Wednesday, December 26, 2007

One Laptop Left Behind

What follows is an edited excerpt from my new book, Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. I’m presenting this passage here because of continuing talk about how Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) is going to save education in the developing world (when it really is nothing more than a new and fascinating toy):

Technology alone has no impact. It needs understanding, acceptance, and a place in a plan towards a goal. It almost seemed, though, that the United States came to believe after World War II that technology alone could solve any problem. But many, even in the fifties, of course, did recognize the weaknesses of this view, and understood that industrial might alone would not prove sufficient (something else many Americans had come to believe in the wake of World War II) to improve the world. Among these was Philip K. Dick, whose 1963 novel The Man in the High Castle contains within it pieces of a science-fiction novel by one of its characters. One of those passages goes like this:

Only Yankee know-how and the mass-production system—Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, the magic names!—could have done the trick, sent that ceaseless and almost witlessly noble flood of cheap one dollar (the China Dollar, the trade 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, of that which the generous Americans held out to him, that tinny little instrument with its built-in power supply no larger than a marble 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. How to dig a deeper well. Plow a deeper furrow. How to purify their water, heal their sick. Overhead, the American artificial moon wheeled, distributing the signal, carrying it everywhere… to all the waiting, avid masses of the East.

Today, there are still people who have such idealistic visions… such as Nicholas Negroponte, with his One Laptop Per Child project. They forget that it is not technology alone that drives cultural change or creates new worlds, but the interaction between the old and the new—between, to use the image created by Henry Adams, the dynamo and the virgin. As Adams wrote, “whatever the mechanicians might think, both energies acted as interchangeable force on man, and by action on man all known force may be measured.” Like the old and the new, the machine and belief (culture) are inextricably linked. It is foolhardy, therefore, to imagine that Negroponte’s $100 (now $200) laptop will be grasped to the bosom of Africa (say) with the passion that the continent has embraced the cell phone.

The machine is being presented as the discrete answer—something it never has been and never will be. The African writer and editor Binyavanga Wainaina wrote an article for Bidoun in which he explains quite clearly the problems with the Negroponte vision. His take on the subject dovetails perfectly with my own, one built during my own four years in West Africa, and makes me understand an incident that happened while I was teaching at the University of Ouagadougou in the mid-1980s.

A Dutch physics professor at the university developed a seminar for secondary school science teachers to show them how to make use of available items for experiments in their physics classrooms. Though the experiments he had designed were ingenious and could have been quite effective, the teachers rejected them unanimously. “What, we don’t deserve equipment of the quality found in your schools in the Netherlands?” they cried. “Aren’t you, this way, condemning us to a perpetual second class?” The Dutchman was devastated—but the African teachers had a point. The things made for the poor by the rich carry with them a slightly repellant odor.

Wainaina writes about the wind-up radios, rarely seen today in Africa, that were once all the rage in the developed world for the underdeveloped:

But Baylis's Freeplay Radios still exist. You will find them among new age fisherfolk in Oregon; neoblue collar sculptors working out of lofts in postindustrial cities; backtoearthers in Alberta; Social Forum activists and neoGrizzly Adams types everywhere. Angstridden victims, all. But the enthusiasts of the windup radio suffer not from poverty or lack of information but from wealth, vague guilt, and too much information. They are the only people who can find nobility in a product that communicates to its intended owner: you are fucked.

Later in his article, Wainaina explains:

A windup radio. A magic laptop. These pure products are meant to solve everything. They almost always fail, but they satisfy the giver. To the recipients, the things have no context, no relationship to their ideas of themselves or their possibilities. A great salesman can spark a dialogue with you; in a matter of minutes, you come to make your own sense of his product, fitting it into your imagination, your life. You lead, the salesman follows. Whereas a pure product presents itself as a complete solution; a product built to serve the needs of the needy assumes the needy have measured themselves exactly as the product has measured them. … There are few useful "development models" for genuinely selfstarting people. I am sure the One Laptop per Child initiative will bring glory to its architects. The IMF will smile. Mr. Negroponte will win a prize or two or ten. There will be key successes in Rwanda; in a village in Cambodia; in a small, groundbreaking initiative in Palestine, where Israeli children and Palestinian children will come together to play minesweeper. There will be many laptops in small, perfect, NGO-funded schools for AIDS orphans in Nairobi, and many earnest expatriates working in Sudan will swear by them. And there will be many laptops in the homes of homeschooling, goattending parents in North Dakota who wear hemp (another wonderproduct for the developing world). They will fall in love with the idea of this frugal, noble laptop, available for a mere $100. Me, I would love to buy one. I would carry it with me on trips to remote Kenyan places, where I seek to find myself and live a simpler, earthier life, for two weeks a year.

Wainaina’s point deserves reiteration: much of the technology developed in the metropole for the people on the “fringes” (in the view from the metropole) fails simply because it was developed more for the image of the “simple fringe life” contained in the metropole and not for the life as it actually exists on those fringes. Only in following the desires of the people living that life can one develop products for them—not by deciding what they should want.


Sherman Dorn said...

There are some significant problems with OLPC (my undergraduate class in the fall did a nice job criticizing it at the end of a semester learning about the history and cultural uses of technology), but I wouldn't toss it overboard entirely. It may well bear fruit in unusual places: in stimulating computer corporations to produce less-expensive computers that can be purchased by poorer countries for purposes designed in those countries; in promoting internet access so teachers can become more connected, and in downstream technological advances. Of those three, the one most likely to reshape education is the effect on teachers.

Negroponte's project certainly has a utopian vision, but it's not entirely useless, either.

AaronBarlow said...

Yes, Sherman, you are right.

My problem isn't with the technology, but with the goal set for the project.

I would be all for Negroponte if his goal had simply been development of an inexpensive laptop. It's when he's doing it for a certain population that he is not a part of that I start having doubts.

Sherman Dorn said...

I assume that the problem is the preposition: for instead of with. What if he started out with the patronizing bit but then started collaborating. Would that help? And what if he starts getting some input now, or even a few years from now? I'm trying to figure out where you think the tipping point is, from which a particular project is unredeemable.

AaronBarlow said...

Negroponte starts with the technology and then moves to address a "need." To me, that's backwards.

If one goes to the place and assesses need with the guidance of the local population, one can then move to development of a solution--which may or may not require technology.

So, yes, "with" would work--as long as the development was taking place "on the ground."

And separately, in Africa, Asia, South America. Each place and each population may well find differing needs.