Out of Africa: White Man's Burden?

The latest flap between Intel and Nicholas Negroponte over how best to deliver computers to the world's poorest children strikes me as an honest disagreement between two parties with very different conceptions of technological change. Negroponte's "One Laptop per Child" (OLPC) initiative is a striking marriage of innovation with altruism, leavened with a healthy layer of technocratic zeal.

Negroponte's wizards have created a fascinating little machine, loaded with novelty, and built for a eye-catchingly low cost. The only trouble I see is that Negroponte and friends never asked either poor youth or the governors of the countries they live in about what they want. In short, OLPC is an example of fire coming from the gods, and the gods in this case are rich white men from North America.

Intel's approach is very different. The company's leaders think that, at least when it comes to personal computers, rich and poor people aren't very different. The kinds of laptops that kids use in America are probably the kinds that kids will use in Nigeria, Libya or Peru. Call Intel's way of thinking (which I gathered from a long interview with Sean Maloney, Intel's no.2 last year) "techno-universalism," or one-size fits all.

Universalist approaches to innovation have great strengths, especially because they solve the equity problem out of the gate. Negroponte's challenge is to prove to skeptical Nigerians, about 5 percent of whom have incomes approaching those of Norwegians, why they should settle for a half-baked laptop that seems tailored for street urchins, not the bulging middle-class of the developing world.

The weakness of Intel's approach is of course cost and appropriateness. Conditions in Africa really are different. Heat and power shutoffs are only two of the stresses on computers in the region. Why can't a standard laptop possess regional variations: a flavor for Africa, a different one for Peru, a third variant for Laos and Cambodia?

In principle, the debate is highly interesting. Techno-universalism is easily viewed by some in the developing world as a new kind of imperialism. Negroponte's approach, however, carries the burden of good intentions gone awry. Because he aims to put his laptops into the hands of the poorest children, only governments or aid donors can buy them. Governments tend to be corrupt in poor countries, and aid donors are stupid -- or at least they are stupid when it comes to choosing computers.

I don't think that either Intel nor Negroponte has the right idea. A few years back, I wrote a profile for Spectrum magazine about a creative code writer from Ghana, Herman Chinery-Hesse. He talked a lot about "Africanizing" information technology. He saw ways in which "tropical" conditions could give rise to new forms of computing and telephony. He imagined himself and other "African hackers" as creating these forms. In China and India, many of the best brightest also dream of creating new tools for the world's poor, reasoning that since they are poor they are better positioned than rich engineers in the West to conceive of useful innovations.

Who is best at delivering innovations for the poor is an open question. The good news is that for the first time in a century the focus of many great innovators is on the needs of the have-nots. That may lead to some strife, but inevitably will deliver fresh ideas, products and services.


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