The Extraordinary Story of the $100 Laptop

Don’t get me wrong. I think Nicholas Negroponte‘s idea of developing a $100 laptop, running a very thin version of Linux and with some of the most innovative examples of power saving and power generation in a laptop device ever created, is truly inspiring. I applaud Negroponte for his continuing belief in the power of technologies in changing cuture, and the future of human society. For a start, it’s great to see such optimism. But it’s also interesting to see how aspects of Negroponte’s vision have been realised over the past decade, since the release of his manifesto, Being Digital.

But I’m also interested in the commentary associated with the $100 device. Several commentators have brought up the issue of the so-called ‘grey market‘ (as opposed to ‘black market’) of recipients of the $100 laptop selling the device to buyers in order to raise cash to eat. Negroponte doesn’t know how to deal with that. What’s more there are cultural imperialism and even legal issues that can arise from rolling out such devices. In a ZD-Net blog post on the subject, David Berlind cites his interview with Negroponte on the subject.

I asked Negroponte how he felt about the Catch-22 proposition that’s created when a government like China hands systems like his out to all of its primary and secondary school students while at the same time stifling their ability to use the systems to exercise freedom of speech through technologies like blogs (the Chinese government is cracking down on bloggers). Answered Negroponte: It’s a Trojan horse. Uh huh.

To be honest, I don’t think that’s the key issue with developing these devices for the China market. The biggest problem in China will be the scam duplicates that will appear on the black market within months of the devices being released. The Chinese are masters in the art of duplicating or faking original products. Give them a year or two and they will have hardware and software that are either fakes of the original at a fraction of the price, or they will develop a cut down version of the cut down machine and try to sell these back to their people and their government, outselling the developers of the MIT prototype. And it’s not just a matter of getting the Chinese Government to “do something” about piracy (ie: regulation, criminalisation, police crack downs). The Chinese economy is actually booming partly because of this art of duplication. I doubt whether any action taken will be particularly effective until the labour rates and working conditions in China catch up with those enjoyed in western nations. (And for what it’s worth, John Ralston Saul estimates this will occur around 2010 or 2015 at the very latest.)

It will be interesting to see how this project progresses.

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