So it was a bit over a year ago that one of our number waxed downright poetic over the OLPC—One Laptop Per Child—project.

Fast forward to now and we hear that OLPC is “smart sizing”, aka laying off staff, or whatever they want to tell themselves. The project appears to be in a death spiral, though of course who knows for sure. This nice post characterizes why but I’ll summarize it: The XO Laptop wasn’t something anyone actually wanted to use. Well anyone except tech geeks who like to play with tech toys. An example of the sort of person I’m talking about might be the very smug relative one meets at holidays who brags about running three different versions of Linux on their computer… and doesn’t mention the fact that he’s a UNIX sysad in real life. (This is definitely a “man” thing, though I’m sure there are a few female practitioners of the art, too.)

It was an example of an ivory tower proof of concept idea mixed with marketing hype that got too big for its britches. Having been involved in such things in the past (alas), I can attest that academics are good at coming up with ideas and prototypes and a small but non-trivial number are very good at the marketing pitch—OLPC is an MIT Media Lab spin-off project, after all—but implementation and product development really isn’t one of our skill sets. Furthermore, the tech world goes all Fox Mulder over this kind of thing, which basically tells them what they want to hear about how wonderful tech is (thus validating their own personal choices), complete with pictures of happy smiling brown kids holding a nicely colored gadget. What kind of cynical bastard wants to rain on that parade?

As the link above points out, one of the ironies of the OLPC project is that is spurred the development of the netbook, which is all the rage these days. So it might well be the case that the OLPC project does end up bringing laptops to the masses, and thus its purposes served, just not the way that the project organizers intended. Of course, as the link also points out, making smartphones more accessible in the Third World would have probably been more useful, as that would have reinforced an existing market development. Cell phones have really altered things, often for the better, in countries such as India—or for poor people in the USA as it happens—because they provide continuity of phone number, quick access to important information like commodity prices, etc. But One Cell Phone Per Villager just doesn’t have the same ring. Of course I hear clean water and a way to make a living—among other things—are pretty good things, too.

No, the sad and sorry truth of it is that we academics (like everyone else) tend to look in the mirror for priorities….