The One Laptop per Child Dream

One Laptop per Child running Linux

Do children need game consoles, mp3-players, camera phones, bedroom TV sets with inbuilt DVD players? Probably not. Few cross-cultural comparisons would suggest such devices are of any educational benefit. Indeed they distract children from other forms of play and learning, bombard them with a never-ending blur of junk information and prepare them only for a world of instant gratification, in which corporate deities impart magical gifts. You will not learn how to program by playing moronic games on your PSP or iPhone. But technology is not necessarily bad. Many new technologies first used by the educated elite tend to emancipate rather than enslave users to consumerist addiction. Clearly using the Internet as a research and communication tool rather than as just another channel for advertising, gambling, porn and interactive TV can level the playing field between the intellectual haves and have-nots. So could information technology ever reach out to the hundreds of millions of kids thus far spared of the psychological side effects of mass-marketed gadgetry because they lack landline telephony and reliable mains electricity? Remember the good old days when geeks would learn by writing programs in Basic at the command line and progress to C++ on college work stations? Remember the early years of the World Wide Web when a high proportion of Web sites were handcoded with little regard for eye candy, but merely for the effective and structured delivery of hyperlinked information? Today kids in the prosperous world may learn mouse and gamepad manipulation early on, but few are motivated to look under the bonnet, as long as they can download music, play games and copy and paste text and images into their homework.

Recently I splashed out over £750 (that's approx. €1150 or US $1400) on a reliable laptop, a MacBook, because my current earnings and professional needs can justify such lavishness. For many a laptop is little more than an Internet tablet with a spell-checking notepad and a few simple games. Most of the machine's memory is used for visual desktop wizardry which quite frankly is a huge overkill. If we remove the cost of proprietary software, a bog standard new laptop, say with a 1.6GHz CPU, 512MB RAM and a 40GB hard-drive, DVD/CDR drive and integrated wireless receiver can be had for as little as £250. If we strip out optical drives and replace the hard drive with compact flash memory, now as cheap as £2 per gigabyte, we can significantly reduce power consumption. By further lowering specifications and optimising software to deliver essential Web connectivity, browsing, word processing, number-crunching and programming functionality we may soon have the £60 (€90 or US $100) laptop, complete with wind-up power generator. Think of it as PSP or Nintendo DS with a keyboard, but without the distraction of moronic games. For children accustomed to wide-screen plasma TVs and game consoles at home such a device would fail to impress. While many technophile may be salivating over Apple's forthcoming iPhone, replete with smudges all over touch screen and with only Apple-approved software (It may use a variant of Unix-based OS X, but will not let you install additional software), the real battle to break the quasi-monopoloy of proprietary computer vendors and produce a tool that will not only bridge the digital divide, but may reverse the intellectual divide, giving the poor educational tools and leaving high-tech hedonism for sheepish comsumers.

Guess what operating system the proposed laptop runs? Linux of course with Firefox and OpenOffice enabling users to access most Web sites and exchanges files in the commonest formats (PDF, ODF and even MS Word 97-2003), but alas no i-Tunes or World of Warcraft compatibility. No wonder neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs support this initiative. Their focus is solely on their stock prices.

Neil Gardner