The One Laptop Per Child Project and the negotiation of technological meaning
First Monday

The One Laptop Per Child Project and the negotiation of technological meaning by Brendan Luyt



Abstract
In this article I use actor–network theory to make sense of some of the characteristics given to the XO by the OLPC Project; namely its immense scale, the involvement of educational bureaucracies (and the contradictions this entails), the role of children and the open source software community. I also identify several social forces that will likely shape the direction this technology takes. The future of the XO is, as a result of these forces, by no means certain. What will help determine the trajectory it takes is how willing the OLPC team is to further negotiate the meaning of this new technology.

Contents

Introduction
STS and its critics
The OLPC Project: Background
Negotiating the XO
Tilting the field: Social forces and the OLPC Project
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Amid increasing calls for new information and communication technologies to be more equally distributed around the globe, growing numbers of scholars and policy–makers realize doing so involves more than handing out hardware and software. Mark Warschauer, for example, argues that we look at the problem of access to ICT as a problem of literacy. What makes people literate is not only access to the technologies of reading and writing, but a complex set of social factors as well. In a similar manner, he argues, people need not only computers and Internet connections to overcome the digital divide, but a supportive social environment (Warschauer, 2003). Other authors also stress the importance of social factors in enabling access to ICTs (Kvasny, 2006; Selwyn, 2005; Clark, 2003; van Dijk and Hacker, 2003; Drori, 2003).

This emphasis on the social aspects of ICT access suggests that looking at attempts to bridge the digital divide from the perspective of science and technology studies (STS) would be fruitful. In this article I apply some of the insights of Actor–Network Theory (ANT) to one of the more famous efforts to bring ICT to the masses in the developing world, the One Laptop Per Child Project led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte. I will also use the work of two of ANT’s critics to suggest that by itself such an analysis can capture only half the story. The other half requires attention paid to social forces not necessarily visible from the perspective of participants.

 

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STS and its critics

Much recent work in STS has developed out of the conviction that engineering is not divorced from sociology, but is a key element of its successful practice [1]. Successful technologies are ones that develop deep social meanings that resonate with their users and the wider society. Charles Bazerman, in his study of Thomas Edison and the introduction of electric light to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, clearly makes this point when he notes: “Electric light and power emerged within and were supported by a social matrix. Light could not just appear through the mute work of a few mute technologists. It had to emerge as part of the drama of human meaning.” [2]. In the history of the bicycle as recounted by Wiebe Bijker the importance of social meaning for technology is also emphasized. Originally associated with the athletic sons of the British aristocracy, the high–wheeled bicycle of the nineteenth century took on at least two meanings: a sporting machine and a dangerous contraption. These meanings put in motion two design trends. For those in the sporting camp, attempts were made to develop ever bigger wheels in pursuit of the thrills of the ride. On the other hand, attempts were made to make a safer bicycle (Bijker, 1995).

Making electric light a common utility and developing a safety bicycle were not preordained developments. Both technologies involved work of publicity and organization on part of those connected to the nascent industry. Advocates of ANT, in their own attempt to move explanations of scientific and technological work closer to the rest of human behaviour and experiences, also put this process of negotiating meaning at the heart of the strategies adopted by engineers and technologists to ensure the adoption and success of their work. In the world of ANT, technology becomes successful when it is able to enroll multitudes of actors on its behalf (and the actors need not be limited to human beings, but can be animals or even inanimate objects) in networks that are reasonably stable through time [3]. For Bruno Latour, one of the chief theorists of ANT, this process of negotiation involves the linking of a particular invention to a wider set of problems of interest to a wider set of actors. The new technology takes the form of a solution to the problem that others were previously not aware of, or a goal to which they did not originally aspire, or the best means, to achieve a goal that previously appeared out of reach [4].

Despite a generally warm reception to the field, ANT has been criticized on a number of fronts, most noticeably by Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at the University of Warwick. Fuller argues that despite its tendency to adopt a radical image, the rapid uptake of ANT and STS in general in the academic community merely reflects the increasingly market–driven world of science policy. ANT provides essential cover to this world. It does so in at least two ways. Firstly, by focusing on networks of free–agent actors capable of exercising their own forms of power on others depending on the circumstances and their own negotiations, ANT “flattens the ontology of the social world” [5] and removes from debate the notion that some groups dominate others. Secondly, by expanding the number of actors that need to be taken into account (not only the sentient, but the non–sentient as well), ANT effectively diffuses responsibility for outcomes, helping sustain the belief that at the end of the day no one is really to blame (and that no one can really change it either). And finally, the claim that scientists and engineers are already practicing sociology can, when taken too far (and Fuller believes that this is the case with ANT), have the effect of “precluding political factors that do not explicitly enter the scientists’ own deliberations.” [6] The result is that analysts do not “engage in an ideology critique of science that appeals to factors that sustain the game but transcend the scientists’ control or awareness.” [7]

The importance of social forces other than those directly acknowledged by scientists and engineers in their work is the centre of focus for Pam Scott in her study of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory (Scott, 1991). Scott’s problem with Bruno Latour’s account of scientific work is that it not only privileges the lab as a powerful institution, but generalizes beyond what can be supported by the available evidence. In her study, she constructs an account that shows scientists involved in the same network building strategies that Latour suggests was responsible for Louis Pasteur’s great success against anthrax in nineteenth century France, but with a distinctly different outcome. The AAHL never did reach its potential because it could not obtain permission to import the live viruses it needed for its work. And this was due not to a problem with alliance building strategy, but simply a reflection of a different contextual reality. Australia was disease–free and had been for some time whereas nineteenth century France was, if not necessarily disease–ridden, certainly a site for periodic epidemics. Farmers, the main opposition to the plans of the AAHL, could not be enrolled in such a situation because they had nothing to gain. Compounding the problem was a general move among the Australian public towards a more skeptical attitude towards science between the start of the project in the late 1960s and its actual construction in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a change of government bringing new personnel not as interested in the project, nor as willing to be enrolled by its proponents to positions of power. Scott’s point is that instead of negating the political and social forces traditionally the subject of social science, the “sociological” work of scientists and engineers that is the focus of ANT’s concern is either enabled, or as in the case of the AAHL, disabled by those same forces. They cannot be safely ignored.

It is the aim of this article to link the process of negotiation of meaning that is at the heart of the ANT view of technological development as articulated by Latour with some of these wider social forces.

 

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The OLPC Project: Background

At the World Economic Forum (WEF) held at Davos in January 2005 Nicholas Negroponte made the first of what was to become many speeches outlining his vision of a laptop cheap enough to reach the world’s poorest children. This was the first announcement of the OLPC, but not its genesis; previous to his appearance at the WEF, Negroponte had set up a non–profit organization, the OLPC Foundation, to design and market the laptop. Through his extensive industry contacts, he was also able to obtain funding from AMD, News Corporation, Google, and Red Hat. The idea was to develop a fully functional computer that would be sold directly to governments at a fraction of the commercial price. These governments in turn would distribute them to children through their national educational networks. This top–down system of distribution was viewed as necessary in order to generate the volumes needed to develop the technology and make a quick impact on the educational scene. As a result only five large or relatively large countries were initially viewed as potential candidates: China, Brazil, Egypt, Thailand, and South Africa. Each was to purchase at least one million units from the OLPC Foundation (Economist, 2005).

Plans to involve the United Nations with the OLPC materialized a few months after the WEF. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General at the time, proved willing to unveil a model prototype of the laptop at the World Summit on the Information Society held at Tunis in November 2005. Although the Secretary General broke the model while demonstrating it in front of reporters (Shreeve, 2005), the model did capture the interest of the world’s press and helped create awareness for what Negroponte and his team were trying to accomplish. It was also enough for the UNDP to agree to be the distribution agent for countries unable to purchase the minimum million units (Case, 2005). Negroponte was also able to find a firm willing to build the computer — Taiwan–based Quanta Computer — one of the largest contract manufacturers of laptops (Hille, 2005). This was a significant milestone for the Project in that it demonstrated to the world that hard–headed and profit–oriented firms believed that the Project was feasible.

Unfortunately, success was followed by failure as India made a formal decision not to co–operate with the Project in April 2006. In its feasibility report the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development queried why it was that no developed countries were thinking of participating in the Project and voiced its view that the money necessary for equipping Indian students with laptops would be better spent on funding a universal system of secondary schooling (Mukul, 2006b). However, while India was throwing cold water on the Project, Negroponte was having better luck in Libya, where Muammar Gadafy agreed to purchase 1.2 million units for the use of Libya’s school–age population (Whitaker, 2006). Incidents such as these have been a common feature of the OLPC short life. In late 2007, for example, Libya scaled back its commitment to the Project (Stecklow and Bandler, 2007). At the same time, other countries — such as Uruguay and Peru — have signed on.

A working version of the laptop, now named XO, was first demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2007. Several hundred units were also shipped around the world for early evaluation and more testing (Turner, 2007). Although at US$130, the XO was priced at more than a hundred dollars, the machine was well received in the press (the price has since gone up; as of 30 May 2008 the price was US$200). Negroponte claimed that they planned to ship a staggering five to ten million units in 2007 alone (Pell, 2007). Once again, however, problems loomed into view, in this case the launch of another low–cost computer, the Classmate PC, championed by Intel. Based on standard Wintel PC design (Einhorn, 2007), its appeal for the developing world lay precisely in that fact and it resulted in several of OLPC’s prime clients reconsidering their decision to go with the more radical XO (Johnson, 2007). But the project continues. In late March of 2008 the organization reported that Peruvian teachers are now being trained in how to use the XO in conjunction with the full scale rollout of the computer in that country (Talbot, 2008).

Reading the documents and specifications surrounding the OLPC Project can leave one in no doubt that the team is committed to the idea that universal laptop computer use will revolutionize the world for the better. Negroponte himself has been involved in various projects over the years to introduce computer technologies to countries in Africa (Senegal), Central America (Costa Rica), and Asia (Pakistan and Cambodia). His establishment of the OLPC Project cannot be viewed as a product of a sudden desire to “save the world” but rather a deep felt need to see the technologies of which he is so passionate adopted by people in the developing world. When we turn to the members of team he has recruited to the cause, we can find evidence of a similar idealistic bent. All are highly respected members of their various professions who by working for OLPC are sacrificing lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Many also have a great deal of experience with computers, education and development.

Given the background of the OLPC team and the grandiose vision they seek to transform into reality, it is reasonable to view the OLPC Project as an example of the romantic discursive assembly that Thomas Streeter discusses in his work on the cultural history of computing. Streeter argues that much of this history is composed “of two distinct strands of individualism” — utilitarian on one hand, and romantic on the other. Romantic individualism “holds that people are inherently expressive and self–transforming” whereas utilitarian individualism sees people as “rational and utility maximizing” in their behaviour [8]. For Streeter, the euphoria surrounding the development of the Internet in the 1990s and the efforts to popularize the open source movement more recently are two key examples of the romantic strand of information technology discourse. The OLPC Project may be classified as a third. Whether it is successful depends on how the idealism of Negroponte and his colleagues is tempered with the pragmatism required of the Callon’s sociological engineer.

 

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Negotiating the XO

Negotiation of meaning, according to Latour, is the means by which relatively stable configurations of actors are made to take shape around a new technology and giving support and recognition necessary for it to emerge and prosper. Without such negotiation a technology cannot attain the critical mass required to establish its place in society. The XO machine is no exception and in the speeches of Negroponte and other members of his team we can clearly see elements of this process. These speeches are the key source of data for this article. Fortunately they have been assiduously collected at the OLPC Talks Web site (http://www.olpctalks.com). This is a sister site to OLPC News (http://www.olpcnews.com) which was established by Wayne Vota of Geek Corps to provide alternative views on the OLPC Project.

Appealing to manufacturers: The XO on a massive scale

The XO needs to be appreciated as a massive project. In speech after speech Negroponte reminds us that the project is big, that it will embrace all the world’s children and that it will move as quickly as possible. Negroponte is not shy in telling us why his Project was conceived of in this way. He argues forcefully that this was what was needed to get industry leaders to listen. In one presentation Negroponte describes a dialogue he had with a monitor manufacturer:

“We wanted a small display, doesn’t have to have perfect color uniformity, can even have a pixel or two missing, it doesn’t have to be that bright. This particular manufacturer said we are not interested in that. We are interested in the living room, we’re interested in perfect color uniformity, we’re interested in big displays, bright displays, and you’re not part of our strategic plan. And I said well, that’s too bad because we need a hundred million units a year. They said oh, well maybe we could become part of your strategic plan. That’s why scale counts. That’s why we will not launch this without five to ten million units in the first run.” (OLPCTalks, 2006a)

In aiming for a large scale operation right from the start of the Project, Negroponte and his team are effectively creating a new market niche and giving laptop manufacturers a new goal to strive for. Whereas previously Moore’s Law was used to add more features at roughly the same price, the new aim is to lower price and keep the burden of features to a minimum. Competition in the industry would be not on the number of features, but simply on price.

