Since beginning my OLPC adventure I’ve been staying on top of the chatter as best I can. After a few weeks of watching carefully, I’m concerned about some of the language used to relate to the project and projects like it. The web has taken a positive tone to the social goals of low cost computing for underprivileged children and now that Asus, Dell and Microsoft have or are working on similar themed products, a marketplace has opened – a marketplace that many commentators seem to think will be the undoing of OLPC.
But this is a different and entirely new marketplace who’s currency isn’t hard cash, but social kudos. In the regular market for IT gizmos and gadgets, or course there is heavy competition – the loser loses money, the winner ends up with the majority of the market share. Those who poorly execute their projects fail by the Capitalist metric.
But since the OLPC XOs aren’t a consumer product, I struggle to understand how the Blogsphere is seeing OLPC threatened by similar products, or seeing pending doom for the whole project because there are now a handful of other low-cost laptops being made.
Our notions of competition come from the common understanding of Darwinian natural history, tied up with a common understanding of Realist politics found in the Classics. Since everybody acknowledges that the idea behind OLPC is entirely new and entirely altruistic, we should go a step further in thinking that traditional notions of competition do not necessarily apply here. Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, writes that in the 21st century social-objective entrepreneurs follow a different set of rules to their money-centric brethren. He suggests that while:
“He or she competes in the marketplace with all other competitors but is inspired by a set of social objectives…that he or she can profit from the business but that the profit is a byproduct or the original intent and that the higher the social impact per dollar invested by such an entrepreneur, the higher the market rating of the project. Here the ‘market’ will consist of potential investor who are looking for opportunites to invest their money in social-objective-driven enterprises.” [Yunus, M. Banker To The Poor p.251]
“Because of… orthodox economics… all the investment money is now lucked up in only one category of investment: investment for making personal profit… the moment we open the door to making a social impact through investments, investors will start putting their investment dollars through this door as well.” [Yunus, M. Banker To The Poor. p.256]
Whatever Asus and Dell’s goals, we know OLPC’s goal is get XOs to poor kids without profit in mind. There are a lot of them out there – even if you insist on seeing this whole movement as subject to the ‘sharp, brutish realities’ of nature and economics, then you’d also have to see the millions of kids needing a hand up as a market that has a long time to go before it becomes saturated. And when it does become saturated, isn’t that Mission Accomplished??
If you reject the notion of competition in nature then immediately the internecine relationships fall away and you’re left with a small handful of people from a range of companies trying to make a little more out of their nine-to-five. And it doesn’t look like anyone is giving up soon.