CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — The chasm between Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project's lofty goal — putting computers in the hands of children across the developing world — and its actual achievements is staggeringly wide. Instead of millions of computers, it's struggling to put in an order for a hundred thousand or so. And rather than commanding larger orders from third-world governments, Negroponte is now trying to get first-world consumers to donate laptops instead. A speech by Brazilian culture minister Gilberto Gil Moreira at the EmTech conference gives a pretty good idea why no laptops per child is today's reality.
[OLPC] is a magnificent revolutionary project. I visited one of the schools that is testing OLPC in Brazil. It was a deep emotional experience to see the intimacy of these 400 children with their personal laptops — laptops that they can also bring home to introduce the parents and the rest of the family to this new world of technology. At this stage, the Brazilian government is struggling to find out how to implement this program across the whole country. It's not an easy task — Brazil is very big — but, once we achieve that, I am sure that MIT and Boston will be deeply imprinted in Brazilian history.
Moreira talks about the program's emotional intimacy — not any financial realities. And later, he suggests that Brazil is more interested in upgrading its network infrastructure before it gets around to buying laptops:
We can't just distribute computers. We have to build a backbone. Just making the technology accessible is not enough. Technology leads to language, to spiritual dimensions. It's the whole process that matters. It's not just one item, computers are not enough.
We're not sure what Moreira means by the project's "spiritual dimensions." But any salesman would recognize this as the come-to-Jesus moment in the sales pitch — and I'm pretty sure Moreira just gave the project a polite "no." Sorry, Nicholas. Put that laptop down. Laptops are for closers.