Nicholas Negroponte: The Interview

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“Oh, I have another computer at home. This is the school computer.” The whole thing was very, very different. These kids—they sleep with [their XO laptops], they polish them. They don’t break. And if they break, they get together to fix them. There are laptop hospitals. Its’ a very, very different attitude and that’s what you want to change, not just selling laptops into an “education system.”

X: Do you ever find yourself being viewed with suspicion by some of the education authorities? I mean, what happens if these kids actually do get hold of these laptops and it opens up this whole world of unregulated learning?

NN: The answer is all the time. Literally all the time. Even if people don’t say it, it’s in the back of their minds. But you find in the countries that are the most poor, Rwanda for example, where there are just so many kids not in school, that they just can’t incrementally fix it, they’ve got to do something pretty bold. In countries like Singapore, Korea, so on, the system seems to be working, so they are not going to make too many changes. The bold moves will probably come from the poor countries who have to try things that are very different. You find more instances in those countries where the minister says “Yes, let’s try it.”

X: In your heart, what’s your biggest unfulfilled wish right now with regard to One Laptop Per Child project? Do you feel like you have a good platform and the main job now is to get it out there?

NN: I think there is a pretty good platform. Now one needs to get it out and get enough critical mass for people who are making content and so on and so forth. So I think we are at the point where, yes, we can come out with a second generation, we can come out with new releases, we can get more software put on it, but if you are really asking about my attention for the next six months, it is a numbers game. You want some critical mass.

If you had spoken to me six months ago, even, I would never have told you that there’d be 50,000 [XO] laptops at this moment in the United States [through the Give One, Get One program], but there are. And we don’t have call centers here. What’s happened is the community is supporting them. A whole community is building up around them.

X: And what’s OLPC America about?

NN: That’s totally different. It’s to look at bringing it to kids in the United States, particularly in the poorest parts, whether it’s inner cities or parts of the United States that are really rural and remote. That’s what it’s about.

X: That was not part of your original vision. So what happened to drive that?

NN: It happened for three reasons. Two very noble, one less noble. The first is just simply patriotic. It doesn’t make sense to do every country in the world except the United States. So there’s that reason, which is perfectly noble. And the second one is that by having critical mass, you get larger numbers and…more critical mass in general, so that software developers are making stuff for kids in this country. There is the third reason which is not noble at all, which is that Intel is not here. I don’t have to fight that war. We can roll out millions here and just not have to be arguing with them. Then there’s a fourth reason which is more a footnote and that is, so often I’m asked, “If this is such a good idea, why aren’t you doing in the United States?” Now we are.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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