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December 5, 2007

Give an OLPC laptop to an inferior individual today!

Last week I talked with a friend about homeless fashion. After recalling a guy who was always seen in a well-fit (though worn) suit, we pondered why the homeless never really seemed to subscribe to general fashion norms.

It is obvious that a person who lives without permanent shelter must dress more for utility than for show. Their clothes will work much harder and be treated much less than the clothes of the average suburban closet. As a result of their constant usage they'll look dingy, yes; it is not to these fashion rules of crispness or fancy that we are referring. We were thinking more that fashions change rapidly and vary by location and social strata. We are not experts on homeless societies, but there seems to be much less variation. Moreover, what is worn often seems to be unappealing to anyone who had a choice.

It was my assertion, therefore, that the clothes of the homeless were the selections from a body of clothing which was generated under the assumption that "beggars can't be choosers." She immediately noted that the average thrift store is filled with items that are absolutely horrendous, wondering why anyone would think a homeless person would want to wear that. I reminded her that any clothing that was given secondhand was once the first-hand wardrobe of someone; we can only blame ourselves for the bad taste in outfits sported by our homeless contemporaries.

If I took a homeless person shopping for a first-hand wardrobe they could utilize for this wintry season, what would they buy? Would it combine utility with societal acceptance, or would it continue to be pragmatic to such extreme levels? Could the homeless community participate in fashion as equals instead of recipients of the remainder?

It is this same concept that keeps me from being excited about the OLPC project. I've talked about this before, but I don't really hear anyone else talking about it. What I hear is how great it is to give poor people a computer that can give them access to what the rest of us have. The laptop is durable, portable, and has decent features for its price. Let's give it to the world; there's no way they could complain about a free computer, right?

If I took one of my contemporaries from the developing world shopping for a custom-built machine, what would they buy? Would it look anything like the XO? More importantly, could the developing community participate in the development of technology or continue to be the recipients of the remainder?

Conversely, if I found a vault of unclaimed cash of such proportions that I could provide an XO to every person of every developing nation, what would I have accomplished? Uniformity, for the most part. Is that really what we want--for everyone to solve the issues of technology from the same perspective that we approach them from? Granted, we may see desire lines that indicate more efficient ways, but these are reactions to implementations that are not accommodating user intentions; do we really want our technological discoveries to be achieved through such happenstance?

I hope that the plight of both the homeless and the developing society might be better approached. We only do ourselves a disservice by not seeing these communities as equals who can aid us as much as we aid them.

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