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Disrupting Tyrants with Web 3.0

One Laptop Per Child may destroy dictatorships.

By Will Offensicht  |  November 5, 2007

In an article "Get One, Give One" on page 72 of the October 1 issue, Newsweek reported on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project.  Prof. Negroponte of MIT had a dream of making laptops cheap enough that developing countries could buy them for each school child.  The laptop would give children access to the entire world of the Internet so that they could find the information they wanted, as opposed to making do with whatever the education ministry wanted to give them.

The laptops are in production.  Although they cost $180 instead of the original goal of $100, prices will fall with volume and could get as low as $50.  The screen can be read in bright sunlight, it runs on 2 watts, its Wi-Fi is far more sensitive than most, and it can be dropped without damage.

The only problem is that governments aren't buying.  Prof. Negroponte had handshake agreements with the governments of Thailand, Nigeria, and Brazil before he started work, but, he says, "Everybody has a pit in their stomach when it comes to going first."

I don't think leaders are worried about being first with new technology.  Leaders know that there's nothing as disruptive as information.

For centuries, books were copied by hand.  Being rich enough to own books meant that you knew things ordinary people didn't know and your private knowledge gave you power over them.  From ancient astronomers who could predict eclipses and used their inside knowledge to solidify their hold on the people, to dictators who shut down unfriendly newspapers, to presidents who classify documents to avoid embarrassing questions, every leader knows instinctively that putting knowledge in the hands of millions of people changes the world beyond recognition.

Early in the Chinese Communist revolution, the government started the "barefoot doctor" program.  The doctors were given a few drugs and some training, but their most important tool was a flowchart.  Starting with age, height, weight, temperature, fever, etc., the flowchart helped "barefoot doctors" diagnose and treat maybe 90% of the people in the village.

What if someone put such a flowchart on the web where the kids could find it?  What if the kids entered information about locally-available plants and their uses?  Microsoft plans to let people put their medical records online for free.  What if people entered their diagnoses, treatments and outcomes into Microsoft's system?  It's easy to imagine programs trolling through the medical records to correct the flow charts.

Making medical information more widely available would benefit ordinary people, but if you're on top, you hate change.  Change means somebody might get ahead of you and you'd lose power.  RCA once owned the tube radio market; the transistor put them under.  IBM owned the mainframe market; the PC nearly put them under.  Did GM welcome the innovations the Japanese built into their cars?

Change is driven by information.  The Berlin Wall fell because East Germans could watch West German TV; they knew their leaders lied about the "workers' paradise."  When the government lost too much credibility, the Wall came down, and the shock waves washed all the way back to the Soviet Union.  President Nixon had to resign when too many people found out about Watergate.  Information is power; the last thing powerful people want is for ordinary people to get their hands on information.

The only thing worse for tyranny than citizens getting information, is citizens creating information, and the $100 laptop has a camera.  A few cell-phone shots taken in an obscure Iraqi prison caused problems for a president.  What would happen if a million Nigerian kids took photos of oil pollution and put them on the web?  What if they take pictures of the leaders' mansions, complete with Google Earth markup?

Thailand isn't exactly a democracy; what if all the kids start taking pictures of government misbehavior?  The Chinese government set up the "Great Firewall of China" to try to keep people from finding out things the government didn't want them to know.  Could the Thai or Nigerian governments keep a million kids locked up behind a firewall?

I don't think the leaders who shook Prof. Negroponte's hand are worried that the technology might fail; they now know it will work far too well.  That's why they want nothing to do with it.

"Why did they shake the Prof's hand?" you might ask.  Prof. Negroponte is a true visionary.  History shows that the only difference between a crackpot and a genius is that over time, the genius turns out to have been right: nobody can tell up front.  When he proposed the $100 laptop, a lot of nay-sayers said it couldn't or shouldn't be done including Bill Gates of Microsoft fame.

Even dictators like good PR - Saddam Hussein used to walk the streets hugging children.  Given that it couldn't happen, why shouldn't a dictator make himself feel good by promising One Laptop Per Child?  Unfortunately for tyrants, Prof. Negroponte turned out to be an organizational genius, and actually made the laptop reality.  Now that it's here, cold feet set in.

If you'd like to help the OLPC get going, go to and buy one.  You pay twice the cost or $400.  You get a laptop and a tax deduction for the other laptop you bought for a child; Newsweek calls this "get one, give one."  You can't get a $400 computer anywhere else, a better deal you won't find, and you can help drive the Web 3.0 revolution.

Just think - the laptop you give might educate a LaGuardia.  Fiorello LaGuardia got much of his education at the New York Public Library; he'd not have accomplished as much without the knowledge he gained there.  What if your laptop wound up in the hands of the next LaGuardia?  An earlier article wondered how we'd educate all the African children who won't die now that the Gates foundation has found a cure for malaria; the OLPC will help.

Andrew Carnegie endowed public libraries so common people could gain knowledge, who'll endow the OLPC library so that common people can create and share knowledge as well as gain it?

Web 2.0 means that people can actually interact via the web, it's building whole new communities.  Web 3.0 will dawn when everybody in the world goes online.