Is OLPC the Only Hope to Eliminate Poverty and Create Peace?


Wow! OLPC Foundation now has its own YouTube channel and Nicholas Negroponte has just gone off the deep end of hubris. In his flagship video on why governments should spend millions on the XO laptop when their population may be poor, starving, or even lack clean water, Negroponte has announced that:

[The XO laptop] is probably the only hope. I don’t want to place too much on OLPC, but if I really had to look at how to eliminate poverty, create peace, and work on the environment, I can't think of a better way to do it.

I love me some clock stopping hot XO technology, but an instant middle class? World peace? An end to global warming? Might that be a bit of a stretch for a little green computer? And a slight egotistical leap for a MIT professor?

I say we take this conversation to the comments section, where we can make OLPC News in the mold of Walter Bender's XO-enabled classroom:

We're giving them this environment where they can be expressive, they can be critics, they can engage in discourse and dialogue, and beat up on ideas, and that is where learning happens.
Especially since OLPC has turned off comments on the videos themselves - stifling the very debate they promote.

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"Especially since OLPC has turned off comments on the videos themselves - stifling the very debate they promote. "

But Wayan, they know or hope all the comments will go to OLPCnews anyway. Why hide them on YouTube? ;-)


Yeah, I find it amazingly ironic that Bender is promoting debate and critic engagement when he routinely shuns both when it comes to OLPC.

But I am still flabbergasted that Negroponte believes that any single piece of technology, much less technology as a whole, can eliminate poverty or create peace. Its only a tool, and will be used as a tool to archive the ends mankind wants.

And the global warming part? While the XO is green - in both color and environmental efficiencies - its still a manufactured good. It still takes much energy to produce. And it will only accelerate consumer demand for more shiny, flashy electronics.

Good Christ! Negroponte must be huffing glue or something. There are too many examples of visionaries becoming cultists because they fail to recognize the influence of the outside world.

Nick, if can read this, please don't drink the kool-aid! Step back from the ledge! Don't throw that chair! Whatever...the sun used to rise and set without the aid of computers and oddly enough, it still does.

My two cents: even with educational tools, teachers, and an environment, children still do not learn as well as others when they are hungry. And being poor is a good indicator of going hungry during the day. And the OLPC will not stop the poor from being poor.

Well, education is a good way to tackle a great many problems while providing for the immediate needs of people is more likely to create more problems. For example: you run the risk of de-skilling societies if you simply provide them with food, and you are simply breeding dependence if you provide vaccinations without training doctors.

Is a laptop the way to solve this? I think that it is a bit naive to think that any technology can solve a social problem, though it can certainly help to solve the problem if you have the social will to backup that technology. On the other hand, I also look at it as a great experiment in education: can you build a model of education that works from the bottom up, unlike the rather authoritarian institutions that we have in the west? I mean look at tools like Squeak (eToys) and Tom-Tom (?). They are wonderfully free-form and creative activities. With a little guidance they can also be used to study topics in great depth.

I also think that it's interesting because it may help combat some of the issues that they currently have in obtaining educational resources. Something as simple as an audio input jack can be used to study both sound and electricity. The audio/video capabilities can be used for cross-cultural exchanges, to capture events that just don't happen in the classroom (wasn't there a cow-birthing video), to study motion, and all other sorts of neat things. Including making funny faces for their friends.

Is it naive to think that these laptops will be used in those ways? Probably. Then again, if you can get as many as 1 in 10 kids using these computers as a meaningful form of education you're going to radically transform the world.

Regarding Walter Bender's claim that "the breakthrough is the network", OLPC did not invent mesh networking, and didn't design the hardware or software for its implementation.

OLPC doesn't even need mesh networking (ordinary ad-hoc wifi would be fine), if it weren't for the likely lack of medium-range routing infrastructure. Whether this part would even work well remains to be seen.

"I don’t want to place too much on OLPC"

Whatever you may say about the potential of OLPC to transform education, and a lot can be debated about it, he's actually placing too much on OLPC just by turning it into a hacker solution to a multifaceted, multivariate, extremely complicated problem like education in the wide variety of developing nations. He is hubris incarnated from the very beginning, but there might be an explanation (based on wrong assumptions): the one way to convince governments to spend a large amount of scarce resources, including money, in OLPC is to shame and/or scare them into action.

OK. But this comment? He has lost it. Completely. Better minds have been there and failed; better minds have reached the conclusion that there not one single answer.

