Like all magical mysteries, the secrets of the Great Work have a number of meanings. Well, at least three. But in essence, the Great Work has always been the search for the absolute. Apart from the usual new age drivel, it is simply nothing less than the creation of ourselves by ourselves including the entire conquest of our faculties and future. And, it is especially about the emancipation of our will.

I remember reading somewhere a theory that suggests cause manifests by effects and effects are proportional to causes. In other words, what's true in the cause manifests in the effect and what is not realised does not exist. For example, thought could be said to be realised in becoming speech but could also be realised by say, signs, sounds, symbols and a variety of representations. Nowadays, I suppose to some extent, it could even be realised, in part, by technology.

As impressive as Apple's new PowerBook line is, with the crisp new displays that ‘expand our view', longer battery life, and DVD-burning SuperDrive on every system, the new ‘slim' prices starting around £1,099, really aren't that slim. Well, not if you consider what the old digital guru, Nicholas Negroponte has been up to recently. Thinking a lot different, he's planning to shine the light of illumination from hand-cranked $100 laptops into homes, villages and townships throughout the developing and less-privileged world, providing every child on the planet with a computer of their own by 2010.

Not long ago, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan unveiled the first working prototype of the $100 laptop at the UN World Summit on the Information Society. The Linux-based machine is a sort of kinky green rubber number with a 7-inch screen that swivels like a tablet PC. But the really clever thing is that like those wind-up radios that came out a few years ago, these laptops have an electricity-generating crank that provides 40 minutes of power from around a minute of grinding. Put that next to your ‘longer battery life' and see how well the hype holds up. They will also include built-in WiFi with mesh networking support, combined with a microphone, speaker and headset jack, which means the box can even serve as a node in an ersatz VoIP phone system.

OK, so it's not a G4. It still looks pretty cool and is powered by a modest 500MHz AMD processor using 1GB of flash memory for storage instead of a standard hard drive. And the key to building it so cheaply involves an innovative, low-power LCD screen technology invented by Negroponte's CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen. The machine is expected to start mass production late this year and the governments of Thailand and Brazil have already said they're serious about placing a million dollars worth of orders for their school kids. Other ‘developing' countries won't be far behind.
Negroponte said they'd been working with computers in education for 30 years, computers in developing countries for 20 years, and trying to make low-cost machines for 10 years. What made it all happen now was simply the fact that it was possible to do it.

Display technology, such as electronic ink, mesh networks for communications, and a number of things that happened in the context of the MIT Media Lab, simply exploited the idea that cause manifests by effects and effects are proportional to causes.

Although there is some indication that Negroponte could have used a donated version of Windows or OS X for his new laptop, he's decided to stick with open source. Why? Because he figured it'd be difficult to propose a $100 laptop for a world community of kids and then not say in the same breath that, by the way, you're going to have to depend on the whims of either the PC or Mac community to make software for it. Negroponte's other justification for the open-source approach is the fact that around 50 per cent of the servers worldwide are using either Linux or some kind of Unix derivative. So, 20 per cent of the world's servers are already using what could be loosely perceived as perfectly mainstream software. His little green machines will also include a number of development tools so, in theory, they could unleash a new generation of open-source programmers who otherwise would never have got their hands on a computer.

When asked about the potential downside of this approach where somebody might, say, write a computer virus that takes advantage of the mesh network, Negroponte said that would be a little like saying you shouldn't teach people to read and write because they could write messages to each other about how to build a bomb. Since the same could be said for reading a book on how to make a bomb or whatever, he rightly decided that we should be more worried about the reverse.

While this project probably doesn't qualify in the more arcane definition as pursuant of the Great Work, in a lot of ways it actually will contribute something significant to the creation of ourselves by ourselves and the emancipation of our will. Sure, iPods are cool and sell well in affluent countries. And, along with iTunes, they've done some great work in shaking the complacent cages of the music industry. But with Apple's lineage in education, it's a shame that all the innovation and design sense on tap hasn't been applied to something similarly worthwhile for the rest of the world – especially since the original PowerBooks were used in a similar one-computer-per-pupil experiment in schools in Ireland shortly after they first came out.

Maybe there's still too much disinformation in everyone's corporate psyche, including Apple's, that allows them to believe the myth that the Great Work was nothing more than an alchemical means of creating gold from baser elements. And, I suppose that might distort your world view of how to best pursue the conquest of our faculties and future. However, if I remember rightly, Apple also used to believe in wheels for the mind. And it was also pretty good at providing them. Imagination manifests itself in many forms and any great work thrives on imagination. Otherwise, what's true in the cause fails to manifest in the effect and what is not realised will simply never exist. MW