at 2:33 PM on August 20, 2007


Why the OLPC doesn't have a particularly bright future I think is because the end-user is out of the loop.

With cellphones, the farmer who buys/rents the phone sees a direct return on his money. The chain that goes from cellphone service provider to end-user is pretty direct.

That's not the case with the OLPC, the end-user is hanging off some money-starved, possibly corrupt school system lodged in a gov't bureaucracy.
posted by storybored at 2:36 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Features-wise that's kind of interesting, but I'm going to have to add "not looking like a handbag" to my list of requirements.

lol! I have to agree with you. I had to choose recently between this and a true laptop. This thing sells for $200 which is too bad, because it would have been a nobrainer at <$100. As it turned out, I shelled out $499 for a Dell.
posted by storybored at 2:39 PM on August 20, 2007


c13: On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way?

Just another response to this: Didn't photocopiers & fax machines have a role in coordinating & disseminating samizdat once upon a time?
posted by Pronoiac at 2:42 PM on August 20, 2007


Photocopiers and fax machines - yes. Also regular pens. But at that time things were controlled so well that nothing but simple paper had a chance of working. Hell, you couldn't even listen to shortwave! When all email can be read and traced, in a country where you couldn't even move to a different apartment without registering with the local police, do you seriously suggest that you would rather get your prohibited literature in your inbox?
posted by c13 at 3:36 PM on August 20, 2007


No one knows for sure what the pricing for the EEE will be or even when it will be available but right now it looks like $229 for the cheapest model sold in the US (The $199 will be available overseas). The release date has been pushed back repeatedly but reports say sometime in September, which probably means early October.

In the meantime, the Zonbu or the decTop sound like great deals minus the portability.

Also, the Palm Foleo is hardly cheap, at $500. At that price it's competing with the Nanobook which looks promising right now.


On a more serious note, can anyone provide a single example of a case where availability of email or internet played a major role in getting rid of dictatorship or changing a course of a country in any way?

Texting brought down the Philipine government in 2001.


Ok, so I'm a poor kid with a cheap laptop in a third world country. What's to keep the local strongmen from enlisting me as a spammer, goldfarmer, or source of other cheap tech labor? It ought to be the "One Laptop Per Sweatshop."

The people behind the OLPC have actually spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of issues. They have put as much work into the support infrastructure as they have the hardware and software.
posted by euphorb at 5:29 PM on August 20, 2007


I'm surprised at the degree of bitterness the OLPC brings up. I'm also surprised at how un-nuanced many folks' definition of poverty seems to be. As damn dirty ape pointed out, Brazil (where I'm living) is a long, long way from Somalia.

EVERYONE here is either on, or wants to be on, the internet. Everyone is on Orkut. Net access is not hard to come by (even where I am, in the interior of São Paulo). There are plenty of homes with broadband. Admittedly, the south of Brazil is leaps and bounds ahead of Piauí. (But San Francisco is also a long way ahead of Kentucky.)

Here's what kids do here: they go to a cyber cafe and they pay by the hour to use a shitty Windows box mostly designed to play LAN games. They can only use the programs that the cafe installs. Young kids don't even get to do that.

An OLPC for the 6-year-olds that I know would be positively awesome. The price is doable, the functionality is worth it, and the benefits are clear. If nothing else, the kid would learn "hey, wow, I can do stuff with a computer."

So when I hear irate comments along the lines of "don't you people understand? WATER FIRST!", I think to myself, gee, so does the fact that millions of Brazilian (etc) kids have access to okay water make them unworthy of a project like the OLPC? "Sorry kids, you're just not bad off enough."
posted by snifty at 7:25 PM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wanting to be on the internet and play cooler games than those offered in cyber cafes is one thing. Teaching kids to read and write is quite another. There is nothing wrong with designing a cheap PC that poorer people can afford and use in places with undeveloped infrastructure. It's also a pretty good business model - sell stuff cheaper, but to a whole lot more people. What bothers me personally is the whole ego-candy about bringing education to the masses. That is pure bullshit. Like I said, every one of us here learned the basics from regular books. Most seem to be doing just fine.
Want another example?
In a 2003 study conducted by UNICEF that took the averages from five different international education studies, the researchers ranked the United States No. 18 out of 24 nations in terms of the relative effectiveness of its educational system. Oh, and apparently things are getting worse. Now then, the only places american kids don't have a computer or some other electronic gadget is their ass. If we're to believe all the hype about how great computers are for learning, they all should be geniuses. Where is the beef?

