Colonialism’s new look for the 21st century: OLPC, One Laptop per Child
Yes, there’s been breaking news on the OLPC project. Very soon US residents will be able to purchase two of the $100 laptops for only $399 (no, it’s not a new Apple product,) one for themselves and one for some fortunate child in the developing world. Orders for the laptops have been a little slower than anticipated, so this scheme was implemented to raise money for the project.
What the heck is the OLPC project? In a nutshell, it’s a plan to produce a cheap robust lap top for use under conditions where the infrastructure is less than ideal: the developing world. It has no moving parts, can be read in sunlight, and is powered by a foot pump, solar power, or a pull-string powered charger. A laptop that can be used by children in the developing world for a reasonable cost, ultimately the goal being only $100 per child. It’s also waterproof. (After seeing a friend destroy a fine laptop with a single drop of coffee, I’d think all laptops would be waterproof, but what do I know?)
OLPC, the organization developing and promoting this project is a non profit organization. An attempt to bring the modern world to children in the developing world, what could possibly be wrong with helping children?
Here’s my theory: Whenever someone says something is “for the children,” one should immediately narrow one’s eyes and focus one’s mind, because you’ve just been alerted that someone is trying to pull a fast one on you. In this case, the immediate question one should ask is, what do children in the developing world need? For starters: 1.5 million children die in the developing world every year due to lack of access to clean water and sanitation. Another 2.2 million die for want of a few dollars worth of immunizations. This is our solution, give em $100 laptops?! Think of the creative blog entries! “My little sister died today because we couldn’t afford a dollar’s worth of medicine, but thank God some rich westerner gave me this laptop so I can blog about it!”
Ah, the humanity. Yes, I am sure that many of the people behind this project are truly trying to do a good thing. I hope. I mean, superficially it does sound like a neat idea, give the poor children of the world a leg up into the information age, how can that be bad? Well, for one thing, as noted above, there are tens of millions of children in the developing world who have far more pressing needs: food, clean water, and shelter. For a second thing, libraries and schools could be built to give poor children far more effective learning resources that just a laptop…for far less money per child. Hmm, the proponents of this project don’t mention that. Thirdly, these laptops are going to be sold to the nations of the developing world…for cold hard western cash.
In other words, no matter how well intentioned some of the participants may be, this is a project primarily designed to suck $100 per child out of the poorest nations on Earth under the guise of helping them. In the old days this was called colonialism, and many people then also truly thought they were helping the poor Godless natives. Now we call it “helping the children.” Nothing has really changed since the day the Dutch “bought” Manhattan (above) for a few trunks full of trade goods, we get their resources for far less than their actual value, and the natives get beads and blankets. In a few hundred years will they add a second historical marker with a guy in a suit selling a laptop to a child?
I know, this is a very popular project that almost everyone thinks is a grand idea, but at least I’m not completely alone in my misgivings: Problems with the $100 Laptop.
(The above image of a historical marker in Manhattan is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: this site. And no, this really wasn’t a case of the clever Dutch taking shameful advantage of the simple natives…the real story of how the Dutch got Manhattan is even less flattering.)