One Laptop Per Child vs. Africa

Diary of an African Entrepreneur posted an interesting idea a couple of weeks ago (that I just now got around to sharing) about the One Laptop Per Child project:

I have a lot of admiration for Nicholas Negroponte and the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) team. By in large, they got the technology right. They brought the right partners together and created an unbelievable product. The technological advances that are found in the $100 (OK, $300) laptop will certainly impact the way computers are built tomorrow.

OLPC has not had the expected success. There is nothing technically wrong with it. The pricing is reasonable. So why hasn't the laptop caught on in the developing world it was designed for?

The name says it all: ONE laptop PER child. The idea might be appealing to the western world but it is not a cultural fit for the developing world, or at least Africa where I am blogging from. Africans are very communal in nature. Outside of the wealthy elite that is not the target of the OLPC anyway, Africans don't individually own things, especially not children. Whoever has a radio or a television shares it with not just the immediate family, but the entire community. One never watches TV alone and one does not sit in a corner and read alone or get on a computer alone. People still do things together. Not because they are forced to but because that is the way they prefer it.

This shines some light on general Western approaches to Africa: we have certain ideas embedded unconsciously in our culture that don't always transfer. Now, I happen to really like the idea of not sharing all my possessions with family, friends, roommates, neighbors, or whomever, and presumably the people behind OLPC are the same way. It didn't even occur to them that this idea just doesn't make sense to Africans. (I'm taking AE's word for it here, since between us he has about 100% of the knowledge of African culture.)

It seems like this is probably an effect of a less-developed economy. Back in the early days of radio in the US, I'm given to understand that listening to the radio was a communal event also. As more families got radios, and as more households got multiple radios, this changed into the system we have today, in which it'd be a miracle if two people could even agree on what to listen to. Nowadays it's inconceivable to think of sharing your radio or television with a neighbor, because it's almost a statistical guarantee that they have their own.

Or of course that might not be the reason and my Western mind just doesn't have enough experience with African cultures to think of the real reason. I admit that possibility.

One way or the other, the kinds of changes that the OLPC project hopes to effect have to happen in context or they won't come off at all. Hopefully they're reading Diary of an African Entrepreneur for ideas.

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Human nature

I haven't been to Africa. Everywhere else I've been, people are pretty much the same as in the US. Latin America, Europe, and Asia. I spent most of my time in Latin America, in a developing country. People are pretty much the same. I doubt Africans are that different. I don't doubt that Africans share televisions. Back when there was only one television on a given street, people would invite over the neighbors to watch TV. I'm talking about the US. It's not a matter of culture but of economics. If only one person in an area has something, then the upside of sharing is a lot greater than it is otherwise, since the other people on the street are enjoying a TV as opposed to not enjoying a TV, which is a greater difference than enjoying someone else's TV as opposed to enjoying one's own TV. And similarly, as we've been transitioning to high definition televisions, there's been a bit more inviting people over than normal to enjoy the TV. As more people get their own HDTV, there will be less of an advantage to inviting people over. That is not cultural. It is not a cultural difference. The mistake being made here is similar to the fundamental attribution error (falsely believing that character causes behavior, when in fact it is the situation that causes behavior). Here it's culture rather than character which is being falsely credited.

The name is irrelevant. If people called a brand of TV the "OTVPC", then why should that block adoption? Whatever you call the OTVPC, it is still a TV, and similarly, whatever you call that OLPC, it is still a laptop. The name, and the idea of the creator, doesn't matter once the machine is in the hands of the customers. Furthermore, if the "one per child" were seriously implemented, then the very situation that gives rise to the communal sharing would be reversed, since the situation giving rise to communal sharing is that there is not one per child. But as I just pointed out, even if the OPC part is just rhetoric, it still doesn't matter. The car maker Volkswagen has a meaningful name, but does anybody buy (or not buy) the car because of the name? No. Does the name have any significant effect on how the car is used by the customer? No.

I never expected the OLPC to be much of a success. But cultural differences had nothing to do with my expectation. I generally don't expect any particular new thing to have much success. There is no particular need to explain lack of success. Failure is the norm. It is success that is surprising. Some do-gooder gets an idea into his head - how many times have such ideas bombed? Almost every time.

There is a fundamental problem with do-gooders. They typically (and the do-gooders behind the OLPC are no different) want to decide for other people, what those other people will do. If we want to help a random African, why not give him $200, rather than gifting him a laptop? Why isn't he a much better judge of what he needs than we are? Why presume that we know better than he does how that $200 should be spent? The market doesn't suck all that much. The things that people need most urgently, if they can be provided at all, will tend to be provided without some do-gooder calling the shots. It will be provided by self-interested entrepreneurs provided the people have the cash - so the obvious thing for do-gooders to do is to give people the cash. For this reason it is very hard for do-gooders to do better in making decisions for other people, than those other people would do if they made their own decisions. (And if you want to argue that giving a homeless guy money is just throwing money down a black hole because his homeless is a result of his lack of judgment, for the sake of argument I will grant the point but add that the poverty of Africa is not due to the poor judgment of the individuals in making choices for themselves; the kleptocrats and bandits of the third world, who are largely to blame for the poverty, are making wise choices for themselves. If you want to argue that the bandits and kleptocrats will simply steal the money we give to individual Africans, then this acknowledges that the key problem is kleptocracy and banditry, which the OLPC is not going to fix, and presumably will fall victim to, unless the OLPC sucks so much that bandits don't want it.)

I also have problems with the OLPC itself. To repeat remarks I made some time ago, if there are no regular PCs in your environment, why learn computer skills from OLPCs? But if there are regular PCs, then who needs OLPCs? If I had $200 to spend and I had to choose between a used PC costing $200 and an OLPC, I would go with the used PC. You might be surprised at what you can get these days for $200. It's not bad. Furthermore - well, actually, the "African Entrepreneur" says it himself:

"Maybe they could change the target from children to families. It might
not sound very politically correct but a business owner could leverage
the technology a lot more and turn the laptop into increased revenue.
By keeping track of inventory, accounting, communicating with customers
and vendors electronically, the businessperson would use it in the day
and his/her kids could use it in the evening."

Exactly. I think this is his best point of the whole piece.