He's actually harming the project. Every opponent has a lot of ammunition (you're going to buy computers from a guy like this????) and every failure, no matter how small, is going to be confronted with the "save the world" mantra.

Now Masi Oka makes more sense: instead of saving the cheerleader, we need to buy the computer to save the world.

Wayan, you're misquoting again. Even in the lurid title of your post. "[Education] is probably the only hope" I guess everybody could agree with. If N.N. does not "see" another way than OLPC, it does not mean there *is* no other way. If you see one, well, just do it!

In listening to NN's statement, I took it this way: This is the only 'hope' these kids will ever have. Given hope, who knows what THEY can accomplish. Are 5 year olds going to stop world hunger, eliminate poverty, etc.? No.

It all goes back to a statement that he made a while ago when he said something to the effect of "It's not about the laptop. This is not a laptop project, it's an education project."

I also didn't take Bender's statements to mean that OLPC inventented "all things mesh". I know we're a lot of technophiles here, but there is more than one meaning of 'network'.

Understand, I'm not trying to stir any pots here or stake my claim as a NN FanBoy, I just took the things they said differently. Carry on....

While people may think that Negroponte is crazy or "huffing glue or something", he is doing something that is getting press, getting people talking, and bringing attention. This is good even if you don't like the message. Any press is good press.

There is certainly a difference in statement between Negroponte and Papert: Papert focused on thinking and access to knowledge while Negroponte focuses on OLPC.

All truly great projects or products have a person who is very committed and driven. That drive will most certainly offend someone, that is unavoidable. The great success in OLPC may not really be the actual hardware/software but the idea of what hardware and software (any HW and SW, not just OLPC) might be able to do. We would never know this if it were not for people like Negroponte being out there and talking with as many people as possible, through thick and thin.

I like the way the video series have the green branding; the videos are black and white except for shades of OLPC green (look at Papert's turtle neck). Could this be the next "cool" color, kind of like how Apple made connections with Tangerine Orange and Bondi Blue :)

Yes Negroponte can be overly enthusiastic - but then again - he's invested a great deal of time, effort and energy for a good cause - seems to me he can be forgiven for overdoing it or being out of touch with Wayan Vota's sense of propriety.

To Quote Amy Hoy:

"The Pithiest Lesson

It all comes down to this: Some people make themselves into doers. The rest make themselves into what they probably call realists, cynics, or John C Dvorak—but often, in reality, they're merely complainers."

Negroponte is right.

There are short-term fixes, and long-term fixes to the problems that ail the world. A vital ingredient of any long-term fix is better education for every child on the planet.

XO is one strategy for accomplishing that, which is admirable. It irritates me to see so many people nitpicking on the words of the video, when the underlying message is dead-on.

Yes, OLPC is our only hope, and Intel, Asus, Microsoft and are all trying to crush it.

Latest news is OLPC is going to India, Birmingham Alabama. And that some school in California is paying $650 per crappy Asus Eee laptop. But for sure those aren't going to be topics on

Just keep call Nicholas Negroponte a fool, and post comments on blogs all around the Internet calling him a fool and linking to your blog.

Isn't providing an effective educational tool to developing countries an already ambitious project? We don't even know if this goal will ever be reached. Why then pretend it will solve all human kind problems?

It reminds me of Steve Jobs. Nothing against that, it just looks to me a simple marketing operation, which, of course has nothing to do with solving the real problems.

Or maybe he's just extending the constructivistic approach. Give them a tool (a laptop) and kids will not only be able to solve their problems (poverty, poor education), but even ours (global warming).

I wonder if Al Gore agrees....

I'd be happy if, in between pronouncements about the utopia-accelerating impact of the OLPC, Dr. Negroponte would also provide some idea of how long it'd be between the introduction of XOs and results? Middle of the following week? Middle of the following year? The decade?

My observation of a couple of the great, recent economic expansions - China and India - is that education was a supporting player at most rather then the central factor. Unshackling the economy from bureaucratic, regulatory and political shackles were the primary factors responsible for the economic expansion of these two countries, as it seems to have been for other nations experiencing similar economic expansions. In none of these countries were there large-scale expansions of education spending so there's no way expansions in education spending could have be the initiating factor in the economic expansion.

But let's just assume that the XO is different and introduction of the XO would substantially improve educational results. How long before the results start to show up? How long before the results have a measurable impact on society?

OLPC can help world peace? The environment? Yes it can, but only in one way: facilitating the motivations of a child.

The OLPC will not CREATE peace, it will HELP some children to be motivated to create peace.

Please don't misread Negroponte's words as making it a magic wand to the world's problems. What this laptop allows is a child to connect to a worldwide viewpoint, and to education at a level not possible in their lives before. This education will spark in at least some of them a wish to protect that which they see. How can a child in a third world country be motivated without understanding an issue? The laptop is an excellent, albeit one of the better single-package education tools out there that can facilitate this.

I wondered that myself, when will this miracle happen? If OPLC is aimed at 6-12 year olds how long before they start producing income? I'd imagine 10-15 years from now. Meanwhile the country is going deeper and deeper into debt buying XO's every year. If the OLPC theory works there will be a huge demand for secondary schools starting in two years - are these in place yet? If the secondary school is not in the home village where do the kids live? Who pays for this? If it really works they may have to leave to country for still more education. How many will come back to that small village in Peru? I'm not saying kids don't deserve education, I'm just saying it's going to come to a lot more than $200 apiece so somebody needs to budget for it.

Negroponte is what he is - a visionary. No one really knows for sure if OLPC can can succeed in their mission. Yet, there is nothing wrong with setting high standards and goals. If OLPC has even some successes, they will have given children hopes for a better life and knowledge of the world. I hope Negroponte achieves his visions and more.

I don't see the point of setting up a strawman. He didn't say an "instant middle class", nor "world peace", nor "an end to global warming". Putting words into his mouth and then criticizing those words is not a useful exercise.

The words "only hope" are indeed hyperbole. But I think it's pretty clear that what he's saying is that by making the population more educated, they'll be able to help themselves to a much greater extent.

I agree that such effects, if they happen, will take a long time. The OLPC effort is aimed at kids, and whatever educational benefit those kids get won't start having a big effect on their countries until they get significantly older. So it will take a very long time to know whether this kind of long-term benefit will come to pass.

I don't think Negroponte is opposed to providing clean water and malaria vaccines to third-world countries! I think the idea that every dollar spent on a laptop is automatically a dollar not spent on clean water is naive; that's just not the way it works.

There's an old saying about how if you give a man a fish, you feed him for one day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. My reading is that this is what they're saying.

"The one thing your going to forget, is that this is not a laptop project. This is an education project.."
--Nicholas Negroponte

The OLPC program NOT the only hope, the laptops provide an opportunity for as much education as the kids can handle and THAT is the only hope. If everyone was fully educated then likely peace and poverty would end, however the want to learn must first be present for learning to occur. OLPC arms the kids with answers, but it is up to the kids to ask the questions.

The original footage made with the interviews the new OLPC commercials use is an MIT Tech Review and can be found here:


".... when the power of love exceeds the love for power, the world will know peace.."

The power of love exists in the XO. The idea is to get governments working and collaborating together to make a difference. After all, are our children NOT the future?

To see what communication technology can do for poor people.

Just today my newspaper runs an article about Indian home workers (is that the correct term?) who help American children with their studies and home work. Over the internet, of course. They run a picture of a young mother with a toddler sitting next to a keyboard.

Better communication has ALWAYS resulted in better economies.


Trust your crazy ideas, they are the only ones that can change a world "gone slightly mad"

My first post to this site, but I have been reading it with interest for months.

Below is something I wrote in 2000 and posted on Doug Engelbart's "Unfinished Revolution" Bootstrap mailing list based on reading about the $149 Cybiko (anyone remember that?), suggesting a $100 educational laptop around 2005 (a little optimistic, but close. :-) Many of the links have gone bad, and I fixed a couple of typos, but notice the conclusion:
"But luckily, there is hope from toymakers!".

While the OLPC is game changing as an idea, and I think overall it was a positive effort and money well spent in terms of changing how people perceived low-cost computers running GNU/Linux which boot from Flash, it is not the only way. It is just part of a general trend to better, faster, cheaper, as we move towards realizing Bucky Fuller's vision of a "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science" to make the Spaceship Earth work for everyone. Negroponte deserves some credit for making happen what people like me only talked about (and that's why I ordered two XO-1s), but it was in the air to anyone generalizing from Moore's law. I remain surprised actually about how little there is to show for tens of millions spent, given the OLPC is just following the general trend but a little faster. I guess it shows how expensive it is to try to get a year or two ahead of a general trend (e.g. new screens, prototyping hardware).

