Sunday, June 1, 2008

The $100 Laptop

I have always been somewhat skeptical of the idea of one laptop per child. Creating a cheap enough laptop so that every child in the world might “join the 21st century” and profit from the benefits from having a laptop. MY skepticism I think stemmed from grade 8 high school, when the School Board provided out school with brand new computers, complete with DVD players, high-end computer processors and large displays. A rough estimation at the time led us to conclude they cost upwards of $2000 (for a non-government consumer). Though the idea of using such computers was conceived for the purpose of improving education, they were never used, and so went to waste $2000 (multiplied by around 100, for the number bought).

My second level of criticism arose from the notion that the laptop would use wireless Internet. But where would a child in remote Cambodia have access to wireless internet?

Well, I was pretty wrong… my first time seeing one in use (on the bus) really led me to reconsider my previous held opinion. Not only did it look pretty cool (the guy was reading documents on it like one would with a $2000 tablet computer) it helped underscore the ideas it represents.


In fact, the $100 computer represents perhaps the embodiment of a new era in technology as a whole. It is an amalgamation of some of the newest ideas in technology, especially with regards to such things as peer-to-peer networking and open source programming.

Open source represents something approaching a democratization of software development. It is the idea that a program is created “open” so that anyone might be able to view the code, and create their own off-shoot programs, or improve on the existing program. The advantage of this is that rather than spending millions on a giant team of engineers, the entire world becomes your team…for free. Windows would be an example of a non-open-source program, whereas Firefox would be an open-source product. Windows Vista has been considered one of the greatest technological regressions of the 21st century, as noted by www.cnet.com. This perhaps a reflection of their inability to compete with programs such as Apple OS/X with regards to its open-source core, allowing its flaws to be dissected and then fixed in real-time, rather than by one team of engineers, releasing service packs etc. several months later. Another example of open-source, is Wikipedia, in that it provides articles that can be edited by anyone. Though this sounds sketchy, in that any unqualified person might write their own article, this platform ensure that these articles are in a sense, peer-reviewed. On an analysis of Wikipedia compared with the Encyclopedia Britannica, it was discovered that the accuracy of Wikipedia is the same or better. (An article on the study)

The brilliance of open-source is that it does not limit knowledge to one single origin. One might distill open-source to technological democracy, rather than its old oligarchic dominance by a small set of giant companies (ahem, Microsoft).

Peer to peer networking embraces a similar idea of sharing something for an overall improvement. Rather than ideas, a peer-to-peer network enables computers to benefit from the cumulated bandwidth of a group, rather than the limits of one central server. An example of this is the SETI at home (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) which capitalizes on the leftover bandwidth of member computers (those who signed up to their website) rather than rely on one super computer to crunch data. Check it out HERE.
The $100 computer uses an idea stemming from this, called mesh networking, to enable Internet for students even in the most remote regions of a country.

The rising market-shares of Firefox, linux based programs, Wiki applications etc. underscore the future of open-source. Bit torrent, SETI at home, the importance of Peer-to-peer networking. In sum, Social Production (as open-source and other similar ideas are called, vs. Market Production) is the future.

However, there is one speed bump. Intellectual Property laws and the monopolizing corporations etc. are limiting this innovation. Not that law is bad, it is just that the evolution of technology is moving at a faster-pace than jurisprudence. It is, however, more likely these corporations and laws that will be required to mold themselves to the new wave of decentralized social production, as this new methodology proves its capability to compete with the biggest companies in the business.

And the $100 laptop? To say the least, it is an investment in the future.