If nothing else, the kid would learn "hey, wow, I can do stuff with a computer."
Yeah, stuff like Doom, free porn, Facebook Youtube and LOLCATS. And that's all great, but it's not education.
posted by c13 at 7:49 PM on August 20, 2007


Burhanistan, Jr. won't get on the computer until he can take one apart then reassemble it and explain what everything does.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:51 PM on August 20, 2007


Make him learn assembly, too, Burhanistan.

Kids these days have got it too easy.
posted by stavrogin at 12:37 AM on August 21, 2007


The people behind the OLPC have actually spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of issues.

Well, I read your link, and I think for a living, and there's not much thinking going on there. In answer to this question: "How do you expect people to secury these laptops, especially children, when they usually don't have locks, doors, and in some cases houses?" Your little wiki wrote:

Since these people have lived in Brazil all of their lives and are intimately familiar with Brazilian culture and Brazilian problems, one can expect that they have some sort of plan to deal with this issue.

That's absurd and completely thoughtless. It's 'somebody else's problem'!?! No, the Brazilian government has not spent any time working out strategies to keep valuable pieces of equipment out of the hands of those who can afford to pay for them. Even communists never figured that out. Look, this is the market, and these are some hot commodities. They'll eventually find their way to their most valuable use, and that's not going to be childhood education. Or let's look at this one:

...make this machine so distinctive that it is socially a stigma to be carrying one if you are not a child or a teacher. Now you can obviously take it down to your basement, but I hope your spouse will even say: “Oh God! Honey! What did you do?”


This entire strategy depends on a set of first-world social mores that are utterly alien to the populations these devices are intended for. When this guy with a bunch of OLPCs in his basement gets backtalk from his wife, he'll explain his cunning plan to make them rich through spam.

The real evidence of thoughtlessness is the contradictory nature of the responses. On the one hand we're told that the laptops will go to small, remote villages where it will be easy to flood the market and reduce demand to zero to prevent theft or arbitrage, and then we're told that the recipients will be middle-class denizens of the vibrant cities in the developing nations, where water and other basics have been accounted for.

Look, I'm all for cheap laptops! Seriously, I think the mechanical ingenuity necessary to reduce the price point is phenomenal and certainly praise-worthy. But thoughtless humanitarianism does more harm than good. It places stresses on economies and political cultures that will collapse under the weight of first-world "charity". The hardest part of compassion is avoiding arrogance. So long as we've got a skill or a commodity that someone else needs desperately, we think we're smarter, more virtuous, better looking, and better in the sack. That's just how humans are built. The key is to practice humble charity, to submit to the actual needs of the actually needy. That generally means giving them the cash and letting them spend it the way they see fit, or better, giving them work and a living wage.

If the OLPC project sells these laptops to all comers, then we might be safe: they'll get into the hands of those who need them, and many of them will be used by children. However, it won't be the children that you most want to help. It'll be the children of parents who can afford such fripperies, and that's okay. Because the price is lower, that'll mean more kids.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:11 AM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


If the OLPC project sells these laptops to all comers, then we might be safe: they'll get into the hands of those who need them, and many of them will be used by children.

I understand that it’s fashionable to hate on earnest people trying to accomplish something bold but at least make an effort to learn about what it is you’re criticizing before you spout off. The XO will be available,to buy and at a price that subsidizes distribution to children in the developing world.

The key is to practice humble charity, to submit to the actual needs of the actually needy. That generally means giving them the cash and letting them spend it the way they see fit, or better, giving them work and a living wage.

