Computers from Sierra Leone

Last year, in one of my classes, we discussed witchcraft beliefs in Sierra Leone, where some hold that there exists an invisible city populated by cannibalistic elites who prey on ordinary people and enjoy the finest in luxury goods and technology. Our discussion focused on how closely the modern-day witch city mirrors popular perceptions of Westerners and corrupt local leaders – they hoard money, exploit the poor, and offer only the most rudimentary of technological advances while keeping the best for themselves. One of the examples of this, perhaps surprisingly, was the One Laptop Per Child program, which aims to provide children in the developing world with extremely basic computers – the critique being that the West is only willing to provide the barest trappings of laptop technology.

Walrus blogger Jon Evans has a good post on OLPC, turning its latest organizational woes into a broader critique of the idea itself. His best point:

Did the OLPC braintrust think they were bringing modern technology to the Third World? They were years too late; it’s already there, in the form of the not-so-humble-any-more cell phone. Tiny villages in Africa have GSM coverage and cell-phone stalls run by local entrepeneurs. You can bank by phone from the Colombian jungle, or get market prices texted to you while fishing off the Indian coast. Mobile phones have permeated the developing world to such an amazing degree that it makes no sense to try and reproduce that existing cultural and technical infrastructure from scratch.

Also, for your amusement.

Finally, in response to my irrefutable charge that Vanderbilt is a sloppy, non-fact-checky “citizen journalist,” the accused writes:

Rather, I was simply referring to the fact that finding free internet in Montreal, let alone ANY URBAN CENTER, is ridiculously easy, and Nelles’ inability to do so may not be as valid an excuse as he made it out to be earlier in the week.

I shouldn’t be surprised that Vanderbilt would write something so classist, since he’s an elitist Eagle Scout from San Francisco. I was not in an “urban center” at the time. I was in my hometown, a place that could be reasonably described, if I may borrow phrasing without attribution, as “a hellhole. An absolute jerkwater of a town. You couldn’t stand to spend a weekend there. It’s just an awful, awful sad place, filled with sad, desperate people with no ambition. Nobody, and I mean nobody, but me has ever come out of that place. It’s a genetic cesspool.” So no, I wasn’t able to run out the door, MacBook in hand, in search of some ironically-named wannabe Algonquin Round Table, you cheese-eating West Coast Democrat.



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2 responses to “Computers from Sierra Leone

  1. Pingback: Blog off nears anti-climactic end « Will Vanderbilt

  2. I would suggest that your critique of OLPC is quite ill informed. For Sierra Leone, I could not think of a better designed learning tool for its children.

    What you think of as “barest trappings of laptop technology” is appropriate technology at almost its best. In fact, there are aspects of the OLPC technology that beat even the MacBook Air, if you are in a dusty, hot schoolhouse that doesn’t have grid electricity, air conditioning, and nice carpets and a Genius Bar nearby.

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