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Negroponte vs. Gates on the $100 laptop

mit100laptopThe debate between cellphones and laptops for the poor is a great example of Realists vs. Elites in charity. Realists propose basic needs like nutrition, clean water, basic health, microlending, and free trade to allow people to realize these on their own terms. The Elites identify the elements of their own lives they deem important and find ways to gift them to others.

I’ve been casually following the development of MIT Media Labs $100 laptop, a device that intends to bring connectivity and computing to the third world. It strikes me as yet another well-intentioned effort of the western ‘elite’ to impose their priorities and visions on those less fortunate. If organizations or donors create synthetic demand, purchase the laptops, and airdrop them into the third world, I’m not expecting success, and the FAQ for the site has no clear metrics for measuring project success.

The only metric of success should be the sale of units from countries and citizens financing the laptop themselves. Looks like that isn’t going to happen.

Please note that the $100 laptops—not yet in production—will not be available for sale. The laptops will only be distributed to schools directly through large government initiatives.

Once complete, regardless of the outcome, the folks that made the laptop happen can sit back and bask in the positive reinforcement selfless charity brings them. I’m sure they will throw a swell party when it’s all done.

Contrast this with Bill Gates, who spends a significant amount of his scarce time (too much?) actually funding charities in the third world. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is known for large donations for global public health with clearly outlined goals and success metrics. Hard-ball charity. They get their hands dirty. My bet is he has a better idea of what is really needed in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, when Bill Gates comes out and says that people need phones, not laptops, I listen. He probably wanted to say “people need DDT to kill malaria transmitting mosquitoes, and the ability to farm and market their products globally”, but my guess is that would get the Davos crowd (and the nutcases wearing turtle costumes) a little upset.


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  1. I am struck by how such smart people could be so absolutely disconnected from reality.

    The Ethos waters site has compiled a bunch of stats describing how dire the situation is for the world’s poor.

    The most surprising is that a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Clearly, a malnourished person who risks a potentially fatal case of dysentery ever time they take a drink does not need to get on the internet. They require sustenance.

    I don’t know Negroponte or the other people involved nor their true intentions, but from the looks their website it seems that they’re accomplished people who were stricken with a bit of altruism in early November and have lost interest in the two months since. Maybe (hopefully) they’ve started comprehend the breadth and magnitude of the problems facing the poor and are neglecting the laptop idea in favor one more deserving of their talent and effort.

    Posted by matt bolig | February 6, 2006, 4:39 PM
  2. Now, this article indicates a very short-sighted and incomplete observation.

    I agree, the poor need food. But food doesn’t help people 5 years ahead or to build a future. Food -as the primary need of human beings- is a natural necessacity, for you, for me and for the poor. So is medicine. We need it, but will we get it? In the west people like you and I will get whatever we want, need or desire. But even in many parts of America and Europe there are many poor, hungry or sick people.

    It is a great thing and very commendable that MIT is going ahead with this project. The $100 computer is not a toy, it has a future in a kids hand. It is very humanitarian. Yet, I read you insulting the likes of Negroponte. Take a look in the mirror next time, before you comment (sneer) on other people’s intention.

    People like you, who seem to have a very short-sighted and common visions, will never see the value of a poor kid being educated and given a somewhat equal chance to ride on the information wave.

    Posted by Neal S. Lachman | February 8, 2006, 11:56 AM
  3. The $100 laptop sounds like a good idea to me–too bad it’s not being targeted to children in the Appalachian range or the Mississippi Delta or Louisiana or hundreds to inner city areas here in the United States. Mr. Negroponte shouldn’t be heaped with derision over his actually wonderful idea–God bless him–most people give according to their interests and preferences. A $100 wireless computer and a wireless network for children and their parents is a good idea. Lets help out in every way we can the poor overseas, but don’t forget those who are struggling here.

    Posted by Kathleen Ward | December 9, 2006, 5:21 PM