Utopianism in ICT4D Visions

 OLPC XO Laptop Computersolpc-launch-africaThis week’s article “Can one Laptop Per Child Save the World’s Poor?” discusses the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program, originally created to provide 150-200 million of children in the developing world with one laptop each. Although it’s core intensions are good, one of the biggest flaws in my perspective is OLPC creator Nicholas Negroponte’s utopian vision. Here is some background information to Negroponte, an American computer scientist known for founding the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, developed the concept of “The Children’s Machine.” Designed to sell for only $100 per computer, the purpose of such an affordable, energy-efficient laptop was to put one in the hands of children all over the world, providing them with the education, networking capabilities to open up a window of opportunities and eventually to reduce poverty.

My concern with utopianism is the danger it brings of narrow-mindedness. Once the sense of a perfect system or ideal program is conceived, it makes things very difficult for development workers to critique the system. As it turns out, there have been a great number of issues with Negroponte’s XO laptop computer. A recent CNN Article enlightens readers on the fact that not only have XO laptops shown to have technical limitations but the slow demand has caused production costs to rise from $100 to $188 in addition to patent infringement and shipping problems. The original vision of delivering 150-200 million laptop was severely shot down when so far only about 1.5 million have actually been delivered. Instead of pushing such a ridiculous number of laptops, it would have been more effective for Negroponte to instead concentrate the operations where the appropriate interest and need existed and then additionally investing in the development of energy sources and Internet connection among other ICT4D basics. As pessimistic as this may sound, I think it’s important to maintain a more realistic outlook with development projects. This not only serves the purpose of limited funding and efficiency but also works as a means of showing respect to the communities that organizations enter. Organizations don’t always realize that they are entering peoples homes and lives when starting development work and should consider their actions much more than a social experiment. Though Negroponte’s goal may have been for the best, it was necessarily conducted in a respectful manner of taking local community culture into perspective which serves as a major reason why OLPC failed.

To end on a more positive note however, this utopian vision may have helped push for ICT development beyond laptops. Thinking of the need for Internet connection, landlines and similar complementary forms of technology has at least helped to turn media and public attention towards the capabilities and importance of ICTs in the development process.

Resources: ” I’d like to teach the world to type” Kirkpatrick, David. 11/28/05. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2005/11/28/8361971/index.htm

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2 responses to “Utopianism in ICT4D Visions

  • dbarnes4

    I agree that utopianism is a detrimental goal in the implementation of development projects. Another aspect that should be included in OLPC is the inclusion of teachers and local and national educational ministers and policy makers.

  • zswartz

    I agree with what you are saying. My country, Rwanda has OLPC as part of its ICT policy but only 13% of schools have internet access and only 0.1% of households have it. With such a low amount of access, it doesn’t seem like OLPC could have much of an impact until these areas are improved.

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