One Laptop Per Child: A Project That Labor Could Turn Around for the Better
Note: this piece originally ran earlier this week at the Community or Die labor technology blog - for an audience of union leaders and union technology staff people.
ArsTechnica, one of my favorite tech news sites, has been reporting for some months now that the much-hyped One Laptop Per Child project has fallen on hard times. This is interesting news for labor techies ... although a little background is in order to explain why.
OLPC was announced at the ever labor-friendly (not) World Economic Forum in 2005. The concept was straightforward - create a small laptop that can be cheaply mass produced and sold to the governments of poor countries for $100 per unit to distribute to schoolchildren and help close the "digital divide."
The OLPC idea had been brewing in the mind of Nicholas Negroponte, then director of the MIT Media Lab, since the late 1990s and seemed like a worthy one to many. After all, who could fault getting cheap laptops to the world's children?
Two problems dogged the effort from the beginning. First, it turned out to be very difficult to build a decent laptop that was easy to use and could work in third world conditions for long periods of time for under $100 a pop. Second, the anticipated queue of nations willing to buy large numbers of the machines never materialized.
A third problem, rarely mentioned, also hung over the project. How would the millions of laptops be produced? Or more to the point, how could millions of laptops be produced without using what labor and human rights activists would consider to be sweatshop labor?
Although the first two problems - plus internal strife in the OLPC project - may have already insured that the original plan will not fly, the third problem continues to vex me. Espcially since OLPC production is handled by the Chinese multinational Quanta - a company not known for being a friend of labor.
Living near MIT and Harvard as I do, and being at least peripherally in the local techie community as I am, I have gone to a couple of OLPC events. I have seen Negroponte and others pitch the project in person. I have played with the 1st generation OLPCs hands-on (a 2nd generation is in the pipeline). But I have never seen anyone at these events address the issue of why people - especially union members - should back a project that might one day get millions of laptops into the hands of poor children around the world ... only to see them grow up and have to get jobs in sweatshops that produce consumer items like laptops for wealthier nations?
Sure, some OLPC recipients will manage to make it into college and professional jobs, but the vast majority won't. It may open up new intellectual possibilities to millions of kids, but political economic reality - if it continues on its current corporate-dominated path - can easily stop them from realizing their new dreams.
On the other hand, many of the big corporations that backed OLPC have lowered or stopped their donations and in-kind assistance because of the rising global depression; so maybe the thing for the labor movement to do is not to attack a project that could do much good if run properly.
Maybe the thing to do - the forward-thinking humanitarian and solidaristic thing - is for labor to step in and agree to bankroll the project ... on the condition that the OLPCs be produced by union labor.
That could be very cool. An open source cutting-edge piece of hardware built by unionized workers in decent conditions and funded by labor at the international level. With unions from all over the world getting into the act to make it happen. Unions could also do a much better job getting national contracts to buy large numbers of OLPCs in many countries than corporations and non-profits can.
And the payoff would be something that ever-charitable trade unionists the world over would positively love to think about - millions of kids would get union-made laptops, and it doubtless could be arranged to include information on the laptops that explained what that meant to the young users in their native languages. We could encourage them to work for a society that defended strong labor rights as the foundation of a better future for working people everywhere.
Am I being a bit pie-in-the-sky? Perhaps. But I write this to continue making a point I've been hammering on a bit for several months here at Communicate or Die, the labor movement still has a bunch of money even in sectors and regions where it is politically weak. There is more than one way to expand labor's influence and do good for working people. Spending money on politicians is one way. Spending money on new technology (and new media) is another. Spending money to get new technology, win hearts and minds, and help needy kids get ahead?
Well the benefits of that are incalculable. And certainly worth thinking about. Especially since OLPCs can also be purchased to give to poor kids right here in the U.S. - where the digital divide is still, unfortunately, going strong. And where it's still an open question whether the labor movement will continue to exist as a major social and political force or not.
Let's hear what you all think about this one ...