Latour argues that one means of enrolling actors in projects is to convince them of problems and goals that they currently do not have or strive after. He provides as an example the case of the atomic bomb. Initially unconvinced by scientists that it was a weapon worth investing in, the Pentagon became intensely worried once the situation was defined more as a race between the United States and Germany than a straight proposal for a novel weapon system [9]. This strategy can only work, however, if there are no obstacles in the way of the actor’s goal. In the case of the OLPC, the obstacle confronting much of the IT industry is that it is rapidly becoming a mature and saturated market (Hille, 2007a). By envisaging the Project on a colossal scale, Negroponte offers a means to overcome this obstacle, at the cost of a very slight detour through the OLPC Project, to participating firms. When the Taiwanese firm Quanta Computer (one of the world’s largest contract producers of laptops) signed its deal with OLPC it did so, investment analysts tell us, with an eye to an eventual market in very cheap laptops (Einhorn, 2005; Hille, 2005). Currently, it has announced its intention to market a US$200 laptop in the next year or two (Hille, 2007b). The detour through the OLPC appears to have been a short one. However, the huge scale of the OLPC order was necessary in order to persuade it to change track to this business model.

However, it is one thing to imagine large scale operations, another to achieve them. For Negroponte and his team, the need to have this level of scale meant that it would be imperative for them to enroll either government or inter–governmental organizations in their plans. No other actors could provide the numbers they needed and at the end of the day they will be the ones to ensure a place in the world for the XO or condemn it to failure. These actors are the subject of the next section.

Appealing to governments: The XO as an education and development tool

As well as projecting the XO Project as a large–scale effort, Negroponte consistently portrays it as a learning project. At a presentation to the Organization of American States (OAS), for example, he told the assembled delegates that:

“This project is about learning, not about laptops. And that is perhaps the hardest thing I have when I travel around the world bragging because all too long people think that this organization is selling laptops and we are indeed distributing a huge number of laptops, but the purpose is education.” (OLPCTalks, 2006b)

Education and learning in general, rather than computer training per se, are constantly re–occurring themes that appear in Negroponte’s speeches. One reason for this emphasis lies in the background of the OLPC team. Many of the staff, including Negroponte, have been strongly influenced by the constructivist ideas of Seymour Papert (who himself was an advisor to the team). Papert’s vision of education gives the computer a central role as a tool that allows the learner to take an active part in the learning process itself; to think about thinking, rather than just memorize facts.

But there is another, more pragmatic reason for the focus on education. The only way to distribute the XO at the necessary level of scale is through government channels and the only government channel dealing exclusively with young people and children is the school system. Teachers and perhaps more importantly, at least initially, the education bureaucracy, need to be brought on board. To use Latour’s term, the laptop project has to be translated into ways that fit with the mission of these groups, namely to provide education. The laptop project must become an educational project instead. Governments looking to educate their citizens must be made to understand that the laptops are in fact educational.

There is evidence that the OLPC Project has attempted to do this. Negroponte has advertised that the XO could be used either as a regular computer or as an e–book reader in an effort to convince budget makers that it is a cost–effective alternative to traditional textbooks. However, he is also forthright about admitting that he hopes to do more than augment traditional pedagogical practices:

“With every head of state ... I say we are selling you as an idea, a Trojan Horse. I can tell you about the outside of the Trojan Horse or the inside of the Trojan Horse. They say we don’t want to know about the inside. OK, that’s fine. It’s a Trojan Horse in the form of an e–book.” (OLPCTalks, 2005a).

However, it has proved hard for the OLPC Project to successfully translate their laptop into suitable terms, because taken to its extreme, the constructivist philosophy espoused by the group gets in the way of truly acknowledging the importance of good teachers to the process of learning. Negroponte is usually diplomatic enough to claim that the project doesn’t believe in abandoning teachers and traditional schools, but his comments suggest that he doesn’t believe that they are a major part of the solution either:

“Now when you go to these rural schools, the teacher can be very well meaning, but the teacher might only have a sixth grade education. In some countries ... as many of as one–third of the teachers never show up at school. And some percent show up drunk. So really, if you are going to affect education, you cannot just train teachers and build schools.” (OLPCTalks, 2006c).

What the education bureaucracy gets is an e–textbook; what the children get is a laptop computer.

OLPC’s experience in India shows that failure to enroll traditional educational actors can be disastrous. India, being the second most populous country on the planet, would have been an excellent partner for OLPC in terms of reaching the level of scale it required to cement manufacturers’ allegiance. And one part of the bureaucracy, the Planning Commission, did indeed champion the Project, fearing that if India didn’t take part, its rival, China, would (Mukul, 2006b). On the other hand, the Department of Human Resources refused to be seduced arguing that “India must not allow itself to be used for experimentation with children in this area.” (Mukul, 2006a) Of course, it is likely that a number of factors came together to make this decision (one of these is that India already has a cheap laptop computer, the Simputer), but it is also just as likely that one of them is the unwillingness of the OLPC to seriously enroll teachers in the Project.

The XO as an elegant machine: Counter–appeals, the open source community, and children

Reading the speeches and presentations made by Negroponte and the senior members of the OLPC team, it becomes very clear very quickly that the XO is being portrayed as an exciting, sophisticated machine, rather than a child’s toy or a cheap computer for the masses. Frequently, the XO is compared to the iPod for its design and aesthetic sense. Its technical features are also praised and it is even compared favourably to the latest commercial offerings:

“And it’s not that we built a compromised machine. In fact, I think I will show you ... that this laptop is actually better than yours ... And the machine is so gorgeous, that you’ll want one. The idea is to make it very, very high end, nothing cheap about this laptop.” (OLPCTalks, 2006c).

Why is the aesthetic and technical emphasized in this way? Latour tells us that the networks and alliances that serve to prop up a technology are by no means stable. They require constant monitoring and adjustments if they are to remain in place [10]. Thus it is likely that Negroponte is taking aim at Bill Gates and others who have in the past criticized the OLPC for producing a substandard computer. Gates in 2006 was reported to have said at the WEF:

“Get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you’re not sitting there cranking the thing while you’re trying to type.” (Gibbs, 2006).

Given, that Microsoft’s voice counts for a great deal in the halls of governments around the world, such comments certainly need to be countered if other actors are not to abandon the Project [11]. When considered in light of similar criticism by other powerful industry leaders such as Intel and Dell (Rapoza, 2007; al–Shobakky, 2006), it becomes understandable that Negroponte is at pains to point out the technical superiority of the XO.

The emphasis placed on making this machine appear as a “cool” alternative to the mainstream world of commercial laptops is also in keeping with a strategy to attract another group into the network — namely the open source community, a group immersed in a culture that celebrates technology that is both useful and elegant. In fact, the XO is, according to its promoters at the OLPC Project, supposed to embody open source ideals of openness and sharing:

“We designed the laptop using open source software and free software. We were very deliberative about this choice. It’s not because we didn’t want to pay for software; this was a design decision that was driven by epistemology.” (OLPCTalks, 2006g)

One of the main features of the computer, for example, is that users can drill down into the interface to look at the source code directly (OLPCTalks, 2005b). And content developed for the machine is strictly in the public domain. As Negroponte puts it: you can “kiss your content goodbye” (OLPCTalks, 2007a) if you develop for the XO. He is also not shy in suggesting the OLPC may be a good deal for Linux and its adherents as well:

“Linux on the desktop I think is important. It doesn’t really exist today. It’s something that doesn’t have the critical mass. This will create it.” (OLPCTalks, 2006c).

The open source community is important for the OLPC Project because it is capable of producing a great deal of low–cost content for the XO. Negroponte wants to see this content produced for the machine in a manner similar to Wikipedia, an organization for which he has had nothing but praise. According to him the open source encyclopedia is the “best ... on the planet” (OLPCTalks, 2005a). Building a machine that appeals to the technical world of the open source community and embodying their philosophical principles is one way to cement a hopefully enduring alliance.

It is also one way of keeping competing projects at bay. Some of the harshest criticism of the project has come from FAIR (Fair Allocation of Infotech Resources, http://www.fairinternational.org/), a Scandinavian NGO working to supply recycled computers to the developing world. Its spokesperson, Knut Foseide, has argued forcefully that the XO’s combination of high overall costs and simplistic educational model have created a situation where developing countries will be assuming a great deal of risk if they decided to support the OLPC vision. On the other hand, FAIR’s own vision involves shipping refurbished computers donated from firms and individuals in the developed world, an approach it argues is both environmentally sound and affordable (FAIR, 2007). Recycled computers are not the only solutions competing with the OLPC Project. Ndiyo, a non–profit organization established by Quentin Stanfford–Fraser (http://www.ndiyo.org/, aims to bridge the digital divide by revisiting the old notion of time-sharing. Stanfford–Fraser has developed a small device (the Nivo Box) that acts as a video card for a monitor and keyboard that can tap into the processing power of a central computer (Brown, 2007). In this clash of visions the aesthetic appeal of a technology such as the XO may help to trump the far less glamorous idea of recycled or shared computers in the eyes of many.

