One of the talks I heard at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston last week was Nicholas Negroponte presenting the current state of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. OLPC is one of those paradigm-shifting ideas that seeks to upend our expectations of what can and can’t be done, in this case with regards to the education and connectivity of children in the developing world. I was fairly skeptical of the OLPC program at first, but Negroponte’s talk challenged my assumptions about the possibility of using Internet age technology in poor countries. After coming back from AAAS I was able to borrow one of the laptops (called the “XO”) from a friend and stayed up half the night enthusiastically tooling around its OS and various applications. My impression of the XO was a rugged, durable tool, with real potential to connect children to each other and to a wider world. However, I don’t think I’m going to convince anyone of that with a blog post, I think you have to see a demonstration of the operating system in order to appreciate what it has the potential to accomplish.
More information on that aspect of the XO and “Sugar” operating system is available at www.laptop.org (the OLPC website), or by watching some of Nicholas Negroponte’s presentations on Youtube.
However, the most common objection that I’ve heard from folks familiar with the concept has to do with what might be called the “waste stream” of the product. There is a real concern from folks sympathetic to the OLPC ideals that providing electronics to millions of children worldwide could have unintended consequences with regards to pollution, trash, etc. This is well worth considering. In this post I’d like to briefly review a few ideas relating to the “sustainability” of the XO and then in a follow-up (Part 2) comment on some properties of the XO as examples of sustainable design in electronics.
The first idea I’d like to introduce is a self-critical one: our concern about electronic waste doesn’t extend to refusing to buy ourselves laptops. Not that it should, in my opinion laptops make life substantively better using metrics of community, creativity, and connectivity. Accepting that assumption, the issue then shifts from “whither electronics” to “sustainable electronics.” That then becomes the question I’d like to consider in Part 2, how do we evaluate the XO, and laptops in general, according to their sustainability as physical objects? At this point, it may be useful to mention that “sustainability” can refer to things like energy use as well as more traditional measures of pollution (i.e. cadmium or mercury entering the environment from the disposal of batteries).
However, before moving into that discussion in earnest, I’d like to further explore our instinctive concern about e-waste in the developing world. I suspect, although I would suggest it gently, that some of our concern regarding OLPC and sustainability is less about harm done to the environment and more about our concern over inducting children from poor countries into modern, post-industrial society. That concern is real, and it is laudable, but we need to make sure we’re honest about what we’re discussing. Concerns about e-waste or energy use can be evaluated according to objective metrics of wattage, heavy metal pollution, etc. and that’s what I’m interested in following up on in Part 2. Concerns about the costs, benefits, positives, and negatives of post-industrial society are different questions, not to be placed off limits, but to be discussed clearly for what they are and not mixed into concerns over the sustainability of the XO as a physical object.