An OLPC News Rebuttal to @TMSruge's Africa 3.0 Speech


At the SXSW geek fest, TMS Ruge made disparaging comments towards One Laptop Per Child. As quoted by others, he said:

"OLPC is a failed solution"... "Dead in the water"

Now you know I'm not shy about kicking OLPC in the shins when it needs a slap of reality, but TMS went a bit too far with calling it a failed solution, and I called him out on it, challenging him to a debate:

And TMS responded with the following points, under which are my counterpoints, expanded here with the benefit of contemplation and without the 140 character restriction. Both our comments have been edited for grammar and clarity.

OLPC has its supporters
  1. TMS: It's digital version of neocolonialist topdown model of development. "we will save u!" One middle-aged (sound familiar?) guy decides "I'm going to save them, & this is only model"

    Wayan Agreed. Nicholas Negroponte was following in the footsteps of Muslim, Catholic, and Christian saviors before him with the XO religion, all pronouncing that their particular solution would offer salvation for Africa. And like any religion, the individual models may have flaws, but the overall theme has value.

  2. TMS: [OLPC] perpetuates dependencies with [its] philanthropic approach. If you give to one school, every school/org is going to feel entitled to also receive [XO's]. How long can you keep this up?

    Wayan: OLPC's point is that every school should have XO's, just like each school should have teachers, desks, and the like. And governments should buy XO laptops for their students - like they do for textbooks. At OLPC News, we continue to question the economics of this model, as TMS hints, the numbers get crazy big (in the Billions!) even for small countries.

  3. TMS What's value proposition of giving these away for free vs providing market eco-system? Assuming that Africa is poor and can't afford tech so we should "donate" it is lazy! If we can't afford anything, then why is iPhone available in 13 markets in Africa? OLPC hardware costs same as high end smartphones are on sale in Africa, why not sell it?

    Wayan On this we could not agree more. In fact, I say Damn the free XO-1.5 laptops, we want OLPC sales!. Alas, OLPC claims that selling retail is too much a hassle and they're gonna stick with large-lot government sales.

  4. TMS: Where is bottom up input from people on ground? Better yet, why no Africans on your board?

    Wayan: Wow! What a great point that I never noticed. One Laptop Per Child leadership isn't African at all, thought its also not all "white" either. In fact, its very Hispanic for a USA organization.

  5. TMS Where's research to support that giving tech away free is better model vs market solution? [OLPC's] corporate philosophy no better than Malaria No More run by cushy corner office suits. [OLPC] could make mass availability sustainable if selling them, versus philanthropic model. Yet [OLPC] gives them away. If OLPC is so great, then give it away to ANYBODY that wants one.

    Wayan: Again, OLPC does not give out XO's - governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy XO laptops. Those governments give out XO's as part of their primary school educational obligation. And with the low attendance already prevalent in Africa, it makes sense to give out XO's there, as a rationale for sending children to school, rather than charging poor parents who cannot afford much.

  6. TMS: OLPC cost same as netbooks. Result? Making computing affordable in Africa.

    Wayan: Actually, OLPC begat netbooks, so you could say that it made computing affordable for Africans already. OLPC is just intent to focus on education vs. the overall retail market.

  7. TMS: There r 450 million mobile subscribers in Africa. 99.9% of those were bought, not handouts. A growing majority of those mobile phones are smart and of more practical use than OLPC.

    Wayan: The mobile phone vs. computer argument is an old one, and the results are always the same: there is a place for both. You'll not read (or write) a textbook on your mobile phone, but it is handy for short text, and for voice, its the killer app. Most of all, the XO laptop is an optimized educational tool, the mobile phone is a communications tool that can be used for education. Note the difference. Yet, wouldn't a $50 eBook reader beat both?

  8. TMS: Stop feeding us the damned fish, sell us the fishing pole!

    Wayan: Agreed, OLPC should advocate for local XO assembly to transfer skills, knowledge and wealth to local communities that buy XO laptops. Yet don't get your hopes up for actual production. Asia owns technology manufactures - even of your beloved mobile phones - and they'll not be building fab labs in Kenya anytime soon.

Overall, I though that TMS Ruge brought up good points. His main thrust is that OLPC should sell XO laptops - and it does already, to governments. They pass out XO's like other school supplies, free to needy students. This is a different model than consumer technology, like mobile phones, so it should not be compared their individual buyer model, unless TMS suggests primary school children should be working to buy school supplies as well.

Yet, we both agree that OLPC should have some form of XO retail sales, and there should be more local buy-in and economic impact. In fact, its something I've been advocating for 4 years now.

Still, TMS is no Mark Warschauer when it comes to critiquing OLPC. Though I do hope he learns from this experience. OLPC, and its supporters are a force to be reckoned with. You need to come prepared, and I have just the place to be educated.

Update!: TMS Ruge has replied to this post with Why OLPC is "..dead in the water"... still.

I applaud OLPC's attempt to have the governments pay for the laptops and distribute them to the children, but I do not see this going very far beyond a few progressive governments like Kagame's Rwanda. If the government does not acknowledge and address its poor education system, and put massive weight behind making sure that the cornerstones of their country's education system are overhauled to be inline with 21st century educational best practices, then OLPC is dead in the water.


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Some interesting points; I think it's a shame that he didn't really consider the pedagogic principles of it ... most "Western" models of education are really only starting to move towards more collaborative working; yet, my experience of working in the majority world (albeit PNG, rather than Africa), is that community working is infinitely more sophisticated than that in the West, so a tool that is based on community & collaboration is so well suited to a way of life that promotes it.

Point 3: The Iphone is only in African markets because income inequality is the highest in the world. I'm disappointed that neither you nor TMS know that.

Governments throughout the world use the education system to reduce inequality. And if the West is serious about tackling global inequality, education should be a focus area. Relying on market forces may defeat the purpose.

Point 8: Let market forces dictate where assembly should occur. OLPC should not get involved in dubious policies that smells of protectionism.

Excuse me I have question is debate is over?? or it's remained because you haven't written date. I really want to take part in that debate because I also don't think anyone has right to say OLPC is dead and similar acid comment. I felt OLPC had many successful projects and I am one of the appreciators and want to give the answer to TMS by taking part in such kind of debate.

The debate is still very alive - check out TMS Ruge's response: Why OLPC is “..dead in the water”… still.