Finally, it may also be the case that the emphasis on making the XO a work of art is to attract what Negroponte and this team have all along viewed as the centre of their focus: children. If we keep Latour’s maxim of letting the actors tell us what they know [12], this is likely to a key reason simply because it is what the OLPC Project tells us they are doing. They argue that the XO is geared to meet the needs of children:

“We’re trying to build a machine that’s appropriate for kids ... it’s focused on kids.” (OLPCTalks, 2006d)

And that they wanted to “make something like an iPod that is cool enough and good enough for kids around the world to really actually want it as they will an iPod.” (OLPCTalks, 2007b)

“Coolness” has its problems though. As some observers have already noted, kids and their teachers may be reluctant to really use the machines for fear of losing or breaking them in some way. Given that even the targeted price of one hundred dollars is a substantial sum of money in most parts of the developing world this is an obstacle that may require more than assurances from Negroponte that the OLPC is practically indestructible to solve. Negroponte may gain support from the open source community for the technological marvels inside the OLPC, but end up eroding support from other links in the network concerned about its sustainability. No link in the actor network constructed around new technology is necessarily permanent and keeping actors enrolled in the Project until the technology is firmly embedded in society is an ongoing task. Just as the comments made by Bill Gates likely led Negroponte to emphasize the sophistication of the OLPC in the first place, concern over its actual use in the hands of children will led to other interventions attempting to rescue weakening links in the network.

 

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Tilting the field: Social forces and the OLPC Project

Up to now we have examined the OLPC Project internally, looking at the statements made by Negroponte and other team members for clues as to what groups they are trying to enroll in the vital process of cementing alliances around the XO, a new, untried, and collectively expensive piece of technology. But the work of the OLPC Project has been affected by wider social forces that have the potential to tilt the playing field either for or against the technology. In this final section I discuss some of these forces.

Capitalism and the need for new workers

One force that may work in favour of the Project is the need of today’s capitalism for a different kind of worker. This is an argument that has been developed by James Paul Gee, et al. who draw on the literature of fast capitalism to argue that capitalist firms today are much different from the past. Previously, capitalist enterprises tended to be hierarchical organizations rigidly split between managers and workers. The role of managers was to think; the role of workers, to do. Today, however, a combination of technological change and political intervention has made such organizations appear less than competitive in an economy. As a result, the role of manager and worker has become blurred as hierarchies are flattened in an effort to boost responsiveness to customers and reduce costs. Despite the paradoxical nature of the term, decentralized control is now seen as the ideal organizational form [13]. Not surprisingly, it is not an easy task to manage such organizations as there is always a tendency for the decentralized components to move off in directions not in the interests of senior management or shareholders [14]. It is also hard to disguise the fact that much of the talk of empowerment and trust that is used to describe these new organizational forms merely seems to the workers involved as so much propaganda to hide the fact of more work for the same or even less reward [15]. One long–term solution is to develop new ways of working, and therefore new workers, from an early age through the reform of educational systems. Gee, et al. argue that current research in cognitive science has begun to develop the pedagogical techniques that would allow for the development of these new workers [16]. They describe these techniques as focused on developing collaborative and communicatively oriented communities of practice within the classroom that socialize students into acting as parts of a distributed knowledge system where one student never has all the answers and depends on the rest for success [17]. In the new classroom the demands of today’s capitalism for workers capable of working in self–directed, disciplined teams may be realized.

There are close parallels between the OLPC Project’s championing of new ways of learning through the use of laptops and these new pedagogies. We are constantly told by Negroponte and the other team members that their vision for learning with the XO is both collaborative and communicative. Certainly the technology itself embodies this vision. To begin with, the computers are constantly in contact with each other, even when turned “off”, so that together they form a collective wireless network making it easy for children to communicate with each other and their teacher regardless of the state of telecommunications infrastructure in the area as a whole. And XO’s user interface itself is geared towards communication and collaboration. The OLPC Human Interface Guidelines wiki page is clear about this aim when it describes the difference between SUGAR and Windows/Macintosh:

“Most developers are familiar with the desktop metaphor ... while this metaphor makes sense at the office — and perhaps even at home — it does not translate well into a collaborative environment such as the one that the OLPC laptops will embody. Therefore, we have adopted a new set of metaphors that emphasize community.” (http://wiki.laptop.org/go/HIG).