The point of the project is to give them one of the tools they need to understand their world. Then they can find ways to lift themselves out of their condition. People aren’t poor in the developing world because they don’t have a wallet full of bills. Poverty is deeper than a handful of cash.

Look, I'm all for cheap laptops!

The project is not about cheap laptops. Read their vision statement.

Ultimately we’ll see what happens when these systems are deployed and used. Will it empower students by giving them the tools to communicate and understand the world around them or will it be used primarily as an expensive entertainment device or spam relay.

But at the moment they’ve already created a cutting edge computer (display, mesh networking, Bitfrost etc.) and an open development community surrounding it. The next challenge is to live up to their goals by putting the machine in the hands of kids and doing some good.

posted by euphorb at 11:59 AM on August 21, 2007


c13: Photocopiers and fax machines - yes. Also regular pens. But at that time things were controlled so well that nothing but simple paper had a chance of working.
When you think about the subversive use of unassuming technology, you think of pens? What decade are you talking about?

When all email can be read and traced, in a country where you couldn't even move to a different apartment without registering with the local police, do you seriously suggest that you would rather get your prohibited literature in your inbox?
I'd think about encryption & email in another country.

(cont.): Yeah, stuff like Doom, free porn, Facebook Youtube and LOLCATS. And that's all great, but it's not education.
Yes, of course everyone newly introduced to the web will immediately surf the same websites you do, & only those websites, except for, apparently, Metafilter.

There's enough room on the internets for different people with different interests.
posted by Pronoiac at 2:15 PM on August 21, 2007


The XO will be available,to buy and at a price that subsidizes distribution to children in the developing world.

First, your links are borked.

Second, you say this isn't about cheap laptops, but that's all this project has promised to produce: cheap laptops. The notion that they'll make their way into the hands of children is something left to the governments who'll purchase them.

And if you're going to market them too? Then you'll be in competition with yourself, and entrepreneurs will buy the laptops from poor families or corrupt distributors and resell them at the market price. It's not your intentions I'm denigrating, it's your piss-poor execution.

People aren’t poor in the developing world because they don’t have a wallet full of bills. Poverty is deeper than a handful of cash.

Do you have a pamphlet on fishing I could subscribe to? Oh wait, you don't want to teach me to fish, you just want to sell me an electronic fishing gadget? Gosh, maybe I can sell it for some fish.

Will it empower students by giving them the tools to communicate and understand the world around them or will it be used primarily as an expensive entertainment device or spam relay.


Market-speak is anathema to thought: "empower" yourself, try to "understand the world" around you. If you could think clearly, you'd be able to see that this is an easy disjunct: these devices will be used to make money. This is not a bad thing, but it's not going to look anything like you think it will. At the end of the day, the first world will have cheaper equipment and a clear conscience, and the third world will have a massive headache and maybe some interesting opportunities.

If it weren't for all the fetishism around childhood innocence, you'd be able to see that spamming and goldfarming are some of the best ways for an impoverished country to capture a piece of the global market. Cheap labor is all they have to offer, so they'll trade it for medicines, intellectual property, and, yes, good old cash.

it’s fashionable to hate on earnest people trying to accomplish something bold

It's never been fashionable, no. Look: development work often seems impossible. The magnitude of the problem can suck the hope right out of you, so I applaud your ambition. However, don't pretend that good intentions are any substitute for comprehension. In this case, the 'visionary mission' is demonstrably a fantasy. The gritty reality, however, isn't nearly as bad as the results of some other humanitarian fuck ups.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:02 PM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


Second, you say this isn't about cheap laptops, but that's all this project has promised to produce: cheap laptops.

No. They're working on the operating system, support infrastructure, training, text books, games, educational software, and so on. You really don't seem to have a grasp of the project itself. I suggest reading up on it more.

It's not your intentions I'm denigrating, it's your piss-poor execution.

My execution? My ambition? What are you talking about? I have no connection with the OLPC.

Cheap labor is all they have to offer, so they'll trade it for medicines, intellectual property, and, yes, good old cash.

