Scientists at M.I.T. believe it will. How? By blanketing schools in poor countries with these screaming green, do-it-all, wireless laptops. When more than 10 million children die each year from preventable conditions (PDF), this eye candy seems like it should be the last thing on anyone’s mind. But this laptop comes in handy in a Cambodian village without any electricity. It is a source of light. Will school children think the same?

A prototype of the “$100 Laptop” was introduced at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis this week. Developed by the M.I.T. Media Lab, the computer comes in one flavor: a 500 MHz processor, 1 GB flash memory, 1 megapixel screen, hand-cranked rechargable battery, WiFi, Linux operating system and other open-source software for word processing, Web browsing and e-mail.

Design Continuum came up with the bright green case lined with shock absorving material and an equally bright, neon-colored hand crank. It screams children and would look odd in the hands of would-be thieves especially when everyone in the world would recognize it.

Dr. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Lab and co-inventor of the $100 Laptop, wants tens of millions of these laptops to be given to governments in poor countries through “One Laptop per Child [OLPC],” a nonprofit group formed by Advanced Micro Devices, Brightstar, Google, News Corporation, and Red Hat.

The innovative minds at the Media Lab and its sponsors will solve technical hurdles, such as actually designing a low-cost screen and reducing the manufacturing cost. But what will school children in remote African villages that do not even have cell phone towers do with a wireless laptop?

Gateway to the World?

These laptops should help school children connect to the rest of the world. In Tunisia, for example, that gateway to the world is controlled by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family. Online writers critical of the government have been jailed and had their Web sites blocked. And when “One Laptop Per Child” gives these laptops to school children, the content and Internet access will be controlled by the government. These laptops may help the government spread its propaganda more effectively and help the officials reach a younger generation.

Ironically, Robert Ménard, secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontières [RSF], was detained on board an Air France jet from Paris after it landed in Tunis and denied entry into the country to attend the U.N. summit. Alongside hunger strikers and human rights activists, R.S.F. launched a campaign to identify “15 enemies of the Internet,” which included President Ben Ali. But the criminal complaint used by Tunisia to bar his entry dates back to June 2001 when 20 R.S.F. members occupied the Tunisian Tourism Office to protest the arrest and imprisonment of Tunisian journalist Sihem Bendrine.

Last week, in the evening of 11 November, Christophe Boltanski, a correspondent for the French daily Libération, suffered repeated blows to the head and was stabbed by who were believed to have been police in plainclothes, the paper said.

But in countries where speech is not controlled, increased communication can lead to positive results. Pakistani representative Masood Khan told the U.N. delegates:

“Information is not just an economic tool,” Kahn told delegates in the main hall. “We need its infinite power to combat the rising tide of prejudice and hatred.”

The O.S. War

The $100 Laptops could become the standard for tens of millions of schoolchildren in the developing world. Microsoft reportedly mocked the concept of the $100 laptop at first, The Wall Street Journal said. When the software giant apparently realized the stakes, it turned “antagonistic.” Apple, on the other hand, offered its OS X for free. The project leaders turned it down because it was not open source.


[Dr. Negroponte, of the Media Lab, is the brother of Ambassador John. D. Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence.]