Amidst the somber international view of the United States with 9-11 at the pinnacle, the selfless devotion to providing education to those who might otherwise fall into a whirlpool of extremist indoctrination certainly qualifies Greg Mortenson to receive considerable praise and admiration. However, many would find it extremely difficult to assume the same responsibility that guided Mortenson to devote so much of his time to these strangers despite having a family to support. Mortenson believed, though, that his approach was the only way to truly combat terrorism because as General Bashir Baz told Mortenson, “The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business.”(Mortenson 310) However, it seems that Bashir neglected a crucial aspect of modernization—technology.

As a computer science major, I would admit some bias but this is by no means a shameless self-justification or self-promotion; as technology improves exponentially, older technology becomes increasingly inexpensive to produce and as such, this is the next logical step to take towards modernization. While many commercial laptops cost $300 – $1000, these laptops are bloated with many features that are completely unnecessary for the basic applications that could be used in educating youth or even maintaining a business. Wireless network cards, webcams, commercial operating systems, CD-ROM drives, impressive graphics cards are among these components that could be stripped away to create a minimalistic system. Even the brilliant OLPC (One Laptop per Child) XO laptops include features that are unnecessary such as a camera, WiFi, and 256 MB of ram, while costing only $75 to manufacture (laptop.org). While this organization is undoubtedly laudable, it is possible to go further.

Though the XO laptops come with several free programs, it is certainly possible to add to this pool by creating additional software available to download onto these XO laptops or any later generation inexpensive laptop. Currently, there is a very large population of open-source developers and simply posting online a list of ideas for educational software could yield implementations of these ideas and other original ideas with relatively little effort. Just like the Gütenberg Project that allows anyone to volunteer for basic proofreading in the digitization of books whose copyrights are expired, such a website could provide many high-school and college students a way to hone programming skills and user-interface design while also providing an excellent opportunity to positively affect children in the same areas Mortenson improved with his schools. Such a site could also be used to develop a business management software suite but this would fall to a more experienced volunteer rather than a high school student or a college freshman. Nevertheless, adding to the pool of open-source software not only improves an individual’s own talent and experience but also may provide useful programs for education and business that Bashir cited as the way to modernize the people. The cost of hosting such a website would be less than $10 a month. This, however, is only one way to provide better technology for these communities.

In addition to development of free software, new hardware can also make these laptops more affordable and usable. For instance, the OLPC wiki describes early models of the XO laptops that featured a hand-crank to charge the battery but this was abandoned due to excessive wear on the case. Instead, several attempts have been made to use solar energy to charge the laptop but the current technology requires a steep increase in cost. Though not directly related to computer science, such a development in electrical engineering and materials engineering would not only provide Americans with better sources of solar energy but also allow these laptops to be used in villages that do not have easy access to electricity such as those Mortenson visited. Conversely, there is significant work into developing low-power computer components and low-power software, which would make powering these laptops with a weaker (and thus cheaper) solar cell possible. Again, devotion to such fields would not only effect positive results in the already-modernized USA but also facilitate the modernization in the regions of the world that might otherwise fall prey to the madrassas.

Finally, in a more entrepreneurial spirit, to stimulate the business scene of these areas, once a computer science major has all the knowledge necessary to do so, he could try to establish a factory for local distribution of such computers. This way, not only would this provide nearby communities with a ample supply of affordable laptops for use in education and business, it would also provide a number of jobs while keeping the money within the ecosystem. By distributing locally, this would avoid the ever-tempting exploitation of cheap labor for great profit; the cost of the laptops would be commensurate with local wages. However, establishing such a factory would likely need to be funded by charity since the object would be to provide occupation and more accessible laptops and not to become a millionaire. After a time, however, once the modernization would take hold, this factory might become completely self-sufficient and like Mortenson’s schools, could be established in several locales and managed only on a high level from afar.

Though computer science is a generally safe choice of major for economic stability, through the development of free software, more efficient hardware, and entrepreneurship, this field can also bring about facilitated or even improved education and also more effective business management in the same deprived regions Mortenson executed his charity work. Bashir told Mortenson that education and business were needed to bring these people into the modern world and to complement both of these, technology is a necessary component of such modernity. Whether from high-school programming projects to professional open source business suites to cutting-edge technological advances, contributions can be made by people in this field of all skill levels. While these endeavors may not merit the three cups of tea that signified acceptance into the family, perhaps three cups of e-tea might be afforded.

Bibliography

Mortenson, Greg; Relin, David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. Penguin Books 2006.

OLPC. “One Laptop per Child (OLPC): Laptop Hardware > Specs”. Accessed March 24 2010. http://laptop.org/en/laptop/hardware/specs.shtml