Wednesday, November 07, 2007

From the "You Heard it Here First" file

Back in May of last year I warned Daily Duck readers of the folly of Google's partnership with MIT to save the world by selling $100 laptops to African children (via their governments, naturally).
Here is where, if Google were to challenge conventional morality, they should. Giveaways to Africa, that blighted continent of people who seemingly cannot deal with the challenges of life as independent moral agents responsible for their own fates as human beings, are seen nowadays as the sine qua non of humanitarian compassion. Live Aid made African famine relief a popular, if controversial, cause for the global Rock & Roll set. Bono took up the cause, and now demands debt relief for corrupt African governments. Even popular evangelists are not immune to dreaming up questionable schemes for saving Africans from themselves.

I certainly don't want to disparage the impulse to offer a helping hand to the unfortunate, but Africa's problems are not amenable to giveaways. In fact, they are generally worsened by these giveaways. The first problem is that the giveaways fuel the thriving corruption trade. Whether it is the vainglorious demagogue and dictator of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, who has enriched himself while simultaneously benkrupting and destroying his nation, or the warlords of Somalia who enriched themselves on the relief supplies sent to prevent widespread famine, the abuse and misuse of international aid and compassion by corrupt local officials and warlords has defined the post-colonial period in Africa.

The promise of relief can only foster a cargo cult mentality. The same social disasters that befell inner city communities as a result of widespread welfare programs in the US have been visited upon Africa tenfold. Sustained normalcy and prosperity in Africa will only come when African societies adopt the cultural reforms necessary to support entrepreneurship, democracy and capitalism. These things cannot be given to them, but their development can be thwarted by ill-conceived but well meaning relief programs.

Again, Page and Brin's reasoning for the laptop giveaway are naive in the extreme. For someone who is too poor to buy a laptop, a gift laptop will most likely be traded or sold for food or money, if it isn't stolen first. Until a community is stable and prosperous enough to allow for normal market activity, the information that can be gained from surfing the internet will be of little use to anyone in the community. And why is Brin so keen to leave adults out of the loop? I think that, to the extent that a community could be strengthened by access to information, it would derive more benefit by giving adults the access before the children. This is obviously one of those "think of the children" impulses.

But say that these laptops are given out in a community that is stable and prosperous enough to support an internet service provider. Such a community would probably contain a burgeoning entrepreneur community, small local dealers selling low cost computers. The giveaway will hurt their business, short circuiting a necessary business class in its infancy.

The best thing that Google could do to help Africa would be to enter the market as a for-profit enterprise selling goods and services tailored to the needs of the consumers there. They could partner with the nascent entrepreneurs there, and maybe provide them with drastically discounted, or free laptops to give to customers as an incentive to sign up for an internet account. They'd maybe be criticized as profiteers by the conventional press, but they would truly be helping the Africans out more than they would under the existing scheme.

The problem with the giveaway mentality is this: where noone is paying for a good, noone is making money. Cargo cults are disastrous for the formation of thriving economies. Why work when you can wait for the cargo gods to provide for you? Unfortunately, this is a case where it would be gooooood for Google to actually be as unconventional as they claim to be.

It took over a year and a half, but finally the pundits are echoing my call to sanity on the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) crusade:
Mass production will soon begin on the XO, the "$100 laptop" that MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte believes will change the world. Behind the dream of empowering children through technology, however, lies a reality more complicated and far less idealistic.

Professor Negroponte believes his non-profit One Laptop per Child (OLPC) can help solve "whatever big problem you can imagine, from world peace to the environment to hunger to poverty." Early reviews of OLPC's finished product extol its many innovative features. None of these reviews, however, mention what the XO fails to provide, such as a source of clean drinking water, abundant and nutritious food, or medicines for curable diseases.

Clearly, Negroponte does not mean that his product will directly solve hunger or poverty, but rather that an advance in education will provide the tools to address these problems. This is a worthy goal, and by all accounts the XO is a worthy educational tool. If OLPC were a charitable organization distributing laptops to poor children, this would be a noble endeavor. But as it stands, the effort is bound to involve exploitation and corruption.

OLPC's business model actually requires substantial investment from the governments of developing countries, diverting limited resources away from a population's critical needs. The "$100 laptop," which actually costs $188, can only be purchased at a minimum quantity of 250,000. OLPC targets countries like Nigeria, where one out of three children suffer from malnutrition. There a $50 million minimum investment could instead be used to feed more than a million children for an entire year.

After unloading their product, OLPC relies on the naïve assumption that governments will distribute laptops free of charge to deserving schoolchildren. This blind trust in corrupt governments will deprive children and ensure the creation of a robust XO black market.

Beyond exploitation, OLPC feels entitled to a monopoly. When Intel produced a rival low-cost laptop, Negroponte proclaimed that "Intel should be ashamed of itself." While he portrays himself as a humble idealist victimized by an Intel-Microsoft conspiracy to price him out of an emerging market, it is clear that Negroponte fails to understand a basic market concept.

In a free market consumers enjoy the freedom to purchase those products that best suit their needs. When governments make purchasing decisions on behalf of the people, they rob the consumer of that freedom. If OLPC wished to compete in the free market, they would target their product directly to the consumer. By opting instead to lobby for government contracts, OLPC ensures that the XO remains immune from market forces.

Negroponte speculates that Intel and Microsoft are punishing him for using an AMD processor and the Linux operating system, but the actual motivation is not personal. These companies recognize that consumers in the least developed countries currently have little demand for laptop computers.

