Emerging Tech

John Dvorak of PCMag disses OLPC

John C. Dvorak of PCMag apparently did not have too high an opinion of the OLPC, and he is not afraid to let it be be known.

John C. Dvorak of PCMag apparently did not have too high an opinion of the OLPC, and he is not afraid to let it be be known.

In his strongly worded article last week titled: One laptop per child doesn't change the World, he ridiculed the project with sarcasm:

This machine [The XO laptop], which is the brainchild of onetime MIT media lab honcho Nick Negroponte, will save the world. His vision is to supply every child with what amounts to an advertising delivery mechanism. Hence the boys at Google are big investors.

Dvorak questioned the point of bringing in a computer to a place like Niger, with a 13 percent literacy rate. Furthermore, he asked just how many Web sites and wikis are written in SiSwati or IsiZulu anyway.

He also elaborated at length on World Health Organization (WTO) estimates that one-third of the world is starving, and another one-third is underfed, questioning how giving the children "these little green computers" can help.

He ends off by saying, "As if this whole OLPC scheme is anything other than a naive fiasco waiting to unfold. I'll donate my money to hunger relief, thank you."

Is the OLPC project such a pie in the sky? What is your opinion on this matter?

About

Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.

37 comments
DelbertPGH
DelbertPGH

Probably John Dvorak, the clever and iconoclastic IT observer, is making the mistake of believing that what hasn't occurred to him personally is irrelevant to mankind generally. I don't know what his opinion on distance learning is, or what the opportunity to get an MBA from Thunderbird might mean to a student in rural Montana, but I'm guessing he would think that's a big improvement over no graduate education at all. Apparently he has not made the connection between that and OLPC (one laptop per child.) A $100 or $200 laptop is about a lot more than teaching spreadsheets to kids from the Congo. In poor countries, primary education suffers from a lot of defects. Textbooks are not only expensive to buy, but expensive to distribute. Teachers, if a community can find any at all, typically suffer from big voids in their own education (think of how many American el-ed majors can read, but can't do math,) and are overloaded with kids. If there is any class at all, it could well be one teacher, forty kids of different ages, and eight copies of different editions of one or two textbooks. Improving that takes a budget, or a whole lot of leverage. The laptops, and the network to connect them to the world, are paradigm breakers: - you can read your textbook on line - they are cheaper to distribute than textbooks - you have access to unlimited variety in courses and teaching expertise - each kid gets an individualized learning experience There's more than that: bringing kids in contact with the broader world can build a modern outlook, and make them better prepared for a life bigger than the village. And, their parents will derive benefit as well. Once there is a network for instant exchange of information, some of the friction that helps keep poor economies in the dumps goes away. If dad can use his kid's OLPC to find out which town is offering the best market price for his produce, he brings more prosperity to his home, and more fluidity to his local economy. Plus, he suddenly has access to practical instruction that can make him a better or healthier farmer. It's always possible to look at starving kids, and decide that it's better to starve them of education and put the resources into a couple of meals, instead. But, that's not building the kind of world we value. And, considering that in many remote places, starving farmers send their starving kids off to board with scarce dollars in some remote town where they can get a bit of education, the poor are telling us they agree.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

"It's always possible to look at starving kids, and decide that it's better to starve them of education and put the resources into a couple of meals, instead. But, that's not building the kind of world we value. " It made me think of the "Give a man a fish.." aphorism.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...will it change it? Quite possibly. It's been said that litteracy and the VCR was ultimately the downfall of the Soviet Union. Totalitarian governments that do not maintain a monopoly on information can not survive. Yeah, the OLPC may in-fact become a "advertising delivery mechanism". So what? It can't be any worse than the ideologically monopolistic drivel that most of the poor citizens of the world are subjected to now. And perhaps, alternative realities will open their minds to alternative possibilities. The problem with the third world isn't money; it's a lack of freedom and rule-of-law. A few million cheap PCs might do something to shake that situation up a bit.

conectarsrl
conectarsrl

He can only see starving children, I live in a Third World Country that has commited itself to bring one laptop to every child, because we all think here the only way to stop poverty is by education and by breaking the digital gap. Most Third World Countries spend more money on weapons made by the First World than on education. Starving children are very media-striking, but Dvorak should see beyond those starving children and think about the origins

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...without freedom and rights. Until that lesson is learned, all these countries will end up doing is educating their own populations up to the point where they figure out that their only future is somewhere else. They suffer brain-drain and we get more low-cost labor; not an optimum solution.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

for just such Democratic thought to be learned. Look at the China Firewall project, and how many solutions have been found to circumvent the "Golden Shield." Freedom of information is a basic requirement of a free society. And while some people will look to leave and come to America\Europe, many others will look around and say "Why do we not enjoy the same life? What must we do, to get our Country on par with the First World?"

