Feelgood movie of the year!

Despite some misgivings – not, mind you, in any way concerning the program or its intentions, but having to do rather with misplaced priorities and unintended consequences – I’ve just made my first contribution to One Laptop Per Child.

You know what? It feels kinda great. My USD400 donation, of which USD200 is tax-deductible, bought one child now growing up somewhere in the developing world one of OLPC’s technically brilliant, handcrank-powered, mesh-networking connected devices. (Along the lines of those annoying late-night adopt-a-child infomercials, it sure would be neat if I could somehow, through OLPC’s auspices, track just who gets the machine, and what they wind up doing with it.)

I know it’s not quite the same thing surgery to repair a cleft palate (USD800) or obstetric fistula (USD450), but it doesn’t have to be an either-or thing, does it? Those are urgent needs, but if you’ve ever uttered the words “information is power” and meant it, then you’ll recognize that the OLPC program addresses a universal human aspiration that, in its own way, is equally pressing.

If you believe, with me, that access to information is a foundational human right, OLPC is a great way to put your money where your mouth is. And through 26 November, with each donation, you’ll receive an OLPC machine of your own, to donate domestically, hack on, or otherwise do with what thou wilt. It’s something I’m proud to be supporting, and I encourage you to do so as well.

8 responses to “Feelgood movie of the year!”

  1. Chris says :

    US and Canada only. Bah!

  2. speedbird says :

    If you want, you can PayPal me the money, then I’ll make the contribution in your name and ship you the box when it comes in.

  3. jz says :

    For a small fee, of course. Already creating a VAR market for OLPC, Adam! Or did you already forget about consideration? Heathcote doesn’t get any freebees just for Heathcote… ;-P

  4. speedbird says :

    There is, of course, such a thing as a “friends and family discount.” : . )

  5. Christopher Fahey says :

    Forgive my presumptuousness here, but do you really think that OLPC is not, all at once, a monumental ego trip for the people behind it, a miscarriage of design (at least in terms of the software), and a pedagogical mistake?

    Forgive me for getting even more personal here, but is your purchase really even remotely altruistic in nature? Or did you just want the laptop? I’ll go so far as to guess that you would have paid $400 for the OLPC even if no child ever got one.

    I would not fault you for just wanting the object, mind you — it’s the part where you seem to think that a poor child having one of these is a good thing that troubles me. For the life of me, I cannot fathom how OLPC will help *anybody*.

    You’re a gadgeteer. Nothing to be ashamed of (well, maybe a little: I know for a fact that you bought a Modo. :-) ) The OLPC is a sexy object and a great toy — for affluent western gadgeteer aesthetes (spoken in “for me to poop on!” voice).

    You know I mean this in good spirits. You look better without using Nicholas Negroponte’s face as a fig leaf. Did you know that he is John Negroponte’s brother? I just learned that a few days ago. Yuck!

  6. George says :

    I was thinking of getting one too! I’m not quite so liquid, though, so have thus far held off.

    I also wondered whether it would be possible to connect with whichever child received the sibling laptop. I think it would be interesting to make the connection possible, requiring consent on both sides of course. I even went so far as to email one of the major developers on the OLPC, my friend Chris Blizzard, but he didn’t get back to me on this. Given that the laptop is all about using technology to create social infrastructure of various kinds, it’s weird they didn’t think of making the connection.

    As for Christopher’s comment here, I’m not convinced this is an ego trip for most of those involved, or at least not in a bad way. It is definitely an attempt to show nay-sayers and industry cynics up, but that’s the kind of ego trip I’d like to support. In fact I may be less interested in the children than I am in the cultural phenomenon of the first-world production of the thing. But I do think the long-term potential for the project as a thought tool is quite positive (other than I think the world is going to die anyway).

    So Adam, how is this thing??? When do you get it?

    PS: That *is* interesting about the two Negropontes!

  7. speedbird says :

    So Chris, I guess I just don’t agree with you at all.

