While I had heard of the Negroponte project for $ 100 laptops previously, it was not until today that a post at Dave Davison’s Thoughts Illustrated made me appreciate the true scale of the endeavor. Dave’s post led me to this article about Alan Kay, one of the fathers of the PC and of the very internet itself. Some key points from the Kay article:
“The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We’re very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore’s Law step in software. It’s going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting.
The third project we’re just getting started on and don’t have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold.”
Kay makes very clear that the $100 laptop effort is aimed at the Gap where children are relatively uncorrupted by the pop culture techno expectations of America. A tabula rasa to re-start the information revolution. However the economic spillover effects of such an accomplishment cannot be contained. The entire computer market will be affected to broaden societal and global access to information.
At a stroke, in American public schools, the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated, as would their use as a crutch by gen-ed majors and basketball coaches posing as teachers of core academic subjects. The poorest American school districts can afford $ 100 laptops even when new textbooks are beyond their budgetary reach. Kids in East St. Louis and Watts and the moonscape of inner city Detroit can enter the information age along with Bangladeshis and Burundians.
Factor in the pirates who will produce copycat versions in places like China and we are talking about an increase in the online population of the world by several orders of magnitude with all that such connectivity entails.
Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz