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James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds asks the simple question of the OLPC: "Will this laptop save the world?" in MIT's Technology Review.

I’ve gotta go with…. “No.”

It compares the OLPC project to Carnegie's construction of public libraries across the States:
The first library he built in the United States, eight years later, opened in ­Braddock, PA, where Carnegie Steel had one of its biggest mills. A year later came the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, PA. The Allegheny library was important because it was the first funded according to the model that Carnegie would follow thereafter: instead of simply paying for and endowing the library, he offered the town a large initial grant on the condition that it agree to pay for the library's operations thereafter. (In what came to be known as the "Carnegie formula," towns generally committed to an annual budget--for maintenance, new books, and so on--that equaled 10 percent of Carnegie's original gift.)

Take note of that parenthetical - Carnegie donated funds to build libraries. The towns had to demonstrate need and provide land, as well as pay 10% of Carnegie;s original grant to support the ongoing functioning of the library:

By the time he died in 1919 … Carnegie had given away $350 million of his fortune; he spent more than $60 million of it to build more than 2,800 libraries, including almost 2,000 in the United States and almost 700 in Great Britain. His donations had so effectively revolu­tionized public opinion that by the middle of the 20th century, it was the rare American town that dared go without a public library.

Part III of the story addresses critics of the project, first dismissing the cell phone objection and then tackling the question of whether an expensive laptop project is the best use of limited budgets:

It may be difficult for poorer governments to justify spending a good chunk of their education budgets on laptops. But the ­reality of both philanthropic and government spending is that money often goes to projects that do not help as many people, or people who are as needy, as other projects might. These projects may not be perfect, but they can still do tremendous good. In the post-Reconstruction United States, after all, there were lots of worthwhile things Carnegie could have done with his money; in fact, in many of the towns where he built libraries, citizens grumbled that their tax dollars should be going to something that really mattered. Yet in the long run, one would be hard pressed to say that either Carnegie or the taxpayers wasted that money, because the social benefits of disseminating knowledge are so immense.

There are three major problems I have with this comparison. First, we're talking laptops, not libraries. At the same time that Carnegie was putting his money towards building laptops, it came at the same time of the peak of library expansion in the U.S., and books were not exactly a new phenomenon. The OLPC is a dramatic change for the communities which will receive it. Second is these communities. In the Carnegie Formula, the communities had to fulfill certain requirements; in the OLPC formula, the national government is the only actor, glossing over communities which may not want it or may not be able to take advantage of it for various reasons.

Third and most importantly, Carnegie was a philanthropist. He was giving his fortune via grants away to build libraries. The OLPC is a non-profit foundation, the recipient of grants to build laptops, but the governments which are signing up for them will pay, and pay dearly. These are not grants which set up new technologies, new sources of information which become readily self-apparent, this is an untested new technology that requires an upfront, massive, debt-financed payment. For developing nations considering signing on, they must ask not only will it succeed at all, but will it flourish and cause enough economic growth by its education of the youth to enable the government to pay back the billions of dollars in loans that it had to take out, and will continue to take out, to provide its students with OLPC laptops. With the OLPC estimate of 30B/year globally ($7B/year more than the Bank's entire 2005 lending), this is gambling a nation's economic future on untested technology.

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