What to get for someone who has everything? Answer: a laptop for someone who has nothing. The One Laptop Per Child initiative is an audacious, worthwhile goal. The idea is to create an inexpensive, yet well-designed laptop for children in developing countries. It's the ultimate in inclusive thinking, really. You may wonder why poor children who are still struggling with basic needs would want laptop computers, but the answer is that it's not about laptops--it's about education. Education isn't something you start on only when all other needs are met--it's something you give in parallel to other aid.
The Value of Education
If you'd like to explore that line of thought, I recommend the web game Ayiti: The Cost of Life. On the one hand, it's a simulation game where you make optimization choices about resources. On the other hand, it's education for rich people about the value of education for poor people. In Ayiti, I found that the the struggle of just getting by in life under such harsh conditions was overwhelming. Furthermore, I found that education was best way out of the downward spiral. Yes, I know that this is a simulation game made to have a message, but sometimes it helps to "feel the message in your bones" rather than have someone just say it.
I like that OLPC has these requirements that they won't compromise one.
1) Kids MUST own these laptops and be able to take them home. In order for them to really learn, they need time to tinker, and play with them as much as they want. There can't be any schemes where really the school owns them and takes them away.
2) It's for young kids. Their target is 6 - 12 years old.
3) Saturation. Entire schools get these laptops all at once. It's not one laptop per school or per class, but one laptop per CHILD. No one is left out.
4) Internet connection. The laptops must be able to connect to the internet. If this is not possible where the children are, then OLPC will help build the network there, making it possible.
5) Software must be free and open source. If the needs of children change, the software can change to suit it. Also, it's important to allow children to modify the software itself as part of the learning process.
Back to this $100 laptop. It's currently $188 if you buy by the 1000s, or $199 for one, so they haven't reached the target yet. (In 2010, the second model is projected to cost only $75, so they're getting there!) What they have achieved is remarkable though. The laptop has longer range networking than the laptop you're using right now. Those cute ears it has create an ad-hoc mesh network with other laptops of its kind, greatly extending the range of net connections in villages that have lots of laptops. (Cleverly, you have to flip the ears up to even open the laptop.) It has two screen modes: a color mode and a black and white mode with 3x the resolution, made for daylight viewing. It uses solid state memory, so it has no hard drive with moving parts. It does not require an electrical outlet: you can power it with a hand-crank or a solar panel. For that to even work, it has to an amazingly low power device. It runs on only about 2 Watts(!) because that's about the amount of power you can generate with your upper body strength. To top it off, it's a lot more rugged and durable than the laptop you're using now.
The Operating System(s)
The OS is called Sugar, based on Linux. In a controversial move, some versions of the laptop can also dual boot to Windows XP, a move that OLPC felt was necessary to convince education ministers of some countries to buy the laptops. The software isn't based on folders, hierarchies, and applications like we're used to. Instead, it's divided into "activities", each with their own data management in an effort to be easier for non-technical users to understand. There's no need to save and the system is designed to prevent any accidental loss of data. Even though it's meant for young kids to be able to figure out easily, it also has an incredible feature that allows users to see and modify the code of the programs running right in front of them! I can already imagine the excitement that will spark in kids all over the world as they discover the power to modify and create software.
Nicholas Negroponte is the driving force behind this initiative. I think the earliest seed of this project was probably planted at MIT in 1997 while I was a student there. In that year, the MIT Media Lab held the 2B1 Conference. It was about how to use technology to bridge the education gap between developed and developing countries. In 2005, Negroponte finally went public with his new, big idea and it's been snowballing ever since.
If you want to see a man completely driven to make a project happen, a man surrounded by controversy, a man doesn't care what people think of him, a who simply won't give up--study Nicholas Negroponte.
You could do a lot worse than help Negroponte help the world's children through education.