Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Reshaping the World, One Computer at a Time

In his great 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a world where the Axis won WWII. An author in that world imagines another world where the Allies did win for his book The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In it, Hawthorne Abendsen writes:
Only Yankee know-how and the mass-production system… could do the trick, sent that ceaseless and almost witlessly noble flood of cheap one-dollar… television kits to every village and backwater of the Orient. And when the kit had been assembled by some gaunt, feverish-minded youth in the village, starved for a chance, for that which the generous Americans held out to him, that tinny little instrument… began to receive. And what did it receive? Crouching before the screen, the youths of the village—and often the elders as well—saw words. Instructions. How to read, first. Then the rest.
Every time anyone brings up (generally in glowing terms) Nicholas Negroponte and his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project through MIT, I think about this passage.

Now, I’m sure that the people behind this project are not nearly as naïve as Abendsen and the Americans he posits with their great faith in technology as the solution—and I see nothing wrong with developing a $100 computer. But I do wonder if this has been through carefully in consultation with people who have real experience on the ground in subsistence-economy areas. And I don’t mean the aid workers who swoop in from their air-conditioned SUVs and bottled water who stay back in the capital, but the people who actually have lived in these areas—either growing up there themselves or staying for an extended period of time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, say, or a missionary.

When we in America envision the power of the $100 laptop, we are projecting our own desires and abilities onto the rest of the world. By imagining what we could do with such a thing (had we not computer access already), we assume that others could (and would) do the same. I attended a wonderful Computers & Writing conference last week in Lubbock, Texas where people were discussion all sorts of ways that computers can be used to augment the teaching of writing (among other things). There was one discussion, though, on Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat that shocked me in its naïveté, panelists nodding together that OLPC (and things like it) were going to change the world, that, through technology, we really were achieving the ‘level playing field’ behind Friedman’s title image.

Does access to technology really provide an equality of opportunity? I doubt it. Even as China and India take huge economic steps, the divide between rich and poor also widens. Technology is a much more useful tool for the rich than it is for the poor.

As I said, I have nothing against the OLPC project—I just don’t see it as any sort of solution to economic inequities or educational needs. A computer is simply one tool, and it has to have a user able to manipulate it towards a specific end if it is going to be effective. Also, the desire to use the tool has to come from the people using to, not from foreigners who believe it might be just the thing. Cell phones have been sweeping the world not because we in America think they are good for the rest of the world (in fact, we have been rather late in embracing them), but because people saw possibilities in them. Maybe people all over the world will embrace the OLPC computers—but maybe they won’t. That’s for them to decide, not for us.

I have another concern with the OLPC project, one implied in Gary Snyder’s poem “Axe Handles,” where he repeats the old saying that, when making an axe handle, the pattern is not far off (for one uses an axe to cut the handle). By providing computers as tools, we are also providing a pattern and a way of thought. We are reshaping the people we give the computers to—they are not simply reshaping themselves. There’s a logic inherent in any tool, and the logic of a computer is “our” logic of the developed world.

Rather than dropping computers all over the world, as Phil Dick’s Abendsen imagines, perhaps we could simply make the computers available—waiting with them until they are wanted. And we should keep our expectations low: technology isn’t going to change the world—it takes people to do that.

And our goal, after all, shouldn’t be to remake the world in our own image.


ChinaLawBlog said...

Nice post. I tend to agree. We see the same thing in the U.S. educational system where schools are measured by how many computers they have, as though that is some sort of shorthand for the learning that goes on. Computers may or may not help the rural poor in places like China and India, I don't know, but I agree we should not just ASSUME they will. I am a skeptic, not a luddite.

AaronBarlow said...

I like that last line, "I am a skeptic, not a luddite." Me, too.