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“Computing is no longer about computers. It is about life.”

Nicholas Negroponte @ PICNIC '09

With that opening slide, Nicholas Negroponte, creator of the MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC), began an authoritative and compelling review of OLPC in tandem with his philosophy for bringing technology to the world.

While photography was invented by photographers and television by engineers, Nicholas said we have entered an era when designers, educators, and social activists join the conversation to create powerful, local solutions to complex problems. He was clear about his focus: what normal forces would be expected to do, he would not do. Since tech trends of smaller, faster computers were only producing more powerful and more complex computers at high prices for the developed world, he would go “in the other direction”—toward inexpensive, highly practical machines that could be used in rural locations where, for example, 50% of the users do not have electricity at home or at school.

Thus he conceived—and developed—the OLPC laptop computer. These machines are realistically built, too. Just after lifting up a laptop for the audience to see, he casually tossed it onto the floor and challenged conventional laptop makers to try that. Today, 1M children have these computers in their hands, and in some countries this means 100% of the children. At the same time OLPC has put pressure on the next generation of laptops for the developed world, pushing the limits of a new category called “netbooks”.

"When OLPC made it onto a postage stamp, I knew we had arrived."

In discussion with PICNIC host, Matt Costello, Nicholas conjured a future vision where every child on earth is connected via the equivalent of a computing tablet or flexible electronic paper. He predicted a deep change in how children develop “intellectually and creatively” in emerging countries—beyond what a developing nation can do because its education is “like calisthenics”. This will come from the rich variety of young children’s thinking, such as in Africa where the 8-year olds are inventing things and showing their teachers.

"For the Media Lab, the future was 25 years. For OLPC, it's 2 months from now."

When asked what he saw in the media landscape that was cause for concern, Nicholas said he was an optimist and he did not want to be like the centipede who, when asked which foot it put forward first, couldn’t walk again. Instead he sees a lot of self-correction in the world, and in the Internet specifically. He closed with a typically candid, modest, and empowering statement: “I’ll just keep my optimism and you can discount what I say.”

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