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Fraught laptop project takes aim at digital divide and poverty

Project brings Internet access to children in the developing world

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The World Wide Web isn’t world-wide in the social sense. While in theory it can be accessed anywhere, billions of people around the planet don’t have the opportunity to log on.

The One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC), founded in 2005, has been trying to solve this inequality with a cheap, tough laptop designed for distribution to children in developing nations. In under two years, the non-profit project has shipped over 600,000 computers to five countries, and has started pilot projects in seven more. OLPC has lofty goals: its mission statement is “to eliminate poverty and create world peace by providing education to the poorest and most remote children on the planet.”

Whether laptops can have an effect on poverty or war is unclear. One common argument posits that Internet access may help eliminate economic inequality by giving people access to the same educational and business tools used in wealthy nations. And Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of OLPC, believes that universal Internet access could break down divisions between nations:

“Twenty years from now, children are not going to know what nationalism is,” he said at an information technology conference in Brussels.

Despite such hopeful forecasts, critics of the OLPC laptop – called XO-1 – say that introducing widespread Internet access via laptop to developing nations will probably have mixed effects. In a country such as India, where a Western-influenced middle class is already growing, Internet education for young children could be very helpful in accelerating the country’s economic rise. But in countries with malnourished or war-torn populations and impoverished economies based on local rural traditions, many think Internet access is unlikely to be a silver bullet for poverty. According to McGill Education Professor Aziz Choudry, it’s possible that the Internet might even have the negative effect of suppressing traditional cultures.

“Claims of universality of education need to be treated critically. Sometimes they are used to silence other histories and types of thinking,” he said.

Another controversial aspect of the OLPC computer is its use of Windows after years of commitment to open source software. Microsoft, fearful that Linux, an open source, free operating system, could become the standard in developing nations, has offered Windows XP on a new version of the computer which will cost only $75 – compared to today’s $188. These computers will not feature Linux.

Although the move could give Microsoft dominance of the computer market in some developing nations, Charles Kane, OLPC president and Chief Operating Operator, doesn’t think this bears on the OLPC’s objectives.

“It’s about getting it into kids’ hands. Anything that is contrary to that objective, and limits that objective, is against what the program stands for,” Kane said in an interview with Technology Review.

One aspect of the OLPC laptop that has helped it overcome opposition from corporations and public controversy is its design. The keyboard is the first to come in 18 languages; the machine has the same resilience as Nalgene bottles, and can survive being dropped, immersed in water, or generally scuffed-up. Its screen can switch from colour to a black-and-white mode that’s visible in direct, Sahara-intensity sunlight. And the computer supports a kind of local Internet called a mesh network, which allows nearby computers to link up without an Internet connection – a resource that is often hard to come by in the remote areas where many children use the computer.

All of these design elements have helped keep the project going despite opposition from corporations such as Microsoft and Intel, and difficulties with pricing. It will take more than design for this project to succeed, though. The true test will be its long-term effects on developing societies.