Upload, download -- which side are you on?

PETER LUNENFELD's most recent book is "USER: InfoTechnoDemo." He is professor of media design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

IN A SCENE straight out of a thriller -- or better yet, a satire of one -- Libya’s Moammar Kadafi summoned MIT Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte to a tent in the vastness of the Sahara Desert in August to talk about the One Laptop Per Child initiative, or OLPC for short. Then, earlier this month, Kadafi committed $250 million to the digital guru’s project, meaning that by 2010, North Africa’s former pariah state may well be the first nation in the world to guarantee every schoolchild access to a computer and a network connection.

With Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Thailand hot on Libya’s heels, the OLPC’s machine is well past demo stage; the nonprofit group promises to deliver more than a million units in 2007. The machine -- formerly known as the $100 laptop -- has an integrated screen, keyboard and video camera. It requires less than 10% of the power of standard machines and wirelessly links to other OLPC machines to form a “mesh network” that can connect inexpensively to the Internet.

What it doesn’t have is any software made by Microsoft, a choice that reportedly made Bill Gates very bitter and presumably exacerbated the anxiety he and his company feel about their place in the future of computing. Instead, OLPC has chosen to use an open-source Linux operating system.

The billionaire philanthropist is not one to back away from a turf battle, and earlier this year he countered with his own branded version of the future -- a prototype he calls the “cellular PC.” It’s a smart-phone system based, naturally, on Microsoft’s Windows CE.

It is probably foolish of me to step into the middle of a fight between the richest man in the world, a Middle Eastern potentate and the brother of America’s top spy (John D. Negroponte is national intelligence director). But the stakes are even higher than these masters of realpolitik realize.


Since the end of World War II, mathematicians, engineers, visionaries and artists have dreamed of a machine that could simulate all other media and connect the creative community worldwide. The jet packs and talking robots that people were hoping for in the mid-20th century never materialized. But the computer as culture machine does exist, and it is one of the greatest gifts the present has to give to the future. However, this gift will be worth very little in the end if we develop and distribute machines that are better suited to downloading than uploading.

Think of television as the great downloading device, a one-way flow of content produced by few and consumed by many. The networked computer, on the other hand, allows for as many producers as consumers and for individual or universal distribution. This is what makes it as revolutionary as the printing press.

Downloading can be a great thing, giving poor schoolchildren access to online encyclopedias and e-textbooks that they could never afford otherwise. But it is the Internet’s unique capacity for uploading our own music, images and opinions that makes it central to the development of 21st century culture. And that’s why the OLPC’s model looks superior to Gates’ cellphone-based alternative. Cellphones enable communication, and they allow for the downloading of ring tones and snippets of multimedia content. But is texting “lol” to indicate hilarity really something we want to export to the developing world?

Gates and others have suggested that the cellphone’s limitations -- a tiny screen and keys -- can be addressed by adding portable keyboards and hooking the whole contraption to a TV. That may prove possible in the long run, but for now, cellphones are far better suited for consuming culture than producing it.

We should export tools that promote more than downloading -- especially to the young and poor. Thirty years from now, when your grandkids and their friends in Libya ask, “Which side of the war between downloading and uploading were you on, grandma?” what will you answer?