The TED talk
presents a useful though not outstanding addition to the array of computer-based education initiatives, but unfortunately Molinari promotes his program by gratuitously bashing one-to-one computing in general, and the OLPC XO in particular. His presentation is further marred by a jarring mistake in the most elementary arithmetic.
If we wanted to buy a $100 computer for each of the 4.8 billion people currently on the wrong side of the so-called Digital Divide, that would come to $480 billion. However, Molinari’s talk says, and repeats, the claim that it would cost $480 trillion. Obviously such a figure is unaffordable. But it is a fiction, a fantasy, a product of massive innumeracy that should have failed the laugh test when he first made the mistake. It should also have failed the laugh test when the TED people were considering this for a TED talk.
Molinari then claims that we cannot afford the environmental degradation of providing several billion low-cost computers to the world, even when they are XOs, the epitome of Green design. XOs contain no poisonous heavy metals in their batteries, and no mercury in their screen backlights. Even the XO-1 runs on record low power, usually 4-5W, often less, and later models draw even less power. The XO-3 has a solar battery charger built into its cover, providing electricity at no cost and with no pollution from power plants.
This environmental claim is almost as innumerate as the previous arithmetic error, carrying the implication that we cannot afford to end poverty because we cannot let the poor have anything of value. It should not even be necessary to refute such nonsense.
The first half of the talk is thus much worse than useless, and detracts greatly from the second half, which is OK once the XO-bashing is over.
So I wrote a comment on the site:
Forget the strawman figure of $400 billion [[I couldn’t believe he said trillion.]] all at once. Here is how to figure expenses on an OLPC XO laptop deployment worldwide:
One billion children each need a laptop at, say, $200 every four years, so $50 per child per year. Fifty billion USD annually, or less with under $100 netbooks such as the Doel in Bangladesh. Plus
- internet, which countries have to deploy regardless
- electricity, free on the solar-powered XO-3
- digital textbooks, free after startup costs for writing and translation
- teacher training, required regardless
- support, such as warehousing and replacement. Much the same for textbooks and netbooks.
- recycling. I have talked to a number of recycling companies, all of whom want the XO contracts around the world. Millions of the same unit, designed for complete separation of metal, various colors of plastic, battery components, and so on, disassembled with a single Phillips screwdriver. Even children can do it.
Now, what do we get for all of this, long-term? Well, for starters,
- The end of poverty, when every child comes out of school ready for an information-age job. The end of subsistence agriculture and day labor at starvation wages, as part of that.
- The end of preventable disease, disability, and death. You still die, but most likely after a much longer, more productive, and more fulfilling life.
- The end of oppression of poor and despised minorities.
- A massive dent in government corruption. Hey, computers can’t make people honest.
- The end of wars of oppression and plunder.
- Several tens of trillions of dollars annually in new economic activity.
- The chance for a billion children to work together on the remaining hard problems.
What, then, is the cost/benefit ratio, or the Return On Investment, for such a program? I couldn’t say, because I cannot put a dollar value on the lives saved from misery, despair, and death. But I can say that it is worth $50 per child per year to obliterate the digital divide fully.