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19 March 2006 @ 04:04 pm
Why I Think Bill Gates Should Fuck Himself  
Friday I kind of lost it. Came to the end of a long and trying week, and then stumbled on an article that provided a distillation of most of the obstacles that face me on a regular basis: An inaccurate and disingenuous pooh-poohing of an initiative that was at least better intentioned and less predatory than the alternatives. I responded publicly and rather peremptorily.

In the comments that followed, I was challenged to provide some evidence that Mr. Gates' critique of the One Laptop Per Child Initiative was not based on considerations which he, as an engineer and someone who has done much for international development, should be uniquely positioned to judge.

Before I do so, I want to make something clear. I support the OLPC initiative, and cheerlead it at every opportunity. And I'll confess I do it for political reasons as much as any other. When I sit down with a cabinet minister, a former chair of UNESCO, I'd like him to consider a future that includes a well-informed and educated populace. High profile projects like this help to frame the issue in terms that people like the minister understand. It's got credible names associated with it, and its goals are simple, if ambitious:

"The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports."

"The [laptops] are a wonderful way for all children to learn learning through independent interaction and exploration."

These facts, joined, paint a very compelling picture for people thinking about the direction their country is taking. They see an achievable technological goal being used to apply the basic human right of mobility to knowledge - with this tool, a student is freed to access resources and learning in an entirely unprecedented fashion. It's a unique and iconoclastic idea to consider that access to information should be approached as a right, rather than a privilege.

Are there problems with this idea? Frankly, yes. The whole project is fraught. For one thing, it's political and requires national leaders to cooperate. Generally, just getting them to pay attention is difficult enough. Indeed, to some of them laying out hard cash for something that promises to improve communication and critical thinking in their country might even seem detrimental to their long-term survival.

Then comes the concept of one laptop per child at the core of this project. I don't know of a public service officer anywhere who could conceive that the project really wants to give a laptop to every child in a given country. It's just so... impossible that people will likely chuckle politely, then go back to figuring out how to get all their consituents taken care of, plus a few more for friends and family. So it's far more likely that it will be one laptop per child... in places where children have laptops.

And of course there's support, service and attrition. Even assuming they succeed in providing innumerable children with working laptops, how will they deal with repairs, maintenance and most importantly, with replacement? I honestly don't think a great deal of thought has been put into this problem, which requires that each stakeholder buy into the process for much more than the hundred dollar price tag.

And another big question: How are the kids going to hold on to these? The concept of personal possession is not universally recognised, especially for a demographic that is particularly disenfranchised world-wide. More to the point, though, is why shouldn't adults have access to these as well?

So why support OLPC? Because there are few technical reasons not to. If the project manages to progress to the point where laptops are rolling off the assembly line in number, market forces will assert themselves. And these things are useful as designed. The single most useful thing they can do is provide ad hoc communications capacity in low- and no-power situations - a pretty significant proportion of the globe. I can't tell you how big an impact communications have on economic and social activity. It's hard for many to visualise a place where a reply to a simple question can take days, if it comes at all, and news arrives more often never than late.

And that's why Gates' critique is so infuriating. He's attacking the project's strengths and simply arguing by assertion that it won't work:

"Hardware is a small part of the cost...." Bull. The way the project is designed, hardware is most of the cost. It's true that bandwidth is extremely expensive in the developing world (here more than anywhere). But the project explicitly does an end-run around the issue by relying on ad hoc 'six degrees' methods of propagation of data. Support is a cost that no one factors properly, in my experience, but if the laptops do achieve some degree of ubiquity, support provision will once again be defined by market forces.

"The last thing you want to do for a shared use computer is have it be something without a disk ... and with a tiny little screen...." Straw man. It's not shared use. It's One Laptop Per Child. There are very solid reasons for a small screen. And besides, the screen isn't that small.

