The One Laptop Per Child Program Was Supposed to Revolutionize the Developing World—Then It Imploded
The engineers behind OLPC ignored the concerns of the very people it was meant to benefit
In 2005, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte introduced a program he believed would change the world. Called One Laptop per Child (OLPC), the initiative would deliver $100 XO laptops — small, boxy machines, constructed to be virtually indestructible — to children in the global south. Governments would buy and distribute the laptops to children between ages six and 12. These children would then use these computers as tools, teaching themselves — and, later, their parents — new languages, mathematics, and coding.
The vision was enthusiastically received by media and tech companies, who poured millions of dollars, software, advertising, and employee hours into the program. When a group of African leaders and journalists raised concerns about the viability of the program, no one listened.
They should have. OLPC did not turn out as planned: Laptops broke, and in areas with limited access to electricity, charging was a challenge. The cost of running the program and training teachers was much greater than expected. Children showed little interest in the machines, skill levels did not improve, and eventually, funding dried up.
Many people working for OLPC really wanted to do good in the world, but they got caught up with the charisma of this project. They got blinded by it.
Morgan Ames tells this story in her new book, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child. In 2010, after finishing her computer science degree at the University of California, Berkeley, Ames moved to Paraguay, which was, at the time, seen as one of the most successful models for the OLPC program. Although teachers in landlocked South American country were stretched thin — earning merely half of minimum wage — at least the infrastructure to support OLPC was in place, and schools were enthusiastic about the program. Ames wanted to see how, under the best circumstances, the program worked.