Wow. I'm embarassed that a mefite wrote that. You really seem to have a poor opinion of people unfortunate enough not to be born as well off as yourself.
posted by euphorb at 3:49 PM on August 21, 2007


And if you're going to market them too? Then you'll be in competition with yourself, and entrepreneurs will buy the laptops from poor families or corrupt distributors and resell them at the market price. It's not your intentions I'm denigrating, it's your piss-poor execution.

anotherpanacea: As has been noted before in this thread, the participating countries are not the poorest of the poor. So it might be reasonable to think that most of the participating families won't sell the computer for food/other consumption. Given that the laptop won't be sold for consumption, would they sell it to invest the money? That depends on what the expected present value of the education is. I could see the value of the education being quite high, at least it generally is in the first world. So as long as the education of the child is more valuable to the family than the market price of the laptop the family would keep the computer.

I don't know what the return on education looks like in the LDCs, but I would think it would be rather high. You seem to be quite certain that the laptop will be most profitable as a business asset. Has anyone researched this?
posted by thrako at 6:37 PM on August 21, 2007


As has been noted before in this thread, the participating countries are not the poorest of the poor.

The tests are being done in remote villages, and the launch is aimed at central Africa and South Asia. If every child gets a laptop, there will be a lot of of poor kids with laptops.

You seem to be quite certain that the laptop will be most profitable as a business asset.

The relevant use patterns are going to be related to the internet cafes in whatever country we're talking about. Since these are rentals where the customers are paying per minute or per hour, we can expect the usage patterns to follow the same model: though the laptops won't be rented, insofar as they're free to the children, they'll be resold in a distribution patten that follows the same demand curve. The highest demand comes from western tourists, who can afford to pay high prices for access to their e-mail or travel information, followed by native businessmen with similar purposes, followed by teenagers of the rich using the machines for pleasure, alongside schemers, spammers, and goldfarmers of various sorts. Education is at the bottom of that list, in part because educational uses require close to exclusivity and don't fit the pay-per-minute model well. Still, even in the best scenario, there's going to be a lot more social networking and porn than there will be wikipedia.

Given that the laptop won't be sold for consumption, would they sell it to invest the money? That depends on what the expected present value of the education is.

You've got the right question, in my opinion. There are two variables: what is the value of a laptop for business and what is the value of an education? Realistically, laptops will go to their most valuable use, whichever that may be. On the one hand, the middle class in these places is mostly desperately entrepreneurial. If there's a way for them to grow their business using a laptop, they'll do it. On the other hand, the middle class in most of the developing world is a pretty small segment of the population. So once their demand for laptops is satiated, there will be a lot of children left with laptops, right?

Then the question becomes: what's the value of a computer-assisted education in the third world? How valuable is it in Uruguay or Togo? I mean, in India right now, it's clearly extremely valuable, but what about elsewhere, where the native language is not English and there is no easy access to the western labor market with its pricing differential for skilled labor?

I'm a teacher, I think education is intrinsically valuable, but here the question is market value, and on the global market the computer-assisted education available to everyone won't be valued, precisely because ubiquity satiates demand until the price drops to zero. So we're comparing vanishingly small educational value to the business value, and we know that vanishingly small values always lose out to even small but secure profits in other sectors.

Since most of the work that needs to be done in Brazil is still manual, there's not a lot of demand for educated workers. In a community of farmers or miners, only one person needs to look up techniques for better digging or irrigating: the rest can follow the researcher's lead. So we only need one researcher and a lot of laborers, one educated entrepreneur and a lot of ignorant proles. IF you're stuck digging ditches with or without an education, the effort of learning will usually be enough to devalue that potential use. Curious and bright children will still get something out of the machines, though they're unlikely to be able to hold on to them if an enterprising adult thinks he can put them to use.

The problem is that these are connected laptops. That means that an entrepreneur can hook into the internet, and thus, into first world business. In a country whose average per-capita income is lower than the US minimum wage, the value of an education is lower than the value of computerized manual labor: things like Amazon's Mechanical Turk, that pay a few cents per task, are already evidence of the possibility of harnessing pricing differentials between the first and third worlds. So maybe the laptops stay in children's hands... but the children are being exploited for unskilled work.

