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.