Yesterday, the Indian Express carried a column by me on the OLPC, a favorite topic of mine. There’s nothing new in there for those who have read my views on the OLPC before. The text of the column below the fold.
The extraordinary power of technology is so plainly evident in everyday life that nobody needs to be persuaded about its ability to transform human society — for better or worse. The World Wide Web and the mobile phone network are only two of the more visible products of the revolution in the information and communications technology. Unfortunately, it is easy to be seduced by the notion that technology is the answer to all problems. The truth is that technology can only address the technical aspects of a problem. If it is a sociological problem, for instance, technological solutions won’t help and may in fact make the problem worse.
A high profile contemporary example of an inappropriate technical intervention is the XO laptop promoted by the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project headed by the celebrated technologist and former head of MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte. The grand vision is to assist in the education of children in developing economies by providing each child at government expense with a laptop created especially for that purpose.
The XO is a technological masterpiece of good design and fabrication. It costs around US$200 and has features suitable for use by children. It consumes power frugally, can withstand rough use, and can be used in hot and dusty environments. However, the OLPC promoters claim that it is not a laptop project but rather it is about education. Their goal is to bridge the digital divide so that children in poorer parts of the world can also have access to the digital educational resources through the Internet.
The poor of the world are on the wrong side of many divides, not just the digital divide. There are numerous other divides —nutrition, health-care, basic education, infant mortality, even safe drinking water. All these divides are rooted in the greater underlying divide we can call the income divide. Fixing the income divide involves economics. The most significant flaw of the OLPC is that it ignores basic economics.
The digital divide is real enough but it is not the most pressing problem facing poor people. That it is not even a real hindrance to basic education is evidenced by the fact that 99.99 per cent of humanity has become educated without the use of high technology. Saying that laptops and access to the Internet can potentially assist in educating the poor is akin to claiming that one car per family can help with transportation needs. Of course it can. But technical feasibility does not imply economic feasibility at all.
The economics argument against the XO is about “opportunity costs”. When evaluating alternatives, one has to weigh the benefits of an action, buying cakes for example, against the forgone benefits of other actions, buying bread and butter, which are precluded because of the costs of that action. A full implementation of the XO project for India would involve the purchase of 100 million laptops and would cost around Rs 50,000 crore every year. That is obviously impossible but even if it were possible, the benefits of a laptop for every child have to be weighed against the benefits from spending the same amount in schools, teachers, nutrition and healthcare for those children.
The Indian education system has failed to live up to its mission. School dropout rates by the end of primary education are around 50 per cent and by the XII standard rise to around 90 per cent. The failure is partly due to the low priority given to primary education despite all the high sounding rhetoric of policy makers and the language of the Constitution of India. That is a problem of political economy, not of technology. Thankfully, by some stroke of luck, the Indian government decided against buying into the OLPC project. It is easy to imagine that the XO could have become one more of the goodies distributed by the government to favoured constituencies in exchange for political patronage.
For India to develop, it has to find a way to educate all its children. The current system is severely supply-constrained and therefore is only accessible to those who are well off. The poor are unable to secure a decent basic education because the total governmental control over education ensures low quality and limited supply. Lacking a good basic foundation, the poor are unable to compete for the limited tertiary education opportunities.
Educating its population is arguably the most important task of any society, perhaps second only to the primary needs of food, shelter and clothing. It is a fact that many societies — even some very poor ones — have achieved universal primary education. However, a functioning educational system is not impossible. It is always a matter of political will and collective social consciousness, not a matter of building laptop bridges across digital divides.