Well, it looks like Negroponte has done it...
"A prototype of a cheap and robust laptop for pupils has been welcomed as an "expression of global solidarity" by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The green machine was showcased for the first time by MIT's Nicholas Negroponte at the UN net summit in Tunis. He plans to have millions of $100 machines in production within a year."
("UN debut for $100 laptop for poor" By Jo Twist, BBC News technology reporter in Tunis)
This is a major breakthrough, should it come to fruition.
Even $100 is far too expensive, in my opinion. But any wise government would see this as an incredible public works program. For $100m the government could disseminate a million of these laptops to its citizens. What would be the social effect? It's hard to say... I'd guess it would be incalculable.
"The laptops are powered with a wind-up crank, have very low power consumption and will let children interact with each other while learning.
"Children will be able to learn by doing, not just through instruction - they will be able to open up new fronts for their education, particularly peer-to-peer learning," said Mr Annan.
He added that the initiative was "inspiring", and held the promise of special and economic development for children in developing countries..."
The kids I taught in Eritrea were often studying out of third or fourth hand books, such as 1950s high school chemistry textbooks donated by the British Council. If you were lucky, you'd get one or two nights with the textbook in your hands over the course of an academic year. There were pages that had been torn out, and notebook paper pages had been inserted by other students summarizing what had been on the missing pages.
These laptops could come pre-loaded with basic literacy instruction, language education, encyclopedias, world fact books, and educational materials. Even that information could be revolutionary. The idea of internet access, even at a rudamentary level, would be far more revolutionary. If there is any way WiMax or some other wideband internet access could be integrated that would be astounding (I wonder what that would do to power consumption...)
This reminds me of the Hole In The Wall experiment from a couple years ago. Think of that impact times ten or twenty million.
I once told John Perry Barlow, in response to an article he wrote in Wired on the potential of the internet in Africa, that the impact of technology would always be of secondary importance, because you can't download a loaf of bread. eBay has shown me that isn't necessarily true. Now the infrastructure is emerging to expand the reach of global networks to the world's poorest people. Incredible.
I want to help however I can.