Requiem for a technology savior?

Americans have a long history of offering technological solutions to problems in Africa that may or may not exist -- or certainly don't exist in the form that the Americans imagine. From the start, Nicholas Negroponte, the computer visionary and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was handicapped by a glaring lack of knowledge about life in African cities and villages. Worse, he behaved as if his lack of knowledge was a blessing, since he could create a beauitful engineering solution unencumbered with messy "inputs" from the African ground.

Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child project, however much a mis-match with African needs, has proved to be a tremendous stimulus for new thinking about low-cost computers. Negroponte's XO Laptop, with its innovative design and valuable hand-powered supplementary energy source, raised the bar for what is possible at low-cost in portable computing. New offerings -- from Intel's Classmate PC to the tiny Asus Eee computer -- demonstrate that Negroponte, despite his sincerity, has no monopoly on creative thinking about appropriate computer technology for African kids.

In the end, Negroponte may be best viewed as a successful promoter of a groudbreaking idea rather than as a technological innovator. His quest to assist African children in meeting their computing needs seems already to be overtaken by various other groups who are offering either more appealing alternatives or simply conventional laptops that satisfy the requirements of better-off Africans for quality -- and at prices -- between $300 to $500 -- that are low-enough.

Advertisement

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Advertisement