Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

One laptop per child: another fish in Lake Victoria?

The last few days I started to ruminate about an interesting discussion during my university years. I studied Societal History in the late 80s, early 90s and decided that I needed something to really round of my education. And so I embarked on a major in Development Economics in order to learn and understand the finer points of social and economic planning in developing nations.
Societal Histoy in those days was firmly rooted in modern dialectics and I believe it is not easy for any student of history to remain the idealistic optimist when looking at mankind’s track record. The students at Development Economics where economy majors, optimists that honestly and seriously wanted to better the world by employing their skills, talents and energy. A lofty goal.
In one of our first classes we dealt with one of the key issues in social and economic problems: that of choice and constraints. In order to develop a society you need investments in agriculture, industry, services, education, health care, to name just a few. And all those investments are linked in one way or another. Idealistic as my fellow students were they decided to go for health care and education. I must confess that I didn’t really argue with any sense of tact, but my arguments boiled down to this point: “Fine, so now you saved the children from dying of small-pox and the flu. Now they die of hunger.” The words “heated debate” doesn’t even describe what happened after that.
The teacher allowed the discussion to continue for almost an hour. He then made my argument final by saying that in developing nations every choice in this regard will have dire consequences. People will die no matter what choices are made. The transition is never an easy process and with the lack of resources…. Well, you get the picture. We had a great year and a half after that with a superb group of students. I enjoyed every moment of it.
I had to think back about that discussion when I read again about the one laptop per child project. In itself it is a remarkable project: to put a cheap laptop in the hands of young children in the developing world. Red Hat will provide the OS, but Microsoft and Apple wanted to deliver it as well. This alone would preclude the notion that only altruistic motives are involved in the project. It seems such a good idea. Countries can buy those laptops for $100,– a piece and the children have a solid OS with a bunch of great open source applications. But…. every choice has it’s dire consequences.
What could be the consequences for developing nations? For one, even today there should not be a lack of resources to invest in education at large: proper building, proper school books, properly trained, motivated and paid teachers. However, a large proportion of the annual budgets for many developing nations goes to (1) defense spending and (2) debt reduction. Where does that money go to? Of course, the western world. The small amount that goes into education might well be diverted into participating in this pet project, reducing the pace of innovation the education sector.
This reminds me of an example that we discussed in Development Economics, the case of the Victoria bass in Lake Victoria. It seemed like a good idea as well: introduce a fish with more proteine and fat than any other fish. One thing was forgotten: our new friend had no natural enemies in Lake Victoria and a healthy appetite. The ecosystem was destroyed and it took ages for the people around Lake Victoria to adjust to the new situation. Progress? Not really.
I am afraid that the one laptop per child project will prove to be just that. A big fish in a weak educational ecosystem.

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