Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Negroponte and the Low Low-Cost Candy-Colored Laptop
Nicholas Negroponte stopped off in Rome yesterday, bringing a progress report about his brainchild, the One Laptop Per Child program. Negroponte is crisscrossing the world these days in advocacy of the philanthropic project that aims to provide $100 laptops to millions of poor children around the globe. He is currently on leave from MIT, where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, and a professor of media technology.
"Mass production begins on Friday morning, Shanghai time," he said, referring to the colorful, green laptops.
Three hundred thousand of the laptops are being built between now and the end of the year, he added, with a goal of increasing production to one million a month by sometime in 2008.
New York Times review of $100 laptop
Why he was here
The occasion for Negroponte's appearance was a gathering sponsored by the International Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, the Commission on Education, SEDOS and the Communication Secretariat of the Jesuits.
The meeting was held in an auditorium at the Vatican. Sharing the dais with Negroponte were Paul Joseph Jean Cardinal Poupard, and Antonio Battro, Chief Education Officer for the One Laptop Per Child Foundation.
Prominent among the two hundred or so participants were Roman Catholic school teachers of children. Negroponte noted that there are fifty million children attending these schools around the world, and said he was there specifically to interest these teachers in buying the laptops for their students.
Also in attendance was 98-year-old Italian parliamentarian Rita Levi-Montalcino, who won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine.
The why and the what's happening now
"One of the most common questions I get is why bother giving a child a laptop when that child is malnourished, the child may have diseases, the child does not have clean water, and the child comes from a part of the world where people earn less than one dollar a day," Negroponte said. "And whenever I get that question, my answer is always the same. It's substitute the word education for laptop and you will never hear that question again. I have not met anybody who says why give education when the child is malnourished, when a child is diseased, when a child is very poor."
Negroponte launched the One Laptop Per Child program in 2005. "When we started the project most people thought we couldn't do it," he said. "Now," he added, "the laptop is not only a success but it is also being copied by others.
"Seven thousand are being tested around the world, mostly by children," he said.
Children in Thailand test the $100 laptop
Exactly what is it
In describing his project, Negroponte particularly stresses two aspects. One, that it is an educational project and not a laptop project. Two, that the laptop is designed specifically for children, not for adults. The laptop, therefore, has been designed with a toy-like appearance, is highly resistant to damage, and is easily portable enough for the children to use outside and to take home with them.
"The goal is to own it and treat it like a pencil," he said, speaking of the level of use for children.
"One of the things that breaks my heart most," Negroponte said, "is to go to an African village and see somebody who is very entrepreneurial, who has set up a generator and three or four computers, and a network and a primary school, which is very encouraging, and then you go and you see the children are being taught Word, Excel and PowerPoint. That's criminal. There's no reason for a child to learn Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Those are for office workers, those are for productivity. The children should be making things, they should be sharing things, they should be creating music, creating pictures, making videos, playing with mathematics, accessing the Internet. They shouldn't be making spreadsheets."
What it looks like and who gets it
The laptop is pint-sized, plastic, has a handle and is green. At present, keyboards come in twelve different languages, with six more in process of completion. The first countries chosen for the launch are Uruguay, Peru, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Cambodia. More countries will be added in upcoming weeks, Negroponte said.
A very new development in the launch of the project is that the laptops can now be bought by anyone. Until recently, only governments could buy them. Negroponte said that they had decided to "go to the people," as well as to governments, for funding. They created the, by now, widely publicized Give 1 Get 1 program in North America, that allows anyone to buy two laptops. One will be sent to a child in a developing country and the other will be sent to the buyer's child at home.
"The response has been extraordinary," Negroponte said. "This (program) has completely changed the tone of the project." People have asked if they can give both laptops, rather than keep one, and also whether they can buy more than two, he added.
The target price of the laptops is $100. At present, it's down to $187 and falling. A $50 target price has been set for 2010.
With the Give 1, Get 1 project, however, the price for the countries needing the laptops will be zero, Negroponte noted.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato