Over the past few years, various initiatives have been proposed to equip Third World countries -- especially those in Africa -- with cheap computers. Believers in the concept that computers will solve all the world's ills are behind much of this.
So Africa, South Asia and other targeted regions of the world find themselves the focus of all sorts of initiatives to provide hand-me-down, special purpose and even junked computers.
Then along comes the latest scheme to actually provide a unique hand-cranked laptop utilizing a small generator to power the thing.
The idea was developed by the charming Nicolas Negroponte, former head of the MIT Media Lab and organizer of One Laptop Per Child, an initiative to produce a $100 laptop and distribute it to the poorest children in the world.
Negroponte, who was unavailable to comment for this column, knows how to draw attention to things, and this one has received a double portion.
Slick looks, but high pricesThat said, actual machines have been designed, and they look pretty slick. Unfortunately it doesn't appear that the manufacturing cost of these machines has come anywhere close to $100. Nobody actually wants to discuss that aspect yet.
It's also iffy whether these machines are going to do anyone any good. In fact the entire idea may be misguided and counterproductive. At least that's what Stanford journalism lecturer and Africa watcher G. Pascal Zachary thinks.
Besides incredible difficulties with the distribution networks in Africa, Zachary wonders who will maintain these machines. Generally speaking, a societal infrastructure with a lot of computers needs a lot of support mechanisms.
"And in today's world the real value of a computer is it being networked," says Zachary. "Finding a network in the poor areas is either impossible or very expensive."
Electricity first, laptops second?But I myself have moaned about the details of this One Laptop Per Child scheme as folly or idealistic. The basic argument is that with $100 you could almost feed a village for a year, so why waste that sum on a laptop? What are they thinking?
But Zachary has a more profound point: "The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem," he says. "The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful."
To summarize, there are only so many hours in the day, and we should not be wasting them on this kind of naïve feel-good showboating. Let's face it: These high-tech gems are a laughable addition to a mud hut.
Even on the One Laptop Per Child site there is a creepy anecdote -- related as if it exemplified a positive benefit -- about how some poor family in Cambodia used the hand-cranked laptop's screen as a source of light for their abode.
Perhaps the organization should be thinking of the hand-cranked generator as serving that purpose alone and not computing. Lights, along with cellular phones and radios, seem more important than laptops.
We should be spending our energy trying to figure out what to do with the hundreds of millions of computers that are junked rather than making more junk.
Dangerous distractionBut let's get back to the mind-share issue. This sort of thing not only takes us away from useful projects in developing nations, but it distracts the high-tech scene in the U.S., too. , for example, has been spending time on this.
In fact AMD has a slew of low-end parts in the $100 laptop. But the company, at the same time, is discontinuing its own initiative to make cheap machines for the Third World, citing government interference and other problems.
I personally would love to see these laptops save the world, as some people have suggested they might. But those holding that opinion tend to view the world from the window of a five-star hotel.
In fact, this is a massive exercise in futility. And it's a shame.
This article was reported and written by John C. Dvorak for MarketWatch.