One Laptop Per Child; Is That Enough?

On: October 13, 2009
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About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


Isn’t it ironic that we’re trying to reduce the digital inequality and poverty with ICT, while it is the ICT that caused and augments this digital divide?[1] We’re using technology to solve the problems it has caused…

In ‘End of Millennium’ Manuel Castells showed the status quo at the turn of the millennium. ‘The rise of the informational/global capitalism in the last quarter of the twentieth century coincided with the collapse of Africa’s economies, the disintegration of many of its states, and the breakdown of most of its societies’[2]. But not only in Africa. Informational capitalism is complexly linked to the rise of inequality, poverty, social polarization and misery in the whole world. Castells speaks of the ‘black holes of informational capitalism’; where, not only in the third world, but also in the first, people are socially excluded because they don’t have access to information technology. For example, habitants of American inner-city ghetto’s, illiterate persons, poor immigrants in rich countries, etc.  Those people form what he calls the ‘fourth world’; a world that is inseparable form the rise of informational global capitalism[2].

Luckily people start to become well aware of it and, some say developmental aid nowadays is even ‘cool’. Let’s take the One Laptop Per Child initiative by Nicholas Negroponte as an example. It is been a few years that they started to hand out laptops to poor children in developed countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to reduce the amount of children (almost two billion) excluded from the Internet and to empower them to learn[3]. And I believe they do. They have visited many countries over the last few years and provided a lot of children with laptops.

It certainly is a fantastic thought, but just handing out laptops won’t solve the problem. Access to ICT itself is not enough to ‘close the gap’, as there are several limitations. That is, ‘access’ to a laptop doesn’t automatically lead to access to information.

Firstly, using a laptop requires some skills. In countries where even education is scarce and children hardly can read and write, what would a laptop change? The effectiveness of the information they will have access to, depends on their capacity of understanding and interpretation[1]. A higher school level, adaptation of the education system and development of appropriate software are therefore required, not so much (a huge investment in) exaggerated quantities of computers per school. The process of teachers adapting to a new pedagogic system, in which these new information technologies are implemented, is a necessary but unfortunately long process[1].

Also, the project is based on the assumption that children go to school. But I believe many of those nearly two billion children don’t really frequent their classes. Castells stresses the fact that, for instance, many children in Asia have to work in enormous factories, weaving carpets for worldwide export. Other children live in the ‘unprotected lands of mega-cities’ slums’. Those children don’t go to school[2]. And in São Paulo for example, I experienced that many children and teenagers ‘prefer’ not to go to school and, instead of that, work, even though they have the opportunity of free education. It’s not that they don’t want to learn, but they don’t see the benefits of it. Of course they will find a laptop incredibly cool, but without guidance and instructions I don’t think it would change their situations.

Furthermore, new technologies are always used by the rich first, and will only later become available for the poor. The development of new technologies always continues, so the gap will never close and the inequality will only become bigger and bigger[1]. That is what in fact is happening with OLPC project. Not only are the laptops inferior and way less advanced compared to the western technology and do issues as wi-fi access play significant roles, also, western actors (Microsoft and Intel) produce and sell these inferior laptops to the Third World and derive profits of it![4] So who’ll in the end get better of it?

Last week I read a blog about appropriate technology, written by a non-Malawian teacher in Malawi, that gave a practical example of my thoughts. He stresses the principle that developing countries should be given technology that meshes with their current state of development. He anecdotally writes how he discovered a box full of green OLPC laptops in the school’s storage room that had remained untouched for months. None of the teachers knew what to do with the laptops and after trying to use the laptops in a couple of classes they left them alone, back in the stock room… The $2300 spent on the laptops would have been enough to pay the tuition for 23 students for a year[6].

Castells stresses an important question: Can the developed world, where older technologies are often prevalent or don’t even exist at all, ‘leapfrog’ over the successive generations of technology to the newest ICT or not[4][5]? That is the key issue. Of course the third world countries and the two billion children without access do not all live under the same ‘poor’ circumstances. I think the OLPC project is too advanced to be used in rural African villages or in slums where children don’t even have food, water, health and shelter. On the other hand, there are more developed but still very poor children to whom the step toward ‘digital literacy’ is smaller. An examination of the situation in Rio de Janeiro demonstrates that many people do use ICT, but don’t have money for own computers or have very little and poor access[1]. I think those people form a big part of the fourth world and I think those people are ‘ready’ for further development in ICT. But then there is still the problem of inferior technology, wi-fi access and the profits made out of the production.

“ (…) what is needed is an advanced $0 laptop with free software for people in developing countries as well as criticism of the capitalist logic that has caused the divide between developing and developed countries and solutions to the social, economic, political, and cultural inequalities that underpin the global digital divide.”[4]

But maybe we should rather focus on a bottom up process that starts at the ‘beginning’. ICT is now embedded in our daily life, society and economy, but that has been a development. We can’t expect the fourth world to skip that process and simply ‘leapfrog’ into our level of ICT. But on the other hand, since it is their very right to have the same (ICT) applications as we have, ‘appropriate technology’ will never change their situation very much either. Should we perhaps develop new technologies to solve the problems…?


[1] Sorj, B. and Guedes, L.E., ‘Exclusão digital: problemas conceituais, evidências empíricas e políticas públicas’ in Digitofagia; Radical Livros 2006

[3] One Laptop Per Child Website –

[2] Castells, M., ‘End of Millennium’, 2000

[4] Fuchs, C., Horak, E. ‘Information Capitalism and the Digital Divide in Africa’, 2007

[5] Castells, M., Fernández-Ardevol, M., Linchuan Qiu, J. & Sey, A., ‘Mobile Communication and Society; A Global Perspective’. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; 2007.

[6] Teaching in Africa – Jesse’s Blog

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