If we could just get over the idea that children are the only ones who deserve cheap laptops, I think this idea would have legs. Go back to the old chestnut about pencils: it's true that children don't have to share pencils, and that it'd be nice if the same thing were true of laptops. But in a world where adults are going without pencils, I think we shouldn't deprive them just because they've grown too old for Peter Pan. The western tendency to fetishize childhood innocence is getting in the way of the charitable impulse. Ageism isn't going to work in this case, but again, that's okay, cheap laptops in the hands of enterprising adults isn't exactly a war crime, is it? It's only a problem if we try to stigmatize it and in so doing create an underground economy, complete with corruption and exploitation. How many OLPCs have to be used for child pornography before it starts looking like a bad idea?
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:01 PM on August 21, 2007


The highest demand comes from western tourists, who can afford to pay high prices for access to their e-mail or travel information, followed by native businessmen with similar purposes, followed by teenagers of the rich using the machines for pleasure, alongside schemers, spammers, and goldfarmers of various sorts. Education is at the bottom of that list, in part because educational uses require close to exclusivity and don't fit the pay-per-minute model well. Still, even in the best scenario, there's going to be a lot more social networking and porn than there will be wikipedia.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. As I think I said up thread (or meant to, might not have actually posted that), the more useful answer to your original devils-advocate question might be "So what?" rather than "we've thought of that and it won't happen."

That said, I think your model may be a little deterministic, for lack of a better term. Experience with new, cheap tech in the third world suggests that uses will be highly mixed, and that models based purely on the economic value of each activity will stumble on ecological facts -- i.e., the social, economic, political and natural ecology of the specific situation. For example, a Brazilian favela exists within a different set of ecological facts than an Indian farming village, which exists within a different set of facts than a Somali slum, and so on. We'll definitely see some situations where real computers are cheaper than OLPCs -- spam-factories, for example, are cheaper if you don't actually have to even touch the PCs (zombies!).

I think your scenario of use by 'western tourists' is interesting, but in many cases I think that's likely to play out entrepreneurially: Kids leasing time on their OLPC to tourists. That's great -- the thing becomes a source of income. Flip-side: Kids leasing time on their OLPCs to gangsters, who want to use it the way they'd use a disposable mobile phone. That's .... well, nto so good, but I don't actualy think it's inherently bad.

If we could just get over the idea that children are the only ones who deserve cheap laptops, I think this idea would have legs. Go back to the old chestnut about pencils: it's true that children don't have to share pencils, and that it'd be nice if the same thing were true of laptops. But in a world where adults are going without pencils, I think we shouldn't deprive them just because they've grown too old for Peter Pan. The western tendency to fetishize childhood innocence is getting in the way of the charitable impulse.

Amen on the fetishization. As I said earlier, projects like OLPC get funding and sustained effort based on how they serve the interests of the participants. Geeks at MIT get a challenge, designers get fantastic portfolio pieces, Nick Negroponte gets a high-profile career turn. Some people involved in the project have doctrinaire, childhood-fetishizing ideals, others are more pragmatic. (Again as I've said, I basically think the whole "make it so childlike adults won't want to use it" schtick is naive at best and in some cases quite disingenuous. Every adult I know who's seen a picture of the prototypes wants one on sight. The things were designed by adults, for adults, and anyone who really doesn't see that needs to do some rethinking. But I digress.)

The point that I keep coming back to is that OLPC may end up not being the most important platform in the many-computers revolution, if it indeed ever happens. They're the most visible player, obvously; they have first-mover mindshare advantage, and all the usual first-mover disadvantages as well: New platform has higher costs, high visibility draws a lot of criticism, the struggle to open the new market that all the followers will then exploit, etc. When the history of the thing is written, they may end up being a noble failure, having accomplished none of their stated goals. But I do think there will be change, and that the net change is more likely to be positive than negative.

