Atanu Dey On India's Development

OLPC at the WEF at Davos

David Kirkpatrick filed a CNN report about the movers and shakers of this world at the World Economic Forum at Davos. The Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe apparently pooh-poohed global warming and trashed Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Kirkpatrick later asked Vinod Khosla what he thought of Brabeck-Letmathe’s position. “He should see his proctologist to find his head,” said Khosla, “and you can quote me.” I like that sort of ‘say it like you see it’ attitude.

Kirkpatrick’s report is titled “At Davos: citizenship, apostasy and $100 laptops.” Negroponte with his “$150 laptop which was formerly the $100 laptop” was there. I have written about the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) project in the past over here. I am not a fan. I have nothing against a tool — whether a blackboard or a laptop or a supercomputer. They all make immense sense. A laptop for every child also makes great sense. But if you insist on feeding a select few of a very large population of starving people with caviar, thus ensuring that the large majority will continue to starve, you are being more than a little silly.

My problem with the OLPC sort of solution to the problem of the education of poor people is that it makes no economic sense, however technologically feasible it is to create a laptop that runs on hand-cranked power and is cute as a button. I realize of course that in due course, those who try to fix a non-technical problem with technical solutions will eventually see the folly of their ways. But by then another generation of poor children would have suffered needlessly.

Generally markets weed out these sort of silliness. The problem is that the OLPC wishes to circumvent the market and go to the governments to sell the laptops. A private party would make a cost benefit analysis and will not generally buy something when there are less expensive alternatives. Governments, unfortunately, have no such compulsions. Let’s bear in mind that it’s people in government who control the public purse strings but it’s not their money in the purse. They therefore lack the incentive to spend the money efficiently. The decision to shield the OLPC from the judgement of the marketplace may perhaps be its most telling handicap.


  1. Sir,
    market is the mantra for you. But in india most of the education is still in the hands of government including the elite govt institutions like IIT, it is government which is providing the PCs to govrnment schools which are obsolete machines not sold in USA loaded with windows 98 paid for the price of vista!It is governement which will provide this $100laptop free to schoools.No market here.
    My servantboy has a mobile and he who is not educated at all teaches me how to download the latest hindipoptunes while i just gape the way his fingers move.He informs me when he wont showup thus saving lot of heartburn to my wife.she can checkup when he is late and even inform him not to come when we have to go out suddenly.Lot of money and heartburn saved by this small gadget.

  2. I will not be much worried about it. Governments are compelled by negative publicity not to focus on OLPC as it will portray them as out of reality with the people. Opposition and media alike will show the govt as too high-tech. We need to look at what happened to Chandrababu Naidu in last assembly elections in A.P.

  3. Negroponte is a gasbag and a hyped up one at that. Arun Shourie who is to fools and frauds, what a hot knife is to butter, shut down his boondoggle – the Medialab branch – in India.

    Vinod Khosla said that? That’s biting and piercing wit. Did he also offer Brabeck-Lemathe a flashlight?

  4. Khosla too is a bit of a gasbag.
    He does not provide data for any of his predictions on cellulosic ethanol.
    and he wants government subsidies.
    This is common between khosla and negroponte,
    they both are not providing any data.
    For all of Negrpopontes TV appearance there is no example of what the software on the Laptop will be?