In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte announced an audacious goal: he was going to put a laptop in the hands of every child in developing countries. With his “One Laptop Per Child” project, the futurist and marquee Wired magazine columnist was looking to close the widening gap between the world’s haves and have-nots. His underlying premise: in the computer age, there should be none of the latter, because the PC was the ultimate equaliser.
OLPC was greeted with great acclaim among the Internet’s one per cent, many of who were highly motivated to empower the other 99. It was backed by a host of blue-ribbon tech companies and got the perfect coming-out party at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos, where the UN Development Programme announced it too would support the project. OLPC’s machine, the XO, was tailor-made for the developing world: it had a hard plastic shell to survive outdoors, where it would see a lot of use, and a screen that could be read in direct sunlight. It used 1/10th the power of contemporary laptops and could be recharged with solar energy. And at $200, it was incredibly cheap by laptop standards back then.
Seven years later, OLPC is still grinding away —by the end of 2011 it had given away 2.4 million XO laptops — but to say that the programme hasn’t changed the world would be a kind understatement. The irony is that Negroponte’s project didn’t fail because the world was resistant to change. It failed because the world changed too quickly. OLPC was a well-intentioned moon shot that fell short because it solved a hardware problem that all but evaporated. The seemingly quixotic XO had only a two-year head start on the greatest leap forward in mobile computing, the iPhone.
Think about how much computers have changed since 2005. Some of the best mobile devices in the world now cost just a little more than the $200 you must still pony up to send an XO to a needy kid in Somalia. For that price you can get an Amazon Kindle Fire, a Nexus 7, an iPod Touch—or half of an iPad Mini. Getting a cutting-edge computer to every tech-starved child is no longer a daunting challenge — you could just give away last year’s discarded smartphones and overstocked tablets and say, Job well done!
But you still wouldn’t have made things much better for all those have-nots. As Negroponte now knows, that war won’t be won with hardware; it’s now about providing a data stream for those devices. The PC democratised computers; hundreds of millions of them, in turn, demanded a way to be connected.
It’s time for another moon shot, but this time it needs to be about access. The way to spread the wealth isn’t by putting a computer in every child’s lap; it’s by putting the Internet everywhere—even in places where there is no potable water. Villages, neighbourhoods, fruit stands — even people — can become hotspots, sharing the wealth that computers promise.
The gateway drug will be the gateway itself. No technology changed the world as profoundly as the telephone did, but it only happened because of universal access. Governments and phone companies were willing to heavily subsidise wiring locations that were not cost-effective, precisely because the telephone was just a toy if you couldn’t call anyone from anywhere. The parallel here is obvious and important: The Internet rapidly evolved from a forum for bored geeks into the essential connector to services, goods and other people when it was made available to the masses.
The Internet is now a utility everyone needs and deserves, and the case for universal access has already been made: entire industries have been created or disrupted into oblivion because of it. Blanket the world with broadband, and the have-nots will have a fighting chance.
Critics might scoff that there are bigger problems than getting Facebook into the Sahara. Hunger is prevalent in the developing world — the UN says 870 million people are chronically undernourished — and still afflicts the developed one. And sure, Bill Gates’ foundation decided that distributing $10 life-saving mosquito nets is a more powerful blow for good than handing out computers. Less altruistic critics might object that creating a global grid would be a huge undertaking at a time when the First World seems to be teetering. But undertaking this massive project can be soundly rationalised as self-interested capitalism: connected societies are markets in the making.
“We in the West tend to think of innovation as the next, new, shiny, tech, globally accepted thing,” angel investor Christopher Schroeder wrote in a recent blog post. “But in emerging growth markets, new access to even existing technologies (e.g., higher-speed broadband, mobile phones, smart devices) can lead to fresh and surprising thinking about local and regional problems, and one day these over-looked corners of the globe may produce world-class innovations as a result.”
Universal access perfects markets and creates an exchange for ideas, and even changes the way we define and approach problems. The power to investigate, research and reach out by lifting a finger any time, any place has a liberating effect. Look around: how many people do you see who are not spending every idle moment with their faces in a screen? Not all of that is wasted on Angry Birds.
Unless the playing field is levelled, we risk our own survival. We can’t imagine a world where everyone doesn’t have access to a phone, yet the Internet is a more resilient, more powerful, more adaptable, more malleable medium — and it is already absorbing and supplanting the telephone as the lifeline for all of us.
“We are here because we are survivors,” says Mickey McManus, president, chief executive and principal of MAYA Design and co-author of Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology. “But just as the lack of flowing water can drive a population to extinction, the lack of information flow in a population deprives us all of their precious brains and creative passions. We are literally sitting on a wellspring of innovation, and in an age of exponential, malignant complexity we can’t afford to leave those innovators, [who] might have been born in a bottom of the pyramid village, to die of thirst.”
The only thing that will slake that thirst is the data-stream.