Optimism From OLPC

To say the least, I’ve been ambivalent about the One Laptop Per Child project. And I was not alone in my OLPC discomfort.

But now, I feel optimistic. Not about the OLPC project. But because that project is enabling something important.

For instance, Sherman Dorn wrote a very thoughtful and insightful blog post about the project:

Education Policy Blog: OLPC skepticism/hope

In Dorn’s post, I notice something that I find is missing from much discussion on the relationships between the United States and the rest of World: cultural awareness. Chances are that Dorn didn’t wait for the OLPC project to start before he became culturally aware himself. But I quite enjoy this type of thoughtful and critical discourse saying “Hey! Maybe we should talk to people to whom we want to sell massive numbers of computers before we start imposing our views on them…” Makes simple business sense but it’s also really reassuring to any anthropologist.

Also reassuring is this comment by CNET blogger Tom Krazit:

Negroponte seems to think that because he’s running a nonprofit with a “mission,” he’s entitled to a lock on the developing world and that the XO laptop is the only thing that can bridge the digital divide. That, of course, is preposterous; competition between firms is what improves products and brings down costs over time, and to expect Intel and other companies to just pass on burgeoning demand for computers in developing countries is pretty naive.

I had been waiting for statements like these. Not that I share this conception of the world apparently based on the Invisible Hand theory. But, at least, Krazit is voicing concerns about Negroponte’s approach.

Similarly reassuring is the fact that some technology companies involved in OLPC-like projects are open to input from anthropologists:

To see real growth in the coming decades, Intel, AMD, and the rest of the semi industry must focus on markets where an iPhone would cost a month’s income, and then on markets where it would cost a year’s income. This is the reality behind Intel’s and AMD’s interest in the device category that OLPC represents. It’s the reason why Intel has teams of anthropologists running around rural China, and why AMD launched its 50×15 plan.

I don’t personally see anthropology’s primary role as a method to sell more chips but it’s fun to see anthropological insight gain popularity in the (small but influential) world of global trade.
More reassuring is the November 15 Joy of Tech comic about the potential effects of the OLPC’s XO computer.

Joy of Tech One Laptop Per Child

As an africanist, I personally find that comic surprisingly insightful. And it does allude to an important set of issues relating to Globalization.
So, in part thanks to the OLPC project, people are talking about Globalization, hegemony, and imperialism in a rather thoughtful fashion.

The basic issue I had with the OLPC does have to do with what Dorn describes:

There are two lines of criticism that overlap. One relies on the history of education (and the history and sociology of technology), while the other from the world of comparative education. In both cases, the point is similar: technology does not exist outside a social and institutional context.

I wouldn’t have put it this way, but it’s the same idea. We’re talking about technologists who are oblivious to the “human dimensions” of technology. This problem is at the center of Negroponte’s and other OLPC participants’ personal attitudes. We could also call their attitudes “messianic.” But the basic problem was that participants failed to understand that there is more to solving human issues than finding the right technology.

Now, Negroponte keeps saying that his pet project is not a technology project or a research project. Instead, he calls it either a “humanitarian effort” or an “education project.” Fair enough… But the way the project seems to work does make it look a lot more like a typical engineering research project than like a project based on a thorough understanding of educational and humanitarian issues. Simply put, the OLPC project uses a “troubleshooting” approach to solve what is perceived as a non-ideal situation. A bit like Engineers Without Borders or Geekcorps, but with less cultural awareness and with explicit ulterior motives.

Speaking of ulterior motives and going back to the Invisible Hand. OLPC enthusiasts and critics alike often seem to share a worldview focused on some form of economic liberalism. The basic idea is to push people in GDP-poor countries into the model of market economy with which these people are most familiar and/or comfortable (free trade, privatization, export-centric development…). Obviously, these are connected to ideas about Nation-States and liberal democracy. By buying computers, ministers of education in GDP-poor countries will help their constituencies take a more active place in the World System, which will allow for more free trade and better access to these countries’ exports. By using these computers, children will learn how to be part of the same economic system as the one which dominates most post-industrial societies.

AFAICT, this neoliberal (and neoconservative) economic model is precisely what altermondialists are trying to fight. While I don’t necessarily wholeheartedly subscribe to the complete rejection of neoliberalism typical of most alter-globalization movements, I do find it essential to address such issues as Globalization models before setting forth missionary projects for education abroad.

Now, back to optimism. Maybe Negroponte doesn’t, in fact, deserve a Nobel Prize, but he did do something important: make people think about possibilities in the connections between technology, education, and (economic) development. (Comparisons with the iPhone could be interesting.)

Negroponte clearly knows a lot about technology and his Media Lab has been quite successful in the late 1990s. In 1995, I saw Negroponte give a fairly interesting presentation at Lausanne’s polytechnic institute. Even then, Negroponte’s neoliberal bias was apparent (and getting on the nerves of some of the people present). But there was some motivational dimension to the “digital revolution” which seemed to be taking place at the time and Negroponte’s technological enthusiasm was well-placed.

I used to read Negroponte’s back-page column in Wired magazine with some interest. In fact, reading some issues of Wired has had an impact on me. For instance, attempts at GBN-like scenario-building have often reminded me of Peter Schwartz’s (in)famous Long Boom article in the July 1997 issue of that magazine. That same publication is also where I first learned about the concept of “leapfrog effect” (IIRC, through an article by GBNer John Perry Barlow, but Negroponte had already been using the term). I tend to see a clear connection between the OLPC and the potential effects of “information wealth.”

To be honest, I have been on the whole fairly enthusiastic in terms of the potentials for leapfrog effects in different parts of the world. Not that I think that technology will “save the world” in terms of economic development or in terms of ecological issues. But I do think that some tools can be embedded in interesting social changes, some of which I do find desirable.

Now, to be even more honest, my enthusiasm for the technological dimensions of social changes does lead me to some rather naïve ideas about what might happen in this world. But naïveté can be a strength. At least, if we keep thinking about implications of change and don’t fall into the trap of basic utopianism.

In his recent blogpost on the OLPC, Sherman Dorn mentioned my own post where I commented on the potential for a cellphone-based OLPC-like project. I do tend to mention cellphones a fair bit in these contexts. Not because I prefer cellphones to laptops but because cellphones are already embedded in important social changes. One important principle from ethnography and anthropology is to observe and describe a given context before implementing wide-ranging measures. My hunch is that OLPC participants might have decided to focus their efforts on phone-based devices instead of laptops if they had observed what had already been going on, around the world. What’s funny is that, IIRC, many techno-enthusiastic neoliberals had already been noticing the trend toward cellphone use long before the OLPC project even got started.

All told, I do have high hopes for a world allowing thoughtful discussion of global relations beyond the simplistic technological, economical, and political issues which seem to overshadow the truly human dimensions of social change.

Yes, call me naïve.

3 thoughts on “Optimism From OLPC”

  1. Sherman,
    Thanks for passing by.
    My attitude towards technology tends to be that it’s not the tinkering which will guarantee success but the way the tools are embedded in a social context.
    In this case, an open development model might help as some phones could have bimodal screens and others could user other screen types.
    Again, I’m not necessarily convinced that cellphones are a better solution than laptops but I do think that it’s important to look at what cellphone penetration can tell us about the human dimensions of technology.


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