Friday, December 14, 2007

"A child's view of the $100 laptop"

My title is in quotation marks because it is the title of a story that Rory Cellan-Jones filed on Wednesday on the BBC NEWS Web site. BBC News has been giving a fair amount of attention to the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) program and the XO laptop around which the effort is based. Cellan-Jones seems to have picked up an XO while on assignment in Nigeria (although he does not give any details behind how he did this); and, upon returning to England's green and pleasant land, he did the obvious thing. He gave it to his nine-year-old son, Rufus, to evaluate.

The result makes for good reading. If we are to believe that dad had no hand in Rufus' activities, then the lad was highly self-motivated; and the XO did a great job in both satisfying and triggering his motivations. The question, however, is how much value resides in Rufus' enthusiastic evaluation. Father Rory caught on to this in his penultimate paragraph:

The One Laptop Per Child project is struggling to convince developing countries providing computers for children is as important as giving them basic facilities like water or electricity.

So what can we learn from a nine-year-old middle-class English white boy, who not only has but also takes for granted not only water and electricity but also a home wireless network and a dad willing to trust him with the security code for connecting to that network? My guess is that Dr. Igwe Aja-Nwachuku, Nigeria's Minister of Education, will not be particularly impressed with anything Rufus had to report. Recall what he said when interviewed by BBC reporter Jonathan Fildes last month:

What is the essence of introducing One Laptop per Child when they don't have seats to sit down and learn; when they don't have uniforms to go to school in, where they don't have facilities?

In the spirit of Dr. Aja-Nwachuku's objection, I would like to introduce the modest proposal that the OLPC take some "break time" to reread (hoping that at least some of them read it back when it was published) The Ugly American. Recall that the title of the book is also the title of one of the chapters, in which we learn that "The Ugly American" is actually the sobriquet of one of the few characters in the book who sets a positive role model. Many of us tend to dismiss his actions in that story as "going native;" but the point of the story was that only by living among those "full-time residents" of a developing country could he even begin to communicate with them effectively about alternative ways of doing things in their day-to-day routine. (Of course this is also a fundamental precept of workplace anthropology in the industrialized world; and to this day I believe that "The Ugly American" had an impact on my research at Schlumberger that addressed bringing information technology into "knowledge work" that they had been doing for many decades before I started to work there.)

My concern is that OLPC was conceived in the rarefied atmosphere of MIT and promoted in the equally rarified atmosphere of government offices, which always seem to enjoy opulence no matter how much in need of development their countries may be. While Dr. Aja-Nwachuku is, himself, a bureaucrat in one of those offices, he has dared to speak for those in the trenches; and my greatest fear is that this makes him a very rare bird in the global promotion of OLPC. Of course if Walter Bender truly spoke for OLPC when he told the BBC that such voices are "unwilling to commit because 'change equals risk'," then it is very unlikely that either those voices or the voices of the children most in need will have any impact on how OLPC progresses.

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