The mouse that roared

Does Africa really need the $100 laptop?

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the “$100 laptop” being developed by a consortium of visionary geeks. The idea is to produce a computer so cheap — and powered by a hand crank — that it can be distributed affordably to impoverished African kids.

Every time this subject comes up, though, critics tend to ask: Laptops? Isn’t this a kind of ass-backwards priority? Poor African countries need clean water and basic medicine before they need freakin’ laptops, don’t they?

Well, yes and no. As the creators of this initiative explain in the online FAQ for their project:

Why is it important for each child to have a computer? What’s wrong with community-access centers?

One does not think of community pencils — kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful.

Precisely the point: A computer is a tool that creates new modes of thought — just like a paintbrush or a new language. As the seminal education thinker Seymour Papert argued in his superb book Mindstorms, one of the reasons people don’t learn math is that it is a language that requires immersion in “mathland,” much as learning French requires living amongst those who speak French. If you try and learn French in an English-speaking country, with no one and no place to practise it, you’ll fail. Same goes for math. Papert argued that computers — most specifically, basic computer programming — formed a virtual “mathland”.

These days, of course, computers have become pure consumer items. Since no one needs to know how to program to use them, they’re no longer really a “mathland”, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, computers do instil other useful modes of thought, such as the recombinatorial nature of cutting and pasting. Cutting and pasting began life as an avante-garde artistic technique, because the idea of semirandomly juxtaposing images and words seemed like such a neat way to stimulate new ideas. But now it’s a regular part of every kid’s intellectual toolbox, and a crucial one. (All the more reason today’s copyright battles are so important, by the way: By limiting our ability to aggressively remix the digital stuff around us, Hollywood and the recording industry are tamping down on an explosively cool mode of thinking. Imagine if you told academics they weren’t allowed to write down quotes from books on index cards and rearrange them on their desks to help think through a problem!)

Anyway, that’s the real reason to get computers and the Internet to impoverished Africa. If you want to think in a fully modern way, you need computers.

(Thanks to Scott McGowan for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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