"If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user, geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type..." This was the comment that knocked me off the edge. Its arrogance speaks of someone who, regardless of his philanthropic activities, seems to have not even the slightest clue what he's talking about. And that's just wrong. Here we have a very influential man, sitting down with a group of government leaders and who, rather than adding to understanding, simply laughs.

This in the context of a pitch for a glorified mobile phone, marketed at several times the cost anticipated by OLPC, which - once it's been plugged into a television and a keyboard - can provide a similar function. In households with power. And a TV. And a keyboard. For 6-8 times the price. Software extra.

I had a conversation recently with someone who's worked in some particularly difficult areas of the world. After a series of sardonic remarks he observed that one couldn't work very long in development without becoming cynical, in some cases incurably so. Maybe I'm just not cut out for development work, but when I see this kind of facile pseudo-logic bandied around in a way that only damages and contributes nothing, I sometimes can't help but reply in kind.
Current Music: Stevie Wonder - Living For The City
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous) on March 19th, 2006 11:52 am (UTC)
It's frustrating...
While I found your first response to be succinct, the second provided more food for thought. What I find most frustrating is that Bill Gates' argument seems to be infused with the attitude of "Father KNows Best". It is condescending to put it mildly. Especially since he doesn't put forth a reasonable alternative; reasonable being the key word.

As a teacher, and somewhat of a technophobe, one of the biggest leaps in my own education is how useful the computer is in the classroom. I have seen what access to technology does to level the playing field between the "Haves" and the "Have Nots". All the students at my school have access to computers. This not only allows access to information, but it allows us access to the world. When a co-worker went to Thailand to teach for a year, we were able to have an "e-pal" program between our two schools. This was an incredibly rich experience for the kids.

Maybe OLPC is ambitious in its idealistic goal, but every movement of significance starts with what at the time seemed like an unrealistic goal. Lots of people "pooh-poohed" the idea of women voting! If nothing else, this grandiose idea does plant the idea; if it is achieved only in part it will be a success, if for know other reason than to let children in every region of the world know that they are worth our attention.

People often belittle my effort to look for the potential, the positive in situations, in students etc... It is that withering look that tells I am nothing more than a Pollyanna. Well, I'll wear that title with pride, if it means that at least I am trying and doing things that might make a difference, rather than just giving up. If it is a choice between cynicism and optimism, I choose optimism.
Graham Crumbgcrumb on March 19th, 2006 10:55 pm (UTC)
Re: It's frustrating...
Father Knows Best is exactly the crux of the problem. When Bill Gates talks, people listen. They assume (rightly or wrongly) that because he is at the pinnacle in terms of IT wealth, he must also be at the pinnacle of IT knowledge.

If he had decided to challenge the OLPC project on its merits, he would have found ample material to work with. There are, as I've briefly shown, many untested assumptions in that project. In honesty, I think it's probably nothing more than a great idea whose implementation, if its benefits ever derive to ordinary people, will bear little resemblance to the original plan.

But Gates took the nasty road and decided, for whatever reason, that the best approach was to simply construct a straw man and to attack that. Worse, he didn't even do a good job. And worse still, his approach - a vapourware announcement of something useless outside of urban areas and with a price inaccessible to most - betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem.

But nobody particularly cares about the details. What they'll remember is that Bill Gates sez it won't work. So it won't, because nobody will want to touch it any more.

One of the biggest problems I face in trying to deploy computers into rural areas in Vanuatu is finding a reliable supply of low-power devices. The manufacturers are so preoccupied with providing something that will run Windows XP that they utterly neglect any other possibilities. Low-power devices are therefore manufactured at relatively high cost and low volume through companies that specialise in niche markets. Pronouncements like Gates' will only ensure that this doesn't change.
(Anonymous) on March 21st, 2006 07:35 pm (UTC)
Re: It's frustrating...
> The manufacturers are so preoccupied with providing something that
> will run Windows XP that they utterly neglect any other
> possibilities.

Which suits the world's richest arsehole quite nicely, thank you very much.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )