Monday, January 09, 2006

The New Wealth

Since the beginning of history we have accumulated wealth as a means of ensuring our survival. In earliest times, that wealth was measured by our ability to hunt, which in turn provided food and warm pelts for our families. As we moved from hunter/gatherer to farmer, land became the new standard by which we measured our affluence. The more land we possessed, the greater our ability to provide for our children, thus enabling them to reach adulthood and repeat the cycle from generation to generation.

The industrial revolution brought a new kind wealth and money became the newest tool of measurement. Wealth was accumulated by transforming natural resources into commodities. The more stuff we had, the wealthier we were deemed to be.

Until now. Despite all evidence to the contrary, rampant consumerism will soon go the way of the hunter/gatherer's club. We are currently devouring our natural resources at an unsustainable rate. Those who currently have, have way more than their fair share. According to the United Nations, a mere 20 percent of the world's population currently consumes 86 percent of the world's resources. This isn't just unsustainable from a resource perspective, it is also dangerous. As history will attest, such dramatic inequities invariably lead to war.

Even as our oil-based consumer society sputters and gasps, a new measurement of wealth is emerging. Intangible as the electrons that transmit it, this wealth also promises, for the first time in human history, to create an equal opportunity for all.

This wealth is called electronic information and thanks to the worldwide web and micro technologies, it will soon be within the grasp of anyone with access to a computer and a communications link. Unlike virtually every previous quantifier of wealth, information technologies have already demonstrated their ability to smash through the traditional barriers between the haves and the have-nots and level the playing field.

Enter Nicolas Negroponte, the Wiesner Professor of Media Technology at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding chairman of MIT's Media Laboratory. In January 2005, Professor Negroponte announced his plan to design, manufacture and distribute personal, portable and connected computers to every child in the world, thereby providing them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. In order to accomplish this, Professor Negroponte, along with other MIT faculty members, created One Laptop per Child, a non-profit organization with the goal of creating a $ 100 hand-cranked laptop. The machines will include a feature called Mesh networking, which will allow multiple machines access to the Internet from one connection.

Negroponte's dream came one step closer to reality on November 16th, when he and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled the first working prototype at the World Summit on the Information Society. The computers will not be available for sale, but rather given directly to schools through large government initiatives in the same fashion as textbooks are currently distributed. Governments in China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria and Thailand are currently in discussion with One Laptop per Child.

The $ 100 laptops are being made possible by simplifying computer technology and lowering the unit cost by mass production. Two-thirds of the software that is currently being used to run high priced laptops is used to manage the other third. Eliminating any software redundancy and installing an ultra low-cost, dual-mode black and white display monitor will help keep the price within target. About the only thing that the $ 100 laptop won't be able to do is store large amounts of data.

Quantas Computer Inc. of Taiwan has been given the initial design contract for the computers and manufacturing will commence once 5 to 10 million prepaid orders have been received. It's expected that the first load of laptops will be ready for shipment by early 2007.

It's important to note that these laptops only represent one part of the information equation. In order to access the Internet there first has to be a point of entry, either through a satellite connection or high-speed land line. To that end, MIT is currently exploring ways to connect the laptops to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost. In addition, as this initiative matures and more and more people attain the ability to connect to a knowledge base, this will create a viable market to create a backbone where none currently exists.

While it may take time to put the infrastructure to support these laptops in place, Professor Negroponte's vision has put us all one step closer to sharing the wealth.


$100 Laptop

MIT's Media Lab


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