This week, the One Laptop Per Child project, whose mission is to provide basic PCs for students in developing countries, announced a sad incentive for donations: if you donate $400 to the project, they’ll send one laptop overseas to a nation like Cambodia or Rwanda, and they’ll send one laptop to you.
If you haven’t heard about the “XO” laptops, as they’re called, you can read about their features in detail here or check out what they look like here. They were designed by creative maven Yves Béhar to be ultra-durable, energy efficient, and refreshingly basic; with tiny 7.5-inch screens, diminutive memory, and wireless functionality, they boast the ability to link to each other and allow kids to participate in network activities. Indeed, this is their biggest selling point, besides their ability to function on hand-cranked power in off-the-grid regions. All this sounds great for third-world kids who otherwise would never have the experience of using a computer. The question is: why do I need one?
I don’t. No one in North America does. We don’t need hand-cranked laptops; power is thankfully ubiquitous. There’s more processing power inside an iPhone than in this thing; even our most out-dated school computers are light-years ahead in technological terms. Not to mention that their intended use is as network terminals, so even giving your solitary XO laptop to your kid isn’t too useful. So why is this donate-one, get-one incentive a viable proposition? Because the computers are cutesy, and because Americans might want to play with one.
If you think about what that means for the state of our national generosity, it’s pretty disappointing. What we’re talking about isn’t a token gift — “thanks for donating” — it’s a blatant waste of the very resource that it’s trying to democratize. I don’t entirely blame this on the project directors (as they wouldn’t have offered the incentive if it wasn’t going to benefit the project), but it’s tempting to do so. More importantly, though, it’s a little shameful to think that some donators might not be content to give money unless they can muck around with the little device first, and cavalierly let it rust in a closet after 15 minutes.
Regretfully, I am ambivalent about hoping this campaign will spark a ton of new donations; while it would send more computers overseas, it would also mean that Americans are committed to being wasteful even in their attempts to be altruistic. I’d rather think that anyone amenable to the idea of donating has already, or would despite the incentive.