Nicholas Negroponte at Hunter, part one

Last night Nicholas Negroponte, founder of Wired and developer of the MIT Media Lab and the $100 laptop/One Laptop Per Child initiative spoke at Hunter College. I was thrilled to see him since I very much want to see the laptop idea become a reality and I’m currently doing work about how to use technology for social change. Although I left the event with major questions I was encouraged nonetheless by his presentation and look forward to the prototype, schedule to be unveiled at the World Summit on the Information Society conference in Tunis on November 16.

Before I get to those unanswered questions, I’ll offer an outline of the presentation, which I’ll present in two installments. Here goes number one.

Negroponte began by addressing what I’m sure is the foremost question on people’s minds: how will these cheap laptops actually help? He has great faith in the power of putting these tools in kids’ hands and letting their curiosity and initiative do the rest. He sees these computers as bringing education much closer to the world’s poor, and that in itself, he said, is a good thing. One of his more inspiring ideas was that not only will the computers teach kids to do things, but the kids will teach the computers to do things too, which is when the real dynamism of the project comes into being.

In 1982 Negroponte helped introduce free computers to a school in Senegal, and he said it was amazing to watch the kids “playing them like pianos.” A complete optimist and believer in the possibilities of technology, Negroponte really believes that getting these laptops in children’s hands is the most important thing; they will do the rest, much faster and with much more innovation than most people will expect.

He’s also developed initiatives to bring computers to Costa Rica, Cambodia, and Kashmir, a particularly interesting project in which he helped set up a wifi network so that Indian Kashmiri kids could talk to Pakistani Kashmiri kids. This led to idea that telecommunications are a relatively easy part of the puzzle. There are apparently plenty of different types of telecom setups all over the world, even in more remote, undeveloped places (as is seen by even small villages’ use of at least a handful of cellphones). The big problem is hardware: producing it cheaply and getting it to people. Bandwidth, Negroponte said, is “elastic,” meaning that you can provide a basic amount of it and people can share it. With computers, you need to get one to every person.

Which led him to the core issue: how to produce these machines cheaply enough to actually get them to people. For a few minutes he curiously discussed the advantages of making his One Laptop Per Child organization non-profit (the idea is to pass savings onto the kids by making the hardware increasingly cheaper, rather than passing savings on to corporations). This strikes me as a completely obvious notion; this work is what non-profits exist to do precisely because there’s so little, if any, profit involved.

He does have some biggies like Google and News Corp. on board to help with the massive costs. Why are the costs so massive? This was one of the big surprises of the night: by the second year of the program, Negroponte plans to produce 200 million laptops. Put in context, there are 30 million iPods and 50 laptops in existence in the world right now. Producing 200 million laptops in one year would be an enormous undertaking, and would create enough computers for 1/5 of the world’s one billion children.

The physical details of the machine are cool but I won’t bore you with them, except to say that the display won’t be like a tradition laptop’s but instead will reflect sunlight so that it can be almost off when outside and will be able to run on very low power. The casing will be foldable and rugged, and it can either open like a traditional laptop or like a book. Very cool.

The laptops will of course run open-source software, though Negroponte offered a weird comment about how, if this program is a success, he hopes to inspire Microsoft to do the same thing. Why would we want them to do this, when they would most likely be pushing an un-open and not-free operating system on people?

The project will be launched in six countries, a couple of which are undecided, but the group will most likely be Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, China, India, and Thailand. This choice of countries raises some important questions that I’ll get to in the next installment.

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