Negroponte vs. Gates on the $100 Laptop

by: Andrew Schmitt

The 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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