The bottom line, for me, is that we need more educated and technically-educated people in the world, and widespread availability of personal computing devices is one obvious pre-requisite for the latter. Whether it's OLPC or Asus may not matter very much.
posted by lodurr at 6:35 AM on August 22, 2007


How valuable is it in Uruguay or Togo? I mean, in India right now, it's clearly extremely valuable, but what about elsewhere, where the native language is not English and there is no easy access to the western labor market with its pricing differential for skilled labor?

I agree that the effectiveness of computerized education is open to debate, but the OLPC people say they've done a bunch of research on it so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until I actually read it.

... and on the global market the computer-assisted education available to everyone won't be valued, precisely because ubiquity satiates demand until the price drops to zero. So we're comparing vanishingly small educational value to the business value, and we know that vanishingly small values always lose out to even small but secure profits in other sectors.

In the western world literacy is more or less ubiquitous, but the monetary return on literacy is certainly not "vanishingly small".

Since most of the work that needs to be done in Brazil is still manual, there's not a lot of demand for educated workers. In a community of farmers or miners, only one person needs to look up techniques for better digging or irrigating: the rest can follow the researcher's lead. So we only need one researcher and a lot of laborers, one educated entrepreneur and a lot of ignorant proles.

This would be true if education were a classic market good. Then the current distribution of skills would reflect the efficient allocation given the nation's underlying characteristics. But if the nation has failed to produce the optimal number of skilled workers then the current distribution of skills would not be the efficient allocation. That is, there are few skilled workers in Brazil because of a supply failure, not because of inherently low demand.
The "brain drain" in LCDs speaks against the supply-side hypothesis, but on the other hand many multinationals operating in LDCs import their own professionals. And brain drain would not necessarily be a bad thing, if the expats remit part of their income to the home country.

The problem is that these are connected laptops. That means that an entrepreneur can hook into the internet, and thus, into first world business. In a country whose average per-capita income is lower than the US minimum wage, the value of an education is lower than the value of computerized manual labor:

I don't think so, the difference between the US and LDC unskilled wages means that the value of computerized manual labor is (absolutely) positive in the LDC, but it says nothing about the absolute value of education, and thus nothing about the relative return on education compared to computerized manual labor.
posted by thrako at 6:45 AM on August 22, 2007


I believe we can do a lot to fix the (as yet hypothetical) supply failures, but I'm less sanguine about the comparative usefulness of laptops for accomplishing that goal. I highly doubt that the OLPC has done the sorts of studies necessary to prove that. Please understand: I don't want to be right, especially not about the market value of education. I just haven't seen any reason to believe I'm wrong.

the monetary return on literacy is certainly not "vanishingly small".

In the US, this is true, but is it true in Pakistan? I suspect that the value of literacy in some places might actually be negative, since it generally comes in the form of religious education that takes a person out of the labor market. It's pretty difficult to find clean identifications for global factors like this.

But as I've said a number of times, the OLPC project isn't a obviously horrendous idea, it's just an over-hyped one. The effect of hype is to take resources away from other, perhaps more viable strategies that lack the sex-appeal. Perhaps of greater value are legal institutions of ownership, and the privatization of communal plots for the purposes of collateral. (This from a former communist.) Self-sustaining micro-lending, the rule of law, and anti-corruption policing are also of greater potential value than literacy, especially if you separate literacy and numeracy. We don't have to do just one thing, right?

That said, I think your model may be a little deterministic, for lack of a better term.

Yeah, I didn't mean to give that impression, but simply to point out the way it works when computers aren't freely available, which is probably the efficient outcome economically. Flooding the supply in order to reverse efficient outcomes generally leads to unpredictability in the short term, but efficiency trumps in the end among even among irrational actors: markets have ways of forcing rationality, but they're generally very painful.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:29 AM on August 22, 2007


In the US, this is true, but is it true in Pakistan? I suspect that the value of literacy in some places might actually be negative, since it generally comes in the form of religious education that takes a person out of the labor market. It's pretty difficult to find clean identifications for global factors like this.

