An Invisible Network in the Developing World: The Argument Against the OLPC XO Laptop

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

There are certainly more controversial charities out there, but the level of debate surrounding the merits of the One Laptop Per Child initiative is amazing . People debate the design and technology, the motives behind the project, what real needs can technology serve, etc. Two weeks ago Jason Langsner wrote a review for this blog on the OLPC XO Laptop.

I want to support the OLPC project , I really do. I agree that children ought to have access to computers and the Internet regardless of their ability to pay. However, the more I read about technology use in the developing world, the more I find myself on the side of those who see the XO Laptop as a "nice" thing to give the developing world, but ultimately not a hugely useful piece of equipment with any long-term impact.

This week the BBC published a piece by Dr. Joel Selanikio, a physician and co-founder of, a non-profit that creates open-source software for public health and international development. He argues convincingly that the real technology having an impact in rural areas and the developing world is the mobile phone. He explains:

This revolution of personally-financed wirelessly-connected computers largely goes unnoticed by the international development community, and because their paradigm revolves around desktops and laptops they spend millions developing specialized laptops for schoolchildren in developing countries, which will surely only ever reach a small fraction of them, while the network of invisible computers [mobile phones] continues its exponential penetration into those same regions, below the radar.

Even in nations where mobile phone penetration is relatively low, individuals are more likely to have access to a cell phone than a computer (or even a land line). Through my work in CCT this year, both in Dr. Wu’s class on the political economy of telecommunications and in Howard Rheingold’s guest lecture, I have come to believe that the future of the Internet lies in mobile phones, not laptop computers.

This may seem a bold claim, but in actuality, a majority of the world already accesses the internet via cell phones and, as Dr. Saleniko points out, much is already being done with the mobile phone to increase public health data collection in countries most typically associated with violence and corruption (Sierra Leone and Kenya, for example). These measures, aimed at creating functional software for the mobile phone are more cost effective, successfully respond to major problems in the public health sector (or education sector, banking, etc), and encourage software development capacity in underdeveloped nations. As Dr. Saleniko explains:

Regardless of where the developer is located, I think it’s time that we recognized that for the majority of the world’s population, and for the foreseeable future, the cell phone is the computer, and it will be the portal to the internet, and the communications tool, and the schoolbook, and the vaccination record, and the family album, and many other things, just as soon as someone, somewhere, sits down and writes the software that allows these functions to be performed.

Thus, while I want to support the XO Laptop and its organization, I wonder if the West’s charity and technological talent might not be better spent on initiatives which adapt technology that is already present in many communities to problems that can be fixed now with relatively little cost.