The link to what I wrote:
"[unrev-II] The DKR hardware I'd like to make..."
DKR = Dynamic Knowledge Repository
OHS = Open Hyperdocument System

The comment system doesn't seem to let me post the text of the original (too many links?). One important thing to remember is that following those generalized Moore's law trends, this $100 level of hardware is going to cost $10 in another five years or so -- with or without much direct effort. And when you apply those same trends to 3D printing (like with "RepRap"), you get even more amazing possibilities for changing the world (for good or bad).

Some small percentage of the kids who get the XO will really click with it and end up with radically improved lives for themselves and their families, and that will in turn help transform their communities. It may just be one out of 20 but even at that rate I would consider OLPC an amazing success.

Does anyone know exactly how the "Give Many" program works? Can you have the 100 laptops sent to a location in America?

For instance, if you can get your hands on $30K (big if) and you have a program you want to implement in an inner-city school in America, can you do that?

Thanks for the info.

Danial, Dr. Negroponte didn't mention anything about an instant middle class but he just as clearly wasn't interested in making sure that speculation about the OLPC were grounded in reality, evidence his dismissal of testing, comparisons, piloting, teaching materials or much of anything after the shipping container hits the dock.

Taken together with some of Dr. Negroponte's pronouncements and some of the policy decisions that can almost certainly be laid at his feet, I'm presented with a degree of hucksterism more in keeping with the promises made by some of my unsolicited e-mail and a level of conceit appropriate to a world-famous university professor dealing with grad students but most assuredly *not* appropriate to dealing with senior government officials.

It's even possible to deduce how some of the more ridiculously self-serving, or at least ridiculously unrealistic, notions have come apart under the hammering of reality. Take the sales campaign if the "buy a million or eff off" approach can be dignified by referring to it as a sales campaign. An untested, unproven, *unproduced* product is so supremely valuable that million-unit sales can be dictated while ignoring political, personal, technical, financial and social considerations. Big surprise, it doesn't work. So we saw retrenchments to half million and quarter million minimum order volumes followed by announcements of orders in the four- and five-figure range. We've also got the G1G1 program which, I believe, is the precursor to retail sales provided there aren't some contractual stoppers and the nest isn't fouled in some other manner.

But if Dr. Negroponte didn't use the phrases "instant middle class", "world peace" and "an end to global warming" he did say "I don’t want to place too much on OLPC, but if I really had to look at how to eliminate poverty, create peace, and work on the environment, I can't think of a better way to do it." That seems to me to be a difference without a worthwhile distinction. It's irresponsible hyperbole which I associate with the cosmetics industry and unserious enough to damage the credibility of the project although that's starting to seem superfluous.

If that's truly how he feels then he also feels that the OLPC can make precious little contribution to these problems any time soon since there's no reasonable scenario in which the computer will have such an impact in less then a decade.

Winter wrote:

> Better communication has ALWAYS resulted in better economies.

Sure and a better example of the self-evident value of good communications can be seen in the proliferation of cell phones in poor countries and among poor people. Indian fisherman landing their catches at towns with the highest prices, African farmers getting better prices for their produce by checking current value and an ad hoc banking system which uses cell phone minutes as currency are just three examples of very poor people seeing the economic value of communications. Trouble is, the XO has no role in any of these situations nor is it designed too.

Notice some of the differences between the cell phone growth and the proposed distribution of the XO:

The cell phone operator bears the cost of building the network while paying fees (along with bribes I'm reasonably sure) to the government. The OLPC, all ancillary equipment, distribution, training, maintenance and internet connectivity come from tax revenue meaning the program had enemies before the first microprocessor hit the first motherboard.

The cell phone operator handles the import, distribution and management of the system, probably generating further revenues (and bribes) for the government every step of the way. See above.

The cell network builds out according to, mainly, economic factors rather then exclusively political factors so it pays for itself. The OLPC distribution will occur at the direction of political forces which means that, almost inevitably, the poorest will receive their computers last if they receive any at all.

The cell operator has a strong incentive to provide the services for which the customer is willing to pay. Education ministry employees have direction from their superiors who are generally distant from end-users and not likely to be discomforted by poorly-designed or poorly-executed services.

The XO is strictly a short-range communication tool unless paired with the somewhat mysterious school server and even that needs a further link to get on the internet.

If NN believes this then his connection with reality must have broken down. It's just plain nonsense. Consider this, if

Laptop = Education

why not

Text book = Education
Paper = Education
Pencil = Education
Teacher = Education

Can someone enlighten me - what are they going to learn on a laptop ? Are they going to learn to read ? Are they going to learn to write ? Are they going to learn to draw ? Are they going to learn maths ? Even in the "first world" world we do not teach through laptops. OK, kids may do a bit of work/play on a laptop a few hours a week but it is not central to their education. Why should we be forcing educational policies on the 3rd world that we do not practise ourselves ?

