Now they've actually demoed a working prototype for the Secretary General of the UN, which cost just a hair more than the final price: $110. Wired News has a short interview with Negroponte on the milestone:
WN: Is the goal literally to make computers available to every child that wants one in the world?Clive Thompson has some good commentary on this:
Negroponte: It's every child in the world whether they want one or not. They may not know they want one.
WN: Do you have any thoughts on what the long-term impact of giving all these kids a programming environment and an open-source ethic might be?
Negroponte: Those are two different questions. Giving the kids a programming environment of any sort, whether it's a tool like Squeak or Scratch or Logo to write programs in a childish way -- and I mean that in the most generous sense of the word, that is, playing with and building things -- is one of the best ways to learn. Particularly to learn about thinking and algorithms and problem solving and so forth.
And providing the tools for some people -- it's going to be a very limited subset (who will use them) -- to develop software that will be redistributed and versioned and so forth out into the world is also important. It's part of the whole open-source movement.
As the creators of this initiative explain in the online FAQ for their project:LinkWhy is it important for each child to have a computer? What's wrong with community-access centers?
One does not think of community pencils -- kids have their own. They are tools to think with, sufficiently inexpensive to be used for work and play, drawing, writing, and mathematics. A computer can be the same, but far more powerful.
Precisely the point: A computer is a tool that creates new modes of thought -- just like a paintbrush or a new language. As the seminal education thinker Seymour Papert argued in his superb book Mindstorms, one of the reasons people don't learn math is that it is a language that requires immersion in "mathland," much as learning French requires living amongst those who speak French. If you try and learn French in an English-speaking country, with no one and no place to practise it, you'll fail. Same goes for math. Papert argued that computers -- most specifically, basic computer programming -- formed a virtual "mathland".
Update Jhai foundation co-founder Lee Felsenstein has published a detailed critique of the One Laptop Per Child project. I disagree with some of what he says and am curious about the rest -- at the least, this constitutes a roadmap of issues that the OLPC project will have to resolve on the way to realizing its vision. (Thanks, Ciaron!)
Update 2 Here's some commentary from Jhai's other founder, Lee Thorn