Laptops and Leapfrog

Been meaning to blog about this for a while, especially after listening to this podcast episode:

Open Source » Blog Archive » One Laptop Per Child?

Quite insightful, in my mind, and they did touch on several of the important issues.

A computer science friend of mine, in Marlboro, VT, had this to say about the project:

I have mixed feelings.

I went to the wikipedia’s conference last summer in Cambridge, MA,
and the developers were meeting in the OLPC offices; apparently
the wikipedia is going to be one of the things they’re putting on
the servers that the laptops talk to. They have some pretty cool
toys, and the idea of a cheap, widely accessible tool to access
the internet is pretty seductive.

I took me a bit to understand that what they’re building aren’t
really “laptops” as I usually understand them; they’re more
like networked interactive electronic tablets.

However, their target audience for the most part can’t read (and
probably doesn’t even have the light to do so after dark even
if they could); most of the (valid, I think) criticism is that
it has a good chance of turning out to be something like giving
away automobiles to people that don’t have access to gas stations.

Another interesting criticism is that smart phones are already
heading into the niche that these things may occupy, and at this
point have a lot more penetration into the target markets.

If they can serve as textbook replacements for shoolchildren,
and if they can train enough teachers to use them, the whole
thing could be great … but so far I’m more skeptical than

Several things to think about. Yes, of course, the OLPC people have been thinking about basic literacy and light. But we may still disagree about their basic perspective. In fact, as a cultural anthropologist, I sometimes get to think about the assumption that: {literacy in a national language} is key to {formal education} which is key to {International Development} which is key to {Bringing Everyone to the Level of Development “We” So Thoroughly Enjoy Here in “The West”}, which is key to {Liberal Humanitarianism}, which is key to {Judeo-Christian Charity}, which is key to {Solving The World’s Problems}.

I quite like the notion of a leapfrog effect, dear to OLPC inspiring leader Nicolas Negroponte. Been intrigued by the concept since Negroponte’s Wired op-ed pieces about it, in the mid-1990s. Was interested in some of the things Negroponte had to say during a conference in Lausanne in 1995 (though Negroponte’s corporate-focused neo-liberalism didn’t play extremely well in the Swiss crowd, even in PTT privatisation).

Kept thinking about cellphones in Africa as an excellent example of how the leapfrog effect may occur. Similarly, the Geek Corps’s Malian projects for cheap wireless seemed well-advised, in terms of my own observation of Malian politics and social dynamism. In that sense, I’m glad that the Radio Open Source episode at least paid lipservice to the importance of cellphones.

The one thing I dislike the most about the OLPC project is the notion that it should not, in fact, be criticised. For instance, Negroponte at TED talks:

people really don’t want to criticize this because it is a humanitarian effort, it is a non-profit effort and to criticize it is a little bit stupid actually.

From an academic standpoint, this “criticism of humanitarian efforts would be silly” stance sounds counter-productive if not inappropriate.

A set of issues which is rarely assessed has to do with the national basis of the project. While Geek Corps and other organisations work in specific regions, trying to empower local people, the OLPC project is all about getting national/federal/republican/country/elected governments to buy equipment built in “foreign countries.” Apart from the obvious practical problems associated with changes in government structure, partisan divisiveness, real or potential corruption, centralisation, private intervention in public administration, and Davos-type Global Inequalities, there are issues about the legitimacy of post- and neo-colonial borders. As someone living in an anti-nationalist but self-determinist social group with “national” representation, I’m frequently surprised by how little attention is being given to political borders on a global scale. Think about the effects of the Scramble for Africa in contemporary issues on that continent. Or think of most wars which have connected so deeply with issues of national authority in imposed political entities.

Ah, well…

4 thoughts on “Laptops and Leapfrog”

  1. Very good comments. There was something I felt uncomfortable about the whole idea of this OLPC project and I couldn’t figure out what it is. The quote you mentioned seems to solve the puzzle for me. It is exactly the confusion between a “research project” and “a humanitarian effort” that makes me feel uncomfotable.

    As a research project, it introduces many new concepts. These experiments, if succeed, will have commercial values among other things. On the other hand, as a research project, it should expect criticisms and competitions. Using “humanitarian effort” as a shield for technical insuperiority is not enough.

    However, as a “humanitarian effort”, it might not be the best approach to help children. For example, I don’t see why this effort is better than donations made by big companies like MS/Intel/Dell. However we dislike them, if you they are willing to do it at a lower cost, it might suit the purpose better. Not to say, people can still argue whether laptops are the thing children in poor country need most.

    As a research project or a humanitarian effort, it has to compete well with others. For example, fail to deliver at the planned price is not a good practice.

  2. DIY,
    “There was something I felt uncomfortable about the whole idea of this OLPC project and I couldn’t figure out what it is.”
    Your way to put it is actually much clearer than mine. So I’m glad you were to post this comment here.
    Of course, someone might argue (along with Negroponte, or playing devil’s advocate) that the difference between OLPC and those donations is that, as an education project, the OLPC is providing a customized solutions for children, “free of the biases” inherent in technology designed in a specific context for that specific context. OLPC proponents would probably bring up those of the XO’s features which are really specific to the project’s target “countries.” The laptop’s form factor, the OS, the custom software, the dual-mode screen, etc. In this case, it really represents a research project, to design a computer appropriate for children living outside of “post-industrial countries.”

    Have you been involved with similar projects yourself?

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