When I first heard about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project I thought, “Dream on. Nice idea, perhaps a tad imperialistic despite its good intentions, but more than a tad unrealistic — it’ll never happen anyway, so not to worry. Nice dream, but dream on.”
The idea was this: a laptop, designed to be simple, rough, directly usable, under any conditions, even in areas with no reliable power supply, and so cheap that it could be sold in underdeveloped countries and finally let them in on the digital revolution, and powerful enough not to be simply a toy. The precondition was that enough orders were placed, so initially 1 million laptops per order (i.e. per country) was the minimum. This, in turn, would bring the price down to $100. So for a measly sum of 100 million dollars — hardly a week’s worth of mortgage to banks in the West, I assume — a whole population would be given all the chances that a computer can offer.
And there was more: the mesh networking on which the laptop is based allows any laptop to be connected to any other OLPC laptop in the area. So with just one laptop connected in, say, Zaire, the whole million of other OLPC kids would be online, in a gigantic, organic network, covering and connecting countries, continents, heck, the whole world.
OK. Nice dream, but dream on.
Or so I thought. But with increasing, incredulous astonishment I’ve gradually been led to believe that it may not be just a dream.
Every time I read a report on the progress of the project or a review of the product, my hair rises in excitement. Literally. I think “This is too good to be true.” “This is mind-boggling in its implications, it couldn’t happen, but it does!”
Several countries have already signed up. The fourth beta version has brought the speed up (which was a major objection in earlier versions). Most reviews are overwhelmingly positive (including the one written by someone in the target group, a 12-year-old).
The laptop will not cost $100 but $200, but what they have managed to put together at that price seems incredible. But true. Up to twelve hours battery life, supplemented by a mechanical generator and a solar cell panel; the mesh network; a case which must appeal to kids (perhaps even to some adults); a sound selection of Linux-based software; a one-button peek into the internals of software where the user can make changes directly (and restore them if something goes wrong) in order to stimulate the understanding of the internals of computers — I want a laptop like that! And had I been living in North America I could have, through the Give 1 Get 1 program.
What’s most fantastic about the OLPC program is that . . .
No, wait — what’s most fantastic is probably that millions of children in underdeveloped countries will be given a chance they didn’t have before, opening up opportunities to get a better life.
But other than that, what’s most fantastic about the OLPC program is that it shows that it is still possible to be visionary, to get a wildly unrealistic idea and follow it through to realization, and — if it works out like it seems to — to change the world for the better.