Sunday in the Park
December 7, 2007
It is the season of giving, giving and receiving, and I have come upon the perfect gift. It combines the desire to do good with the desire to acquire something good. It is designed by Yves Behar, the man Time magazine named one of 25 visionaries for 2007. And the entire project is the brainchild of Nicolas Negroponte not John, the Deputy Secretary of State but his brother who just recently stepped down after 44 years as a professor at MIT and the founder of the famed Media Lab there (the place where computer-aided design spawned WIRED magazine) to dedicate himself to this world-changing project. It has been nicknamed "The Green Machine," and at a recent conference I was able to see it and test it up close and personal. The basis for this project is one laptop per child.
The project is simple, like world peace is simple. Put into the hands of all the world’s children the same tools to communicate with each other and raise the standard of living and learning everywhere. Right away you’re saying, "How can they afford that? How can they power that? How can they not sell them off for water or rice?" And the ample able brains have worked through all this. The price, though it started at $100 per machine, is closer now to $200 but will lower as more computers are ordered and produced. The power is a hand crank, believe it not.
The countries involved are setting up rudimentary systems to connect users over a couple of miles or dozens of miles, even hundreds of miles. And the design, as Negroponte so charmingly explained, is meant to be like a postal truck — in that thousands of cars are stolen each minute but nobody steals postal trucks. They are just postal trucks, ubiquitous and boring. And though the novelty of The Green Machine makes it desirable, the availability within selected villages will make it common. The goal, going forward, is to produce something like 5 million units a month.
Initially these machines will only be available in the struggling countries where the government has put up the money to help connect them. There are 10 countries on board, from Uruguay to Thailand. The keyboards have been created in multiple languages, English being a minor one. And the results from the test drive of these tiny apple-green laptops is stunning. In one locale, the teachers asked that servers be turned off at night because they were receiving so many e-mails from students wanting to learn more and needing help with their lessons. Children and their families can communicate with other villagers and other villages.
The laptop is literally the bright light in the room and yet designed to be both backlit and front lit to work in bright sunlight and indoors. The screen is cleverly designed to spin around and become a television, designed also to lie flat and become an electronic book reader. The icons are new and fresh and invite drawing as well as musical interaction.
It is a most exciting concept to think of introducing the world’s children to knowledge that exists around the world. Never before has the world’s knowledge been available to the world’s population. The Romans saw that kind of sharing as dangerous as book burners have for all of recorded history. But now, with digital libraries increasing their volumes by each copyrighted minute, the ability and access to the same information in the same real time, anywhere in the world, could be possible: knowledge on how to farm, how to heal, how to create wind power, how to cook like Rachel Ray. OK, maybe all knowledge doesn’t need to be shared, but you get the idea: it can be, it is possible.
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Listening to Behar talk was so unexpectedly refreshing. One of the most sought-after designers in the world, his clients have included, Herman Miller, Nike, Swarovski, Toshiba and Birkenstock. (The chandelier he created for Swarovski that changes shape in your room at the push of a button is so James-Bond fabulous it takes your breath away). Behar, founder of FUSEPROJECT, an integrated design agency that focuses on the emotional experience of brands through storytelling, told us his design vision. And it was pretty simple. He says things really only have value when you make certain to attach values to them. And so The Green Machine emerges with the value of equality at the top of the list.
I know. You’re saying, "How does all this help me with gift-giving this holiday season?" Here’s the deal, and it is a remarkable deal. This is a nonprofit venture. There is no money for marketing, which is 60 percent of the cost of the computers you buy from a for-profit company. So the marketing to purchase these computers needs to be viral. Negroponte is out there telling his story to fund this project.
From now until Dec 31, if you purchase one computer to be delivered to a child in the world, you will receive one yourself. The cost for this donation/gift is $399. Think of it. Your contribution could introduce a child not only to knowledge but serve as a gateway for his or her entire family to the 21st century. And you get this really cool, cutting-edge designed, sturdy, honestly kinda cute, laptop. You could give it to a member of your family. You could turn around and donate it to the library or school or church here. You could change the world.
As you may have surmised, my grandchildren, who have more toys than they need (I know this to be a fact because I purchased most of them), will have a new toy at Oma’s house this holiday. Something they can share. I will be able to explain to the oldest, Izzie, the six-year-old, about the other child somewhere on the planet who will be receiving a computer just like hers, who lives in a world without running water, in a village, not a city. I will tell her that it is my wish, as the world becomes literally more connected, that one day she might know that child, as a college student with her, or a companion on her own journey. And when all the excesses of the holidays encroach, as they do, I will remember the faces I saw around a screen this week of the children in Cambodia who were laughing and sharing the discovery of their new toys of knowledge. And the smiling, composed young girl who carried her sturdy lightweight laptop on her head.
Miracles aren’t exclusive to ancient times and archaic texts, or even particular seasons. Nicholas Negroponte is making certain of that. And I, for one, am in awe that we live in a time when such radical ways of changing the world are possible. It is something I plan to reflect on, when I’m not forwarding the Web site laptop.org to everyone I know, this Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. Orr is also a former editor of The Park Record.