    You know I have no particular love of the fatuous Negroponte (or either of them, I should say, and the story of that particular family will make a very interesting Vanity Fair article some day), but, y’know, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    And as far as I’m concerned, OLPC is one of those occasions. I wouldn’t for a moment challenge the idea that the concept was probably born more out of Negroponte’s hare-brained technoutopianism than anything resembling a critical inquiry into what tools and services kids in the developing world might actually have some use for.

    Nevertheless, it’s in many respects the right answer, in ways that Negroponte has never even thought of. For example: a factoid I gleaned from a 2005 presentation by technologist Sheila Kennedy concerns how many children live in places where there’s no reliable source of illumination after nightfall – I don’t have the number to hand, but it was big, just a saddeningly and surprisingly huge number.

    In this light (no pun intended), if all its recipients wind up using the laptop for is a hand-crank candle to read by, well, I consider that a success.

    Less importantly, but more relevant to my amour-propre: I’m not a gadgeteer – or haven’t been, anyway, in a long time. As long ago as August of 2001 (and the date now seems freighted with relevance, in a way that it probably isn’t), I was writing that I had lost faith in the promise bound up in each shiny new ultrabroadband carbon-fiber-unobtainium widget to simplify my life and make it better.

    I just don’t buy that any more, in either sense. The list of ostensibly important “tools” and lifestyle accessories I haven’t bought in the last five years – Blackberry, Bluetooth headset, PSP, GPS, MacBook, Leopard – is far longer than the few such items I’ve actually picked up, chiefly the iPhone. And phones aren’t really gadgets any longer, anyway.

    More to the point: my god, man, the OLPC is bright green! You can’t possibly imagine I’d be seen carrying one. : . )

    George, you know I share your pessimism about the longer- (or even mid-term) fate of human civilization on this planet. Some long-shot imp of the perverse in me compels me to keep contributing to projects like this and the Long Now. Sigh.

  8. Christopher Fahey says :

    Adam, it’s not the OLPC “give-computers-to-kids” concept I object to, which seems to be the point of your defense. I am skeptical of the concept, but not skeptical enough to think that it doesn’t deserve a place among a multitude of different experimental approaches to helping third world poverty. It’s decidedly worth a shot.

    It’s just the execution that seems so wrong, and the pedagogy that lies behind the execution. (The hardware, by all accounts, is impeccable. But the rest of the decisions make no sense to me.)

    I’ve not seen it in real life, nor have I played with the simulator, so I’m hardly a credible critic, but the videos and screenshots look like a user interface design, and indeed a product design, atrocity. It seems to swing wildly from one UX disaster to the other: One one side, you have the self-indulgent “innovative” UI design of the XO main interface, a misguided attempt to be simple enough for a child to use, but that to my seasoned “expert” eye looks like a quintessential net.art experiment or an academic HCI prototype from 1995. And on the other side, for most of the apps, you have programs that come from the the half-baked, sloppy, user-hostile, geeks-only world of open-source UI design, complete with inconsistent UI elements, wild swings from wordlessness to wordiness, and tools for programming in, er, *python*?!?

    As much as I dislike Windows, I can’t see why inventing a new OS and loading it up with a bunch of stagnant academic software experiments is a better idea than just building in a cheap (crippled, old) version of Windows, an operating system (and indeed, the precise interaction paradigm) that the OLPC’s users are likely to encounter again in some form later in their lives, if they ever use computers again at all.

    Or, at least, give them a fancy mobile phone. Most mobiles do everything OLPC does these days, and I wonder sometimes if small mobile devices with phone/voice as the center feature aren’t really where third-world computer use isn’t heading anyway.

    My prediction: As with the Cue-cat, first-world hackers will circumvent the software entirely and use the device for other stuff. They’ll come up with a new OS for the device, probably just a way to install Linux on it, and *every* first world owner will wipe their device clean and start over again with something else.

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