One Laptop Per Child

One-LaptopI’ve been listening to a fascinating episode of Chris Lydon’s terrific radio show “Open Source,” talking about the “One Laptop Per Child” project (OLPC). This was founded by the former head of MIT’s Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, and promises to provide a modern laptop to kids for about $150. The machine is unique in many ways. Chief among them: a reflective screen, so it works all day long on a single charge, open source, Linux-based software that can be updated by anyone, mesh networking, so individual machines work together to get on the net, camera, browser, email, VoIP, chat, word processing, spreadsheet and more, all built in. The plan is to sell them in lots of a million to developing nations. They are working on orders from several countries.

This is the next step in the democratization of computer technology — a path that we started on with the first mini-computers and which accelerated with the Apple II, the IBM PC and the Mac. It’s also the same path we’re on in post-production, as the “big iron” of the studios and facilities gets displaced by inexpensive desktop software.

This isn’t just about technology, of course, it’s about people. In Hollywood, the old world of post-production was very closed. Most of the people who got in had relatives who were already in. The ’60s and ’70s changed that, as 16mm equipment got into the hands of educators, film schools took off, and a series of court decisions opened up the IATSE.

But opening the doors can be awfully scary to the folks inside. Today, as editing equipment moves into high schools and post-production becomes sexier, we’re seeing the beginning of a new wave of young editors starting to knock on our doors. Is this a threat or an opportunity — or both? Does it hurt us, or bring new ideas?

Look at it this way: Microsoft, via Windows, owns the desktop, right? And for a long time, Microsoft represented the democratization of technology. The whole idea was to change society by putting a computer on every desk and thus shift power away from centralized mainframe computing.

But now, if this OLPC project takes off, a lot of kids in developing countries are going to learn about computers and the internet via Linux — with no Microsoft software in sight. Is that a long term threat to Microsoft? You bet it is.

Maybe this business of democratization is perpetual. And whoever is on the inside resists it, no matter how big they are. But if there’s any lesson in the past, it’s this: trying to keep new ideas and new people out is futile and self-destructive. Embracing the new is the only hope. The question for us, as editors, is not whether we do that, but how.

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