You had said that computerized education would not be valued: "precisely because ubiquity satiates demand until the price drops to zero". My intended point with literacy was that a common good need not have a low reserve price. The ability to see or walk are other things that are essentially ubiquitous but potentially carry a wage high premium.
posted by thrako at 5:01 AM on August 23, 2007


My intended point with literacy was that a common good need not have a low reserve price. The ability to see or walk are other things that are essentially ubiquitous but potentially carry a wage high premium.

My point was that increased literacy in a developing country is not necessarily going to increase wages, especially if the same literacy gains are made in all other countries. The point about Pakistan was simply that, in the absence of a market for literate labor, literacy may serve to remove a worker from the labor market entirely. You're certainly right that in a population 99% literate in Tamil or Urdu there might be a certain loss of earning capacity for the few who remain illiterate. However, this does not imply that the price of literate labor will increase. Education may be more like processor power in microchip markets: as the supply increases, prices drop. (Consider, for instance, the value of a high school diploma in the US.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:30 AM on August 23, 2007


Okay, I had thought your original statement was expressing certainty as to the direction of prices as supply increased. I now see that wasn't your intention.
posted by thrako at 6:49 AM on August 23, 2007


spamming and goldfarming are some of the best ways for an impoverished country to capture a piece of the global market. Cheap labor is all they have to offer, so they'll trade it for medicines, intellectual property, and, yes, good old cash.

Wow. You can see the downside to everything, eh?

Well, first off, these things cannot run WoW or any game where you can goldfarm. They are way underpowered. Dont have the storage. Dont run a compatible OS.

Sell them for "medicines?" In Brazil (where the olpc is seriously considered) where they have universal healthcare? I dont think so.

You dont need a laptop to send spam. You need a fast internet connection. COmpared to that the client side computer is peanuts. Considering these things are going to create a mesh network, well, they wont be able to reach your inbox.

They are deisgned to be underpowered and garish, like a children's bicycle. If stolen or sold it will be pretty obvious that this computer has been stolen from the school district that bought them. Think bowling shoes.

An angry dictator wouldnt even bother with this elaborate James Bond-like plan to defraud the west for computers to use them to attack the west. He would point at gun at his people and tell them to start mining, be prostitutes, do manual labor, etc. Not to mention its been stated many times before that the olpc people aren't going to make any headway into countries as poor as somalia or malawi. Its more of the ukraine, libya, and brazils of the world.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:08 AM on August 23, 2007


OK, I'm getting tired of this "designed for children so everyone knows it's stolen" thing. That's just dumb, frankly. Nobody will care if it's stolen, and lots of adults will like the way it looks. And yes, I am considering the fact that Brazil has a higher median income than Tanzania. Think about where the things are going to be distributed, within Brazil. Large parts of Rio and Sao Paolo are zones free from the constraints of government-sponsored law.

And Underpowered? Maybe. But it has the key thing a smart street hood is going to want: mesh networking ability. It's a net terminal. Street hoods don't need "power", they need connectivity.

So, to me, this whole "it's a kids computer no one will steal it" thing really smacks of two flavors of denial: First, of the fact that if it's useful at all for its main mission, it's useful to people who might have contrary interests (technology's kind of funny that way, enit?); second, of the fact that the program will get undermined and abused.

As I see it, you can basically choose to deal with those concerns three ways: You can deny their importance, in which case they will bite you on the ass and it will hurt, and you may find yourself SOL with regard to accomplishing any of your goals; you can just throw up your hands and not do anything, which again means your goals go un-addressed; or you can take a pragmatic approach, and understand and (ideall) acknowledge that this will be a problem, here are the impacts we anticipate, etc.

The third approach, again AFAICS, is the only one that's liable to net success. I trust those Negroponte boys about as far as I can spit the pair of them through a straw, but they're clever customers and they've probably figured the angles, so I'm betting they're working a sort of "keep the public/donors in the dark" version of option 3. We'll see.
posted by lodurr at 8:09 AM on August 23, 2007


Wow. You can see the downside to everything, eh?

Just trying to avoid eponystericism.

In Brazil (where the olpc is seriously considered) where they have universal healthcare?


Well, from their distribution map, the major roll-outs look to be centered around central Africa and South Asia.

