This afternoon, on the outskirts of Lima, in a mountain village a mile and a half above sea level, all 46 children and each of their teachers are wired. Their laptops came courtesy of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, and a quarter million other Peruvian children will soon be wired as well, as are children in other pilot programs in Abuja, Nigeria; Villa Cardal, Uruguay; Samkha village, Thailand; Porto Alegre, Brazil; and Khairat, India.
(You can be, too, for $200 and a matching tax-deductible donation to give one to a child somewhere. The give-one-get-one program runs until Dec. 31.)
There are several things to say about this remarkable project, but first let me establish the basics. The OLPC laptops are small, power-efficient laptops built to withstand rugged conditions. Each has a microphone, a camera, a screen that can be viewed in bright daylight or in dark, a small amount of flash memory (no hard drive), and innovative wireless networking capabilities that I'll come back to in a minute.
They are open-source, run linux, and are produced, sold, and distributed by a non-profit academic group as a charitable enterprise -- not by a computer company. From what I can tell, the villages that receive them are poor, but children have clothing, access to clean water, limited electricity (the laptops can be charged from a wide range of voltages, solar panels, or a hand pull), and some educational infrastructure. Rather than sprinkle the laptops throughout the population of developing countries, OLPC is targeting individual villages and saturating them, so that every child in the village has his or her own personal computer to use at school and at home.
A number of criticisms have been leveled against the program, including that the money would be better spent on providing more teachers, and that the program seeks to destroy some natural harmony that exists between poor people and the land (for example, here). With regard to the latter, the ads for the give-one-get-one program, showing a black girl with a laptop perched on her head like a bucket of water, leaves itself particularly open to critique, implying as it does -- to me, anyway -- that the program is targeted to Africa (it's not) and that the recipients are supposed to swap basic resources for new technology and smile.
I'll come back to these two topics -- what you can learn from a computer that you don't learn from a teacher, and whether "living in harmony with nature" is a myth -- in a couple of posts down the road. Right now, though, I'd like to overlook the question of all the good that I think will come out of the project in the future... and look instead at some of the good that, perhaps, already has.
Sometimes, the ultimate goal of a visionary undertaking is, in retrospect, less revolutionary than the way it was achieved. The Apollo moon landing project, for example, arguably accomplished very little direct benefit by putting an American on the moon, but the technology that had to be developed to cram a computer guidance system into a spacecraft in 1969 was revolutionary (see, for example, here and here). Much more recently, the sequencing of a single individual's DNA (both sets of chromosomes!) will also be more significant, in the long run, for how it was done than for the result itself.
Likewise, even if OLPC proves to be a bust -- and, as I'll write in future posts, I think it is likely to be one of the greatest movements of the first quarter of this century -- but even if no good comes of it, the technology of cramming all that potential into such a small, power-efficient package, is remarkable in itself. And of all the technology they drew on, the invention that's most likely to stand the test of time, I think, is mesh networking.
What is mesh networking? As I understand it, mesh networking is to the telecom industry the way bittorent is to AOL. Rather than getting your internet from a single site, mesh networking lets you participate in local ad hoc peer-to-peer networks with your neighbors. (There's more basic info here, and a cute demo -- click on the laptops to activate their antennae, and move them around to see how the network adjusts.)
Just as the Apollo mission didn't invent integrated circuits, OLPC by no means invented the idea of mesh networking. It's an idea that's been in the works for some time, and the OLPC mesh network is just one implementation of it. But, like Apollo did with ICs, OLPC is undertaking a large-scale field test of mesh networking while the technology is still in its infancy.
What are the implications of mesh networks? First, with everyone handing off data from one to the other rather than going through a central trunk, the "net neutrality" issues -- the risk of your telecom provider limiting your access to a site based on payoffs from that site -- are vaporized. (Ironically, the flip side of net neutrality -- providing equal access in urban and rural communities -- becomes much more of an issue.)
Second, many of the privacy and wiretapping issues associated with telecoms today would also vanish, at least in their current form (they may be reborn in an even more menacing form, see below). Even more importantly, I think the way this technology changes privacy may have huge implications for delivering freedom of expression in countries where internet use is censored and controlled by the government.
Finally, it's likely that these kind of dynamic, decentralized networks are better equipped for emergency response and more robust to attacks or disasters that would take down the kind of connection you're using to read this today.
What are the drawbacks? A successful network depends intimately on density of users, making this really an urban or at best suburban technology. It would be great in offices, schools, anywhere that users are near each other, and the more the better. Here in Manhattan, it would be beautiful. But in the countryside, or if introduced in a way where only early adopters have it (rather than in a saturating way as OLPC is delivering), it could disappoint. I'll note that OLPC is developing ~$10 solar-powered repeaters that would extend network connectivity.
Second, there are new kinds of privacy issues: imagine all your mail being delivered to you by being handed from neighbor to neighbor, instead of delivered by the post office. You don't need to worry (as much) about the government peeping, but what about all those neighbors? You'd want to encrypt everything you sent or received. It can be done, but it's another moving part to include in the system and something else to worry about.
Finally, would a decentralized network be vulnerable to new kinds of spam, denial of service attacks, or other malicious exploits? I'm guessing "yes" but I haven't thought it through. Again, each of these problems can be overcome -- but they may require a little more thought and development.
What gets me excited, though, is the prospect of an entirely next-generation way to communicate with your neighbors and (perhaps) people very far away; the idea that this network would be free and open and not controlled by any telecoms; and -- especially -- the idea that kids in mountain villages in Peru, and near rice fields in Thailand, near farming towns in India, will experience this potential revolution before we in the US do. Whether it blossoms in the next couple decades -- and just how it evolves -- may be mostly in the small hands of a generation of extremely rural schoolchildren.