A Sign from Above Eye Level

By Tom Peters |


Years ago I read somewhere that the stretch of Interstate 70 that runs across Missouri from Kansas City to St. Louis is the most heavily billboarded section of interstate in the U.S.  There are thousands of them.  Most are hawking predictable things:  hotels, fast food, Lake of the Ozark resorts, souvenir shops with the inevitable walnut bowls, and fireworks emporia, each one just happening to be the world’s largest.

There’s a smattering of unusual billboards, too, such the one featuring the visage of the Dalai Lama, reverse vasectomies, custom-made brassieres (I wonder if that includes Kramer’s manssieres), and dentures in one day.  I’ve been watching that one last for 20 years, just in case any of my kith, kin, or even I ever need a quick set of chops.

I live in a rural area a couple of miles south of I-70.  One of my routes into the village of Grain Valley takes me on a stretch of old 40 Highway, which has become a frontage road for the interstate.  Imagine my surprise one day when I looked up and spotted a new billboard for the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.  Years ago I wrote about OLPC for ALA TechSource.  I took it as a sign from above eye level that I should provide an update.

OLPC was announced back in January 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, who has been a professor at MIT, director of the MIT Media Lab, one of the founders and early contributors of money and content to Wired Magazine, and author of the seminal book, Being Digital.  Quoting from the OLPC website, its mission is "To create educational opportunities for the world's poorest children by providing each child with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop with content and software designed for collaborative, joyful, self-empowered learning."  Full-scale production of the laptops didn’t commence until late 2007, so this is still a relatively young project, struggling to find its own way in the world. 

Both the hardware and the software currently powering the XO-1 laptop are interesting.  The laptop is a ruggedized, networked, flash-memory-based machine running a version of the Linux operating system with the Sugar interface, which does not use a desktop metaphor. 

One of the OLPC marketing strategies is to entice relatively wealthy individuals and organizations in developed nations to purchase two OLPC laptops.  One goes to the purchaser, and the other goes to a needy child in a developing nation.  OLPC first tried this “Give One, Get One” idea in late 2007 and ran into some distribution and fulfillment problems.  For the 2008 holiday gift-giving season, Amazon agreed to serve as the fulfillment agent, again at the price of $399 for two XO-1 laptops.  That promotional effort ended on Dec. 31, 2008.  According to the Wikipedia article on the OLPC, the second year of the program didn’t generate nearly as many orders as in 2007.   I wonder if that billboard near my home even paid for itself.  It may have been contributed space.  Overall, to date approximately one million OLPC laptops have been distributed around the world.  Someone has created a nice Google map to visually represent the distribution places and patterns. 

The OLPC project has its critics.  Early critics of the project predicted that most of the laptops never would make it into the hands of children.  They predicted that governments would redirect them to other users, or that parents would sell or barter them for food, clothing, and shelter, or worse, beer, bait, and ammo.  Some staunch supporters of open-source software were miffed when OLPC officials announced in mid-2008 the option (for an additional $10) for countries to purchase “dual-boot” laptops that could run both Linux and a version of Windows XP.   Others critics, both in developing and developed nations, have suggested that the underlying mindset of the project and its distribution model is too American and imperialistic.  Building schools, hiring teachers, and providing traditional printed textbooks may be a more effective and efficient approach to educating the world’s children.  Some deployed laptops were found to have had pornographic images downloaded onto them, prompting calls for some sort of filtering software preloaded on the machines. 

OLPC as a project may not be long for this world.  Last week they announced a reduction in about half the staff, and that the remaining staff will be on reduced pay.  As the article in Ars Technica notes, “The project has been afflicted with serious setbacks, technical and logistical problems, personality conflicts, and bogus litigation.”  That publication predicted that the Classmate PC initiative from Intel may have more staying power. 

If nothing else, the OLPC project has spurred a lively debate about the nature of education, the educational needs of children between the ages of 6 and 12, and the way we think about the world.  The world may not be as flat as Thomas Friedman likes to think, but the old categories (1st/2nd/3rd worlds, or developing and developed) don’t make much sense, either.  On Sept. 30, 2008 the New York Sun reported that OLPC had donated some laptops for testing in the NYC school district. 

My interest in OLPC has many roots.  First, a project like this just seems to be a good thing to do.  Second, it is a bold new approach to educating the world’s children.  Rather than fiddle with the curriculum or with the teachers’ unions, OLPC proposes to improve and diffuse education simply by putting tools for finding information, communicating, and creating information into the hands of developing children in developing nations.  Thirdly, the OLPC is a bold new approach to the design and manufacture of laptop computers.  The OLPC folks are striving to mass produce a $100 laptop at a time when $1,000 laptops are more common.  Obviously this has created some disquiet in that industry.  In the long run, however, such bold fresh thinking will benefit all laptop users.  Last but not least, the OLPC project seems to be a kindred spirit of the public library movement in the U.S. in the late 19th century.  OLPC represents an effort to provide a new type of self-education opportunity for children around the world.