By donating more than 100,000 PCs and providing deeply discounted software, Intel and Microsoft are investing in brand recognition. When consumers someday acquire the means to purchase this technology, the hope is that they will choose Intel and Microsoft products. Ultimately, consumers, not governments, will make the choice.

If OLPC cannot wait for a laptop market to materialize or distribute the XO exclusively by donation, there are viable alternatives for realizing the project's mission. The use of cell phones is skyrocketing in the developing world. By the end of next year, this market will include 50 percent of the world's population. Mobile devices are an inexpensive, tested technology, and increasingly offer access to the Internet.

If the goal is to broaden children's horizons through connectivity, why must OLPC reinvent the wheel? Repackaging the XO as an inexpensive mobile device could excite significant consumer demand and make an immediate impact on education. The current plan will have a different impact.

Children will suffer if governments divert scarce resources away from essential services. To avoid that outcome, professor Negroponte should channel his ingenuity into a product compatible with existing markets. Success will be achieved not by forcing technology on children, but by bringing children to technology.

I'm hoping that the Intel and Microsoft plan nips OLPC in the bud. What is it about destitute African children that makes rich Westerners want to deny them the blessings of market economics and an experience of building prosperity on their own? And what is it about computers that makes same people all goofy with unrealistic expectations about what they can do in the classroom? Even Steve Jobs had to finally climb down from the heady expectations he had during his early years with Apple Computer that the PC would revolutionize education.

Do-gooders would do well to heed the advice of Thomas Sowell:
Among the many mindless mantras of our time, “making a difference” and “giving back” irritate me like chalk screeching across a blackboard.

I would be scared to death to “make a difference” in the way pilots fly airliners or brain surgeons operate. Any difference I might make could be fatal to many people.

Making a difference makes sense only if you are convinced that you have mastered the subject at hand to the point where any difference you might make would be for the better.

Very few people have mastered anything that well beyond their own limited circle of knowledge. Even fewer seem to think far enough ahead to consider that question. Yet hardly a day goes by without news of some uninformed busybodies on one crusade or another.

Even the simplest acts have ramifications that spread across society the way waves spread across a pond when you drop a stone in it.

Among those who make a difference by serving food to the homeless, how many have considered the history of societies which have made idleness easy for great numbers of people?

How many have studied the impact of drunken idlers on other people in their own society, including children who come across their needles in the park — if they dare to go to the parks?

How many have even considered such questions relevant as they drop their stone in the pond without thinking about the waves that spread out to others?

Maybe some would still do what they do, even if they thought about it. But that doesn’t mean that thinking is a waste of time.

You can add "change the world" to Sowell's list of chalkboard-screeching phrases. The day that we stop feeding this line of drivel to our young people will be a happy day in my book.

7 Comments:

Blogger Mark Frank said...

I agree that the OLPC programme looks a bit daft. But I am wary of Sowell. He gets more and more like a politician looking around for facts and arguments to support his case rather than seeking a balanced view.

Of course we should think about the consequences of what we do. We should also think about the consequences of doing nothing. But why are all his examples "do-good" examples. There are plenty of cases of promoting Christianity, democracy and free-trade which have had unanticipated and disasterous consequences.

November 08, 2007 12:03 AM  
Blogger erp said...

I don't really care what kind of gadget, laptop, cell phone is used, third world kids need something to learn about the what the rest of us are doing. Without that, they can be kept in the poverty of famine both of foodstuffs and information. Both are vital to their emergence into the 21st century.

I read about the problem of power where there is no electricity. Some of you geniuses must come up with a cheap renewable solar battery or some such device so these people can finally break the chains of their slavery.

Sorry for the outburst, but academics and other do-gooders be d*mned, these tragic victims need to break off their shackles in whatever manner they can.

One thing that can be done immediately – get the U.N. out of Africa.

November 08, 2007 7:11 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

How about books? Abe Lincoln was raised in material circumstances about equivalent to the next-to-lowest strata of many African areas. (It's a big place, and one place is not necessarily much like another.)

New books are expensive, but I buy used books, which are very cheap. And expendable.

If it were me, I'd get computers out of American classrooms, and TVs and film projectors, too.

All education is self-education, but assisted education works better face-to-face, at least for elementary school.

I have used the example of my kids and Sesame Street. They watched it for years and watched the Muppets count to 10 in Spanish.

They are now adults and they still cannot count to 10 in Spanish.

November 08, 2007 8:39 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Harry, what you and I like isn't an issue. I love books too, but there's no feedback.

Things can't be un-imnvented.

November 08, 2007 8:59 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Some British guy invented a clockwork-powered radio a few years back.

Computers are vastly overrated when it comes learning at school level.

November 08, 2007 9:28 AM  
Blogger erp said...

The kids I'm talking about don't have a school.

November 08, 2007 11:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Tricia gave me a hand-crank radio and a hand-crank LED flashlight for my birthday. I haven't tried the radio, but we had a power failure Tuesday, and the hand-crank flashlight worked well with very few turns of the crank.

++++

Back in the '70s, even the most optimistic internationalists began to realize that Africa was not catching up to the rest of the world materially, so they began preaching that Africa's contribution to the world society would be a specifically African kind of spirituality.

We've had 30-some years demonstration of that now, and I'd suggest that what Africa needs is not more computers but a lot less religion.

I don't believe that even the godliest Duckians would say that the record of Christianity, Islam and paganism over the last generation has been anything less than catastrophic.

November 08, 2007 7:31 PM  

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