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

Some interesting questions on the OLPC. - How much power does the on-board generator produce? - Can it be used to power other devices? - How much does the generator alone cost? - How hard would it be for some enterprising kid in a 3rd world African country to modify the pc by connecting the generator to an external source like a small wind mill or water wheel to do the cranking for them? OLPC is likely to have an even greater impact, by promoting the English language, and by accelerating the loss of native languages. I can only hope that it is used to record the unique information of those languages and cultures before they become extinct.

j-mart
j-mart

A PC is just a tool, Like a spanner, shovel, or what ever. To get the job done there is nothing as good as having he right tool for the job in hand. For the immediate tasks in helping the peoples of under privileged countries to improve there lot in life a PC would not be the best tool to solve their biggest problems they are facing.

spinella
spinella

No, computers won't solve illiteracy any more than planting trees will solve global warming. But is it the right thing to do? Yes in both cases. Trees empower a more robust micro-environment. Enough of them effect the macro-environment. Computers empower the family using them. Enough of them empower the communities and countries where those people live!

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

and good view of the big picture.

RIP-1241
RIP-1241

I agree with Dvorak for once. If the third world cannot afford to feed themselves, how are they going to afford the electricity to run these things? The only thing keeping the developed world from rejoining the third world are the power plants.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

it is to generate low levels of electricity from "trash." More then enough to support the recharging of batteries. Any high school kid who has had basic physics can build a simple generator.

spofford
spofford

There's a generator in the laptop's case. Can't say that 10 min of computing for 1 min of yanking is a great trade-off, but the motivated will get somewhere with it.

Dr Dij
Dr Dij

$.35 gets an all you can eat rice and chickpeas meal in some parts of india on a show I watched. Food is what people buy before anything else. just not much else if they are really poor. having access to information helps them farm better, build better shelters, train for jobs produce goods better to help them feed themselves and get beyond the 'just feeding themselves' stage.

RknRlKid
RknRlKid

I used to subscribe to PCMag and PC-Computing. I enjoyed reading his articles for their wit. John would make some interesting points. I always thought the point of his columns were their humor, not their accuracy. He's entitled to his opinions, of course. I happen to disagree. OLPC isn't a cure all, but its a start of something. Sure, we could pour money into a third world country. Having been to third world countries, I can tell you now its a bad idea. By delivering a PRODUCT and not MONEY, the generally corrupt and poor governments are cut out of the loop. Would it be good to provide food or school buildings? Sure, but someone else is supposed to do that. (Heck, there are dozens, if not hundreds of organizations that do that. Their inefficiencies are a different topic.) I wish people would quit comparing apples to bananas. OLPC is not about feeding the poor, its about giving them an opportunity to learn about and use modern technology. I wish all the naysayers would put their money where their mouths are. I would love to see John cough up a year's salary and build a school, or start a town farm. I would rather someone do SOMETHING instead of just complaining. Me, I did do something...I donated to the OLPC project.

Tig2
Tig2

Having read the article, I see his points. There are a lot of them, and they're good. So you hand a child a laptop. The next indicated action MUST be to teach the child to use it. Oh wait. The child can't read to begin with! Okay. Now you've bought a second job. Teach the child to read. Oh wait. The child is too hungry to learn. Guess what? You just bought yourself a third job. Feed the child and do so in a way that can be repeated after you're gone. In project management, we list all the tasks that must be undertaken in order to accomplish a goal. And then we figure out which must be done first, then second, and so on. I'm afraid that I agree with Dvorak. Someone missed a few predecessors. And they're big ones.

eM DuBYaH
eM DuBYaH

You said it. Seriously, in the chain of importance, first priority is feed the hungry. How can one learn when they're starving? OLPC is great, but will not achieve it's goal until the prior items are first met.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Yes, food/water and shelter are first priority in the order of needs. OLPC targets people who *have* food and water and shelter already but *need* education. As my wife says; "There are different degrees of poverty" Please, for the love of baud people, please learn something about the project before you go off dissing it from such a blatant possition of ignorance: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_myths#You.27re_forcing_this_on_poverty_stricken_areas_that_need_food.2C_water_and_housing_rather_than_a_laptop. Over and over a gain I hear this same "I don't like hte project cause I have this instant opinion about it without having done any readong" crap. Good for you; you can diss something you know little about. Perhaps you have a better solution you'd like to share? What have you done too try and change the world?

techrepreader
techrepreader

own a computer. I worked in the developing world for 12 years, India, Philippines, Kenya, and Uganda Sure there are places that food and shelter is the first priority but there are just as many where these issues have been addressed, and the OLPC would be a wonderful next step. My son was recently in a small south Pacific nation working with kids at a primary school. Food was not an issue but school supplies were almost none existent. Most people who question the value of the OLPC have never worked with the poor in the developing world.

nyabdns
nyabdns

I personally know someone from the Congo and they are not all illiterate and starving. There is a huge segment of the population that would benifit from OLPC. I also read through a lot of the comments to the original article by Dvorak and at least one of them was from an African that agrees with that it is a good idea. I like what Conrad said, did anybody ask the kids?

steve.papagiannis
steve.papagiannis

Nyabdns has it right, as do some others. But most people posting here have a misperception of what developing countries are like. As nyabdns noted, they are not all illiterate and starving. There is a large number of people who could use this technology. A good example of technology use would cell-phones in remote villages. They've assisted greatly in the quality of life for these people. Their connection to larger towns and other villages has made communication easier and faster and given them greater access to market information. Accoring to most posters here, they should have ignored getting wireless access and ground more millet for food. Well they didn't because phone access was a better investment for them.

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

And I can agree with you position, I think many of the predecessors are already "in the works" so to speak. No project of this scale can have less then a 10 year rate before results can be evaluated, and as we have seen with many other organizations, it takes at least that long to really get estabished and shipping products, and getting them to the actual end users. In terms of Maslow's Hierarchy, many may not be receiving adaquate food and shelter (the base/physiological layer), there are still many more that do have food and shelter, friends and family, and want to learn and develope, they are in the peak of the hierarchy, the self-actualization layer. And it is no less our "duty" or "responsibility" to provide solutions and tools to acheive these goals then it is food and water. But, this only applies to those who are not starving, are not suffering from a lack of basic human needs. Food IS more important then a computer, but other agencies are already working on this. Now, someone needs to address less basic needs. Knowledge is required for human development. "Starving a mind is no less a crime then starving a body."

Tig2
Tig2

All I said was that I thought that there was some value to Dvorak's comments. I think that there needs to be some understanding of where the machines go and what, if any, predecessors pertain. And I don't think that there is one thing wrong with that statement. I grant that there are places that OLPC can go right now. But I never said there weren't. Nor did I suggest that it shouldn't go to those places. It should. Anything that provides an educational channel should. And yes, I stand by the statement that Dvorak didn't "diss" OLPC. He presented an opinion. Period. As did I. I can't speak to his motivation for his opinion. I can speak to mine: a person who has sponsored starving children all over the world. I don't think I said anything that suggests that OLPC is a bad thing. All I said was that deployment of the project needs common sense and an understanding of the real predecessors.

noah
noah

Could not agree with you more! Of what use is a laptop to a kid who not only cannot read but who is also too malnourished to have the enregy to learn ?not to mention the the desire! Well said, TiggerTwo, well said!

Dumphrey
Dumphrey

there is a percentage that can read, has food, and wants an education. Thats where this project fits in. It may not apply to every child world wide, but there are enough to make ita viable project. Personally, I would like to hear more from the teachers in these countries.

paulmah
paulmah

Is the OLPC project such a pie in the sky? What is your opinion on this matter?

dferrell15
dferrell15

I'm all for educating children, but it makes sense to me that we should teach them to read before we spend billions on the computers for them. And before we teach them to read, we should feed them. I know I don't learn well on an empty stomach. Some of the counties to which these computers are to be sent have infant morbidity rates that sound like inflation rates! Unused laptops littering the landscapes of underdeveloped nations are not going to save anybody. In many of these nations, $200 could feed a child for months! It just seems cruel to send a computer to a child so weak from hunger that he(she) can't lift it. The term "fiasco" is not strong enough. Stupidity may be a little more appropriate.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Some places have climates that quickly destroy books with water and more solid blown about debree. If a school has 30 students and four books, should they all gather around and read over each other's shoulders. If a school has such a limited supply of books are they going to let students take the books home? How expensive is it too replace those books should they be lost or damaged? Now, let's pretend that you created this device.. say.. like a ruggedized notebook computer built specifically for it's task at a cost that does not make it a prohibitive item for governing and educational bodies to purchase and issue to children. Imagine having a whole library of books available inside a central device, let's call it a "server" for argument sake, and each of the children's devices could simply get a copy of the required book from that central device. They could even take that copy of the book home with them and not deprive any of the other children of there own copies. You realize that OLPC is not targeting places where food, water and shelter the more pressing issues right? Sure, 200$ could feed a kid for months but the places the project goes have food. Also, keeping kids fed and educated doesn't work towards a better future; it just keeps them educated and fed; great, if you happen to hire cheap foreign labour for seasonal work. You really need to go read the OLPC FAQ, what the project is about and who it targets before you decide that you know best. Here: http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Our_mission#Isn.27t_food_for_children_a_higher_priority.3F You should read the rest of that document too but I think that applies to you most directly. As for "fiasco".. if it draws attention to the educational needs of these kids; is it really a failure? It's not even a matter of competition between mega-corporations; There's too much educational poverty for any one organization. But, you feel that "stupidity may be a little more appropriate" a description so please; share your more enlightened ideas. What approach would you take to help educate these kids. What say we see how your solution stands up to analysis. Detail it out for us smart guy. (Edit to add): Sorry for the rant all. Seeing yet another "but they need food" argument form someone who doesn't have a clue seems to have caught me at the right time.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

the relative had just graduated University with a degree in development so having been reading about this (then) new OLPC thing, I had to mention it. I figured it would be something they'd eat up and without even blinking it came back "but starving people need food not computers".. it was such a 180 form what I'd expected and I'm then thinking "er.. so you don't want to maybe learn something about the program before you pass final judgement"? Being freshly graduated from university causes many people to forget that they've only attained a basic start in there area of study. There's always at least one person who has to announce how they much more than anyone else they know with the food argument. Everybody is entitled to there own opinion but for the love of Baud; I wish they would make an educated opinion after reading more than a passing headline before the decide.

techrepreader
techrepreader

perhaps it is because people who have never been to the third world (I don't count going to a holiday resort on the Kenyan coast or a safari in Tanzania - you do not see the real society) mainly see TV reports and so think that the third world is mainly like a refugee camp in Dafur or dysfunctional like Somalia. Education is an incredibly important issue. Really it is the best hope for many nations that will one day they will be able to feed their own people.

techrepreader
techrepreader

but will never be able own a computer. I worked in the developing world for 12 years, India, Philippines, Kenya, and Uganda Sure there are places that food and shelter is the first priority but there are just as many where these issues have been addressed, and the OLPC would be a wonderful next step. My son was recently in a small south Pacific nation working with kids at a primary school. Food and shelter were not an issue for any of the children but school equipment was almost none existent. Most people who question the value of the OLPC have never worked with the poor in the developing world.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

As my wife says; there are different degrees of poverty. It seems the people who are only interested in looking for reasons to fail or just have to open there mouth and share there opinions before knowing anything about what they are criticizing always start with the "but poor people need food, not computer gadgets" argument. It's good to hear form someone who's seen such places first hand and also seems to understand what the OLPC is actually about. The hardware is not the project goal, it's simply supporting the goal in the most applicable manner. Thank you for offering information from someone who's actually been to OLPC applicable places and responding to someone who probably can't under stand that not all computers are dual header gaming rigs with blinky blinky lights.

seanferd
seanferd

Is this thing necessarily connected to the internet? If so, why is that so bad? If advertising is bad for the target user, it is bad for you, too. Do something about it. Reading: the user interface, and I bet some of the apps, do not require reading. Furthermore, since some of these people can speak more than one language (regardless of reading skill), and others can learn to speak or read languages from minimal print media and radio, what says that they couldn't learn to read, all alone or with help, with the OLPC XO (internet or no). Food, medical, water, etc. Does getting an XO somehow prevent these kids from receiving food also? Even if a country trades for food, rather than receiving food from "charity", spends money on these laptops, it is a one-time expenditure per person. Food expenditures never stop. I am not hawking the XO here, I just don't see these issues as particularly real. I am also not hawking technology in general, I think the "developed world" relies entirely too much on electronic technology. Quite frankly, the XO has the potential to do a lot more for folks without access to, well... anything, than computers in schools in the U.S. do.

conrad
conrad

I think John is afraid one of those kids is going to grow up to take his job. Go kids go!

betomiller
betomiller

I worked 10 year in a Third World country, the poorest in Central America...developing an agricultural school and technical institute. The OLPC project features a computer that is powered by batteries recharged by its own crank-operated generator...and therefore has no need of external power. From my experience, grade-school and high-school level students in that country and in others are aware of the internet and are eager to participate and to learn from it. John, you need to travel more! Robert Miller

rjlangley
rjlangley

If there is such a low literacy rate, than it wouldn't be very difficult to teach the children a different language. If they already cannot read and write their own language, then they will not have such a stumbling block in learning to read and write a different language and could potentially turn into an area that would be outsourced to in the future when that generation is older. -At least, that is my humble opinion.

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