Wiring Democracy

After reading Evgeny Morozov's article, I thought of an analogy that shows why his article is flawed ("Think Again: The Internet," May/June 2010). Imagine a restaurant that has a dozen wonderful, freshly made soups on the menu each day. The waiters, however, have a nasty habit of spitting in the orders of those customers they do not like. Most people would rightly blame the waiters. Morozov's solution would be to ban soup.

All new technologies have some regrettable consequences. Indoor plumbing destroyed the social fabric of women accustomed to the camaraderie of the village well. Gutenberg's press led to the industrial-scale production of pornography. And cell phones are employed by terrorists to dreadful effect. The question is not, "Can I find examples of misuse of the Internet?" Sure, I can.

The real question is, "Does the Internet overtly help causes like democracy, freedom, the elimination of poverty, and world peace?" My answer is: It does these things naturally and inherently.

Here's why: The Internet is a path to education. Take any of the problems Morozov cites -- they are best solved by education. A poor and unjust world is an illiterate world. But an educated world is more able to discuss and more likely to understand its problems. One step toward an educated world is connecting children and providing each the means to learn.

The One Laptop per Child Foundation has so far placed 2 million laptops in more than 40 countries, in more than 20 languages. In one country, Uruguay, every child has one. Rwanda and Peru have committed to doing the same. Gaza is following.

What are we finding? We find kids in the poorest parts of the world teaching their parents how to read and write. We find kids in remote Peru, Cambodia, and Rwanda checking the commodity exchanges so their parents know the real prices of wool, rice, and coffee. We find girls in Afghanistan who dare not go to school connected and collaborating from home instead. Need I say more?

Nicholas Negroponte
Chairman, One Laptop per Child Foundation
Cambridge, Mass.

Evgeny Morozov replies:

I love Nicholas Negroponte's restaurant metaphor, but I think he draws the wrong conclusions from it. Even restaurants with "wonderful, freshly made soups" need to undergo inspections every now and then, if only to make sure that the soups are still wonderful and freshly made. My fear is that the soup in Negroponte's restaurant might have never been fresh to begin with; whether there are waiters spitting in it is beside the point.

I find Negroponte's belief that there is something "natural" and "inherent" in how the Internet helps "causes like democracy, freedom, the elimination of poverty, and world peace" extremely dangerous, as it blinds us to the negative externalities of our interconnectedness. We can educate kids in Uruguay all we want, but the reality is that the police in Iran will continue to hunt Iranian activists based on information they themselves post to social networking sites.

Overall, I wish Negroponte took the time to engage with the arguments in my essay as opposed to touting his own project as a panacea for all the world's ills. I don't deny that there are certain niches his product can fill, but to argue that One Laptop per Child has much impact on the speed or direction of democratization in countries like China, Russia, or Iran is simply naive.


Time Bomb

Charles Kenny's latest article reminds me of a late-night episode of Seinfeld, a rerun played for youngsters who missed the original ("Bomb Scare," May/June 2010). Foreign Policy could avoid recycling this weary and irrelevant 200-year-old debate by instead exploring the state-centric research on food security that has emerged during the intervening years.

From this fresh perspective, it is much less important that world population will soon surpass 7 billion people and more relevant that nearly two dozen countries have dropped below established benchmarks of agricultural resource scarcity. As of 2010, 21 countries inhabited by some 600 million people have lost, for the foreseeable future (and perhaps forever), the potential to sustainably nourish many of their citizens much of the year using their own agricultural resources. By 2025, another 15 countries will have joined their ranks as a result of population growth alone.

So what? Don't we live in an interdependent world where countries specialize and trade? For the foreseeable future, however, these countries will be dependent on an international grain market that has recently experienced unprecedented swings in volume and speculation-driven price volatility. The bottom line is that the poorest countries are spending their foreign currency reserves to import staples rather than using those reserves to import machinery, raw materials, and expertise that could speed their economic development.

What disturbs me most about reading Kenny's rerun is its disconnect with current food-policy concerns, research, and debates. While another critique of Malthus's 200-year-old thesis might fill up a magazine or Web page, its perspective hardly informs serious policy discussions.

Richard Cincotta
Demographer in Residence
The Henry L. Stimson Center
Washington, D.C.

Charles Kenny replies:

I am glad Richard Cincotta thinks that global population concerns might be overblown and that the debate over Malthus should be finished. Yet Cincotta repeats the old argument.

He -- like Malthus -- is worried about the development prospects of countries where populations have expanded to the land's current productive capacity. My article suggests that the global growth in services and industries alongside a $600 billion trade in agriculture have helped make these Malthusian concerns redundant.

Cincotta (again, like Malthus) supports greater food self-sufficiency. But countries with lots of desert and oil are best off trading with countries with lots of farmland but few energy resources. That way, both countries get more money to import materials for development.

Economist Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize in part for the finding that people with money don't starve. While Cincotta's research shows that food-price volatility is a growing issue, volatility can be managed. Autarky can't -- the North Korean trading model hasn't led to economic development or food security.

Seinfeld is still on TV for a reason -- the repeats get ratings. Sadly, so do Malthusian arguments for population control and food self-sufficiency. Weary though the debate may be, it still goes on -- and Malthus is still dead wrong.