Negroponte and the World’s Most Expensive Lightbulb

News on the wires yesterday was that Nicholas Negroponte and the other pointy heads at MIT’s media lab have decided to release details of a $100 laptop so that kids in the Global South can own their own computer, and finally straddle the digital divide.

It’s a bad idea.

Or rather, it’s a bad idea to build $100 laptops from the ground up when you start more seriously to consider the alternatives. Like recycled computers.

Negroponte runs through some of the FAQs, and has this to say about recycled computers.

regarding recyled machines: if we estimate 100 million available used desktops, and each one requires only one hour of human attention to refurbish, reload, and handle, that is forty-five thousand work years.

And he’s right. If one person were tasked with upgrading them all, it’d take a while. But if we assume a 40 hour working week, and a year to fix as many machines as you can, you end up paying 50,000 people to refurbish 100 million machines. The advantage of this is that refurbishers could be in the same places where the computers are destined to run. So, not the suburbs of Hyderabad, Taipei or Seoul. In rural areas, in favelas. And by the same token, these newly trained hackers will be needed for tech support – each one responsible for 2000 machines to cover them all. And, there’s nothing to say that these new gods of tech support couldn’t and shouldn’t teach others how to keep the machines on the road.

There are, after all, a couple of questions that Negroponte doesn’t consider. The first is – what happens when (not if) the computers break? A decentralised network of fixers with access to skills and equipment is going to be much more helpful than a three year return-to-base warranty in a place without roads. Granted, having a range of different machines, with different components inside, is a headache to plan for. I was hoping to make the analogy that it’s much harder to get a Porsche fixed in India than the local variant of the Morris Minor, the Ambassador. But I’ll admit that the comparison falls apart since recycled computers aren’t generic, and the hassle of getting appropriate components is one to think through. This doesn’t, however, strike me as any kind of killer objection.

The second, and more interesting, question that Negroponte doesn’t ask is this: where’s the power going to come from?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s smart to have a power-source built into the machine – it’s a disruptive technology, it’s a way to be free of an unreliable and fickle regional power grid. But “where’s the electricity?” is not a question that features in Negroponte’s FAQ. Perhaps he envisages that every day for half an hour, classes of kids will work on their wrists by cranking enough juice into the laptop to get through the morning’s lessons. Which would be fine, except that the machine is designed to run thin-client software. Where’s the power for the server going to come from?

The constraints that I saw most kids studying under over the past few months were that
1. they don’t have books
2. they don’t have school rooms
3. they don’t have teachers
4. they don’t have enough money to afford to be able to go to school
5. there’s no light to be able to read after hours.
This last problem is solved with the laptop if, every night, people wind the thing up, turn it on, open it up, and hang it from the ceiling. Which, apparently, they have.

Bringing the laptop home engages the family. In one Cambodian village where we have been working, there is no electricity, thus the laptop is, among other things, the brightest light source in the home.

At which point, it stops being the world’s cheapest laptop, and becomes the world’s most expensive lightbulb.

What irks me most about Negroponte’s rather immodest proposal, though, is the assumption that education is, ultimately, an individual process, and that the technology to support it must therefore be geared towards single students. This assumption pokes through in moments such as

there are many reasons it is important for a child to “own” something—like a football, doll, or book—not the least of which being that these belongings will be well-maintained through love and care.

Even if we discount the “laptop as Chihuahua” thinking here, the problem remains that education happens in classrooms, outside of which are families and communities in which the children and their computers have to live, even if Negroponte doesn’t. If you’re planning an intervention like this, why marginalise them?

Going the route of recycled computers is cheaper. And the cash (not to mention pollution and energy) you’d save on manufacturing might be better deployed in providing sustainable power to the village, perhaps by building a school building to put the photovoltaic cells on, and the kids in. And while you’re at it, why not a teacher or two? That way, you might be able to do things like run a clinic, have lighting, and maybe even energy for a communal kitchen. Of course, a big whack of cash would be required not just for harvesting the energy, but storing it and maintaining the local grid. Fuel cells are currently too expensive, but that’s because they’ve not had serious amounts of coin thrown at them at the IT industry has. Recycled computers for families, training for people to maintain them, investment in education infrastructure and creating power for a village – that would be disruptive technology. It wouldn’t all come in one box – it just means thinking outside of one.

And a word of caution. When the Indian government invented the Simputer, a similar bridging of the digital divide was presaged. Today, the thousands of unsold versions of the Simputer have found a new home – as a handset through which Bangalore police can issue on-the-spot parking tickets. Beyond the fact that Simputers are now incredibly cheap, the most important reason that they’re being used is because they can issue the tickets in Kannada.