Friday I was one of a several hundreds people huddled inside the LSE’s Hong Kong Theatre who were lucky enough to hear Jonathan Zittrain discuss What [He] Would Install on One Laptop Per Child. His presentation was absolutely riveting, thanks to his captivating sense of humour and to his extraordinary capacity to engage with the public.
So here’s the premise: in November 2005, at the World Summit on the Information Society held in Tunis, Nicholas Negroponte – co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, as well as brother of John – unveiled an $100 laptop computer, 2B1. The project is part of a broader program by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), a non-profit organisation started by Negroponte and other Media Lab faculties, to extend basic education and Internet access in developing countries. The first governments who have bought the idea (and a good stash of laptops) are those of Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, Egypt and Thailand, but many more are expected to join in by 2008, when some 100m machines are expected to be distributed.
Zittrain could have hardly been more excited. He’s not a development specialist, and doesn’t really question the projects appropriateness, sustainability, cultural sensitivity, etc. (more on this later). What he’s particularly interested in is the laptop’s capacity for mesh networking. The 2B1 laptops have very limited disc space, hence not much built-in software, so rely on Open Source programming and mesh network sharing to expand their operational capacity.
So why is this exciting? To fully understand the potential impact of this project, Zittrain had to make a few steps back to the birth of PCs and operating systems, and explain to us why and how Microsoft & Co. have developed so far an IT world which is relatively free from programming constraints, allowing over the last few years initiatives like Skype, Wikipedia, EBay, Blogger and the likes to enter our lives. These slightly off the wall ideas have been allowed to take over the world because of the PC’s overall tolerance to software execution (.exe). So far, so good.
Enter broadband. In 2000 the world’s households start being hooked up to the Internet via a powerful connection, allowing them to exchange data at a much higher intensity than before. Result: security-related incidents soar. Viruses of all sorts start shutting down systems at increased rates. The manufacturer’s response? Building increasingly higher protective walls to stop these files from corrupting our toys.
The downside? All those wacky guys coming up with cool ideas in provincial towns’ basements are going to find it harder and harder to develop software without having to go through conventional commercial channels. In other words: we’ll all soon have to pay Microsoft to download a program like Skype, since our PCs will all be designed to seek and destroy any .exe which doesn’t come straight from the warehouse.
This is when OLPC comes in. Imagine millions of clever kids all over the world with the potential to design innovative software and to distribute it via mesh network, bypassing the traditional communication channels which are being increasingly patrolled in the developed world. The potential to develop even greater technological tools is clearly huge. What Zittrain is telling us is this: thanks to OLPC, the frontier of technological innovation will move to the South, and this will clearly give it a huge advantage over the North.
I share his enthusiasm, but also the concerns of an Egyptian participant, who expressed her concern in the following terms:
“The project will be a complete flop. Kids will sell their laptops for $10 to buy cigarettes. This will create a parallel black market, which will profit criminal networks”.
And a Pakistani participant expressed his concern about the cultural sensitivity of the laptop’s content, especially its potential to receive information from any other laptop in the mesh network. Far from being a neutral tool, he explained, many families will see it as a Troyan horse, with the clear potential to brainwash their kids. Indeed, Zittrain conceded, the nature of mesh networks is such that traditional Government filters, like those set up in China or Iran to censor the Internet, will be useless.
Personally, I think many of these concerns are well founded, yet this didn’t stop Lybia from becoming the first country to provide every school-age child with a laptop computer and internet connection under this UNDP-sponsored scheme. Even more strickingly, Col Gadafy’s son, Saif al-Islam, has talked of turning the country into the first “e-democracy”, with citizens participating electronically in government decision-making.
Maybe not just the future of technological innovation, but also of democratic participation is about to move from the North to the South…