I have two young kids who are in the 6-11 range and they have a computer. I must have spent at least $200 buying "educational software" for them and they don't use it much. When they use it, it is mainly for playing games. My oldest spends many more hours doing lego and drawing than using the PC, skills which are far better and far more important for brain development than staring at a 2d computer screen. I therefore cannot understand what it is NN thinks is so special about a laptop. He is not a child educationalist. On what basis does he claim that laptops are so important? I would love to see a study that showed the importance of the laptop in education!

Also, if each OLPC costs $200 then as NN states, that could be 200 times the daily earning of their parents. Imagine you buy 15 OLPCs for a class of 30. That will cost $3000. In these countries $3000 will go a long long way in terms of getting more and better teachers - ultimately the best way to improve education. Also, who is going to set up the wireless internet access, who is going to pay for maintenance. What happens if some of them break - they only have a 30 day warranty. On this basis I think it would be a scandalous waste of resources for the poorest countries to spend money on these laptops.

The emerging countries which can afford these laptops will not care so much about the energy costs which have driven the OLPC hardware. They will see the OLPCs as inferior versions of Wintel machines which have a much broader range of software and have a longer warranty and are probably cheaper to maintain.

IMHO, NN is on a mission and although he may be well-intentioned, I think the mission is deeply flawed.


I agree that laptop=education is a stretch. I think NN is like Christopher Columbus. Columbus 'discovered' America while he was looking for India. NN developed the XO as a tool to eliminate poverty in the developing world. I, too, believe it unaffordable to them but the actual tool is awesome. Because of the infrastructure required I don't think some countries could afford it if the laptop was free.

People who are buying it through G1G1 had to seek the product out so they should know what they are getting. After the product ships new people will see it in use. The people who have it are likely to be tech types and can explain what it does and doesn't do. People who buy Kindles aren't disappointed that it doesn't do spreadsheets because they knew that when they bought it. People in the developed world, where OLPC is selling the most units, are likely to have a 'real' PC at home. This is for the kids to bang around or to throw in your backpack when you're on the road.

Hopefully NN will come to the conclusion that he can sell them here and use the proceeds to subsidize the developing world.

I can't wait to buy this computer for my child, and it seems unbelievable that another child will benefit. My sincere thanks to Nicholas Negroponte and the team at MIT.

These laptops need to be used as a tool, not a toy. They can be used in may ways in early grades:

1) Teacher uses the laptop as display of words and letters to sound out by displaying it to the kindergarten/1st grade students to "sound it out"

2) Students as early as kindergarten read short stories on it to practice reading out loud. This in the place of expensive text books.

3) As early as third or fourth grade, students can start learning to type. The teacher ensures proper finger placement and rhythm. The students use the keyboard to learn to type.

4) Student begin writing their papers in 3rd grade. Albeit short paragraphs. They may collaborate with other students to do brief science experiments

5) Students view 3D globes and atlases to learn about geography as early as the 1st and 2nd grade

6) Students use the laptop as a math textbook as early as 3rd grade. The textbook can either allow for student input or for the student to handwrite into a notebook.

7) Some art will be done on the laptop. Rather than expensive or unavailable crayons, color pencils/pens, water colors, or oils, students can design art on the computer. Maybe even sell it online. There's always a need for graphic artists :)

8) Students AND parents will be able to view homework assignments from the computer or via the web. As early as 3rd grade students in the states have to do homework and it is a chore for parents to figure out what is to be done and when it is due.

Here's the proof. We are here. Inspired. Motivates. Initiative. Hopeful. See the Pelican Brief Catamaran that reponded three years later to a young girls letter, in dispair after young people give up. And the name of the town HopeVale, Queensland Aust on the shore. Bless the elders who wait. To keep the Brief. Maybe Strife then revive, survive, strive and thrive. Cons and Knockers be gone. Welcome the willing and intuit-ive. It's the product that suits the cries of I'm bored, lonely and in despair. There is no proof that developed countries are wise. They cover the best arable soils with concrete and bitumen. Pay experts, consultants and systems to fail. People and goodwill reigns and need voices of experience and know how. I want to hear from those in the know at the coal face. A natural way can happen with the help of this designed computer system. Check your gr8ometer. What grates. What is great. When are you grateful. A balanced view. A human validation test indeed. "o" sj.

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