Also, what lodurr said.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:16 AM on August 23, 2007


>And Underpowered? Maybe.

What? There's no "Maybe." Of course its underpowered. Its not going to run wow. it can barely run doom (the ones from the 90s with no 3d accereration).

>But it has the key thing a smart street hood is going to want: mesh networking ability.

What? What gateway is this mesh network going to use to spam me? Its obvious that you do not understand networking, spam, and computing in general. Please go back to your regularly scheduled uninformed bitchfest.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:41 AM on August 23, 2007


We can argue worst case scenarios and hypotheticals all day long, but there's no need to be excessivly negative about all of this, especially if you dont understand the technology. Hell, the rollouts have already happened.

Surprise surprise no mention of white slavery, spamming operations, and magically running WoW on there. Should have happened by now eh? Wake me when it does. This is going to be a long nap.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:48 AM on August 23, 2007


What? What gateway is this mesh network going to use to spam me? Its obvious that you do not understand networking, spam, and computing in general. Please go back to your regularly scheduled uninformed bitchfest.

Perhaps you could a) explain why what you've just said matters, and b) why you think I give a shit about spam farming.

Do hoods use mobile phones to send spam? No, not so much. They use them to do business. This is just another cheap, untraceable (because stolen or illicitly purchased) way to do business.

So, while we're at it, exactly what problems do you foresee with the OLPC project? Any? Or is it all happiness in candyland?
posted by lodurr at 8:56 AM on August 23, 2007


The borked links from above: price discussion & mission statement.

This is a communications device, & one which will aid in troubleshooting technical problems, including the laptop itself. It's an extensible device. Perhaps some theft-deterrence will be built up.

I think kids are the best first target here because they're better able to learn. A situation so common as to be cliche is a kid knowing how to program the VCR while the parents look on, mystified. They'll probably need less convincing that a laptop will be helpful, compared to older people who think that the internets are useless. (You see this as "fetishizing childhood innocence?" Really?)
posted by Pronoiac at 11:12 AM on August 23, 2007


When presented with a hood with a computer, I'd think about goldfarming & spamming before I think of one chatting with his business cohorts.

And thinking of a bunch of gangstas using Hello Kitty-like computers to communicate is really funny to me.
posted by Pronoiac at 11:21 AM on August 23, 2007


To me, it sounds like a typical Bruce Sterling story. You could make something funny with it, without having to charicature it ot the point of making them Hello Kitty manifestations. Though that would be a neat story idea in itself: Sanrio becomes a major sponsor and floods Asia with Hello, Kitty branding. It would be brilliant marketing...

Cliches exist for reasons. But that doesn't make them true. Often they're just what we're afraid or ashamed of. We're ashamed of not caring enough about the VCR to learn how to code it.

The OLPC is inspired by cliches, maybe not so much by research. It's a great idea for raising a lot of interest and money and getting something done that will get a lot of people noticed and probably have a net positive impact. Yes, kids are an important first target. But it's absolutely crucial that they not be the only target, or you'll have a hell of a gap to hump over between when the kids outgrow their OLPCs and need to do something that requires more "power" -- meaning, in this situation, more sophisticated software. (Woudl they continue to use the brightly-colored OLPC? Well, why the hell not? This isn't the west. They won't get tagged as queer for using a lime-green laptop.)
posted by lodurr at 11:43 AM on August 23, 2007


runin fr0m c0pz
brb
posted by thrako at 4:18 PM on August 23, 2007


The stories about the kid being the only family member who can program the VCR were both cliche & at least sometimes true. Sorta "ha ha only serious."

As for the argument that they're not powerful enough: In this thread, some have argued that they're already too useful not to attract unwanted thievery. In their spot, I'm guessing even a slow computer is far better than none at all.

I think asking "what will they need in their next computers" is a few years premature.
posted by Pronoiac at 1:30 PM on August 25, 2007


Pronoiac, I think most of the heat in argument in this thread has been over whether there would be abuse. My opinion is that the heat should have been over whether abuse would matter. On which point my opinion would be, "probably not."
posted by lodurr at 6:08 PM on August 25, 2007


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