SUGAR was the outcome of this design vision, a user interface composed of four levels: activity (the currently open application), home (something akin to the desktop), groups, and neighbourhood. Groups are selected or predefined sets of users such as friends or classmates while the neighbourhood is the entire network of XO machines in the area. When the child “zooms” in on the group level, he or she is presented with coloured icons representing the different users belonging to the selected group as well as information about what activities they are engaged in and whether those activities are open to the public. Users can create new groups as they wish and they can chose to join in any activities listed as public. When the user “zooms” into the neighbourhood, the display changes to show the entire community of XO users, but clustered according to activity. Again, it is possible for the user to join any of the publicly available activities.

This cursory examination of the XO interface and wireless system clearly suggests that the OLPC Project is not just engaged in rhetoric when its members emphasize their commitment to a community–centric and collaborative vision of computer use. It also suggests that the OLPC would be a valuable tool for the learning pedagogies seen as necessary for creating workers for a new kind of capitalist enterprise and thus open to support from those interested in school reform of this nature.

Capitalism, new markets, and the developing world

We have already examined the use of scale by the OLPC Project as a means of attracting for–profit firms to its vision of the XO. Ever since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, high–tech industry has faced the prospect of a mature, if not saturated, market in the affluent parts of the developed world. In 2002, Matthew Yi, in a story for the San Francisco Chronicle, described a select group of psychologists and anthropologists employed by Intel to find new markets in underserved areas, such as Navajo reservations in the United States and women in Morocco (Yi, 2002). This kind of story has been repeated in the years since as there has been growing interest in countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America as markets for computer products (see, for example, Bank, 2001; Murphy, 2002; Reed, 2003; Clark, 2004).

Yet the “next billion” users problem that confronts the industry is likely to have an ambivalent effect on the OLPC Project. It was helpful in convincing Quanta Computer that it would make a profit on cheap laptops and create a new niche market for itself at the same time, but it has also attracted a great deal of competition. In many of his speeches, Negroponte argues that he is using scale to “change corporate strategy” (OLPCTalks, 2006e), but the upshot of this change might be to endanger the XO. Negroponte appears to be aware of this possibility. When initially confronted with the prospect that Intel might go ahead and develop its own version of the XO, the Classmate, he welcomed the venture saying that it was a:

“... pure victory for us, and we’re thrilled the Classmate is there ... It just means that people have caught on. Can we declare victory and exit? ... No, you can’t, because if we did ... the Classmate would disappear from the market ... So there’s a constant downward pressure we have to keep putting ... .” (OLPCTalks 2007c)

But on the news show Sixty Minutes, Negroponte was not so sanguine, claiming that Intel was trying to sabotage OLPC and that they “should be ashamed of themselves” and that the company’s efforts had “hurt the mission enormously.” (OLPCTalks, 2007d) Intel is not the only firm likely to want a piece of this potential new market.

One of the reasons that Intel’s Classmate has caused a headache for the OLPC Project lies in its acceptance of Windows and its traditional user interface. And this relates to a third social force that in impinging on the uptake of the XO machine, namely, the current political and economic position of the so–called developing world and its relationship to the new information technologies. Information technology has the potential to offer beleaguered political elites of developing nations a means to reassert their legitimacy in the eyes of their frequently economically threatened populations. The newest international division of labour promises some, if by no means all, people in the developing world reasonably paid, if unglamorous, jobs as data entry clerks, entry–level programmers, and telemarketing operators (Luyt, 2004). But the kind of education required here is not same as that facilitated by constructivist education. The OLPC may be great in getting children to think, create, and collaborate, but these skills may not be needed for the jobs that are being out–sourced or otherwise supplied to the developing world. In other words, there may be limits to the demand for new workers envisaged in the previous section. Negroponte bemoans projects that teach “the kids Excel and Word” calling it a “heartbreaking” (OLPCTalks, 2006f) development. That may well be the case, but for governments evaluating whether to purchase the XO over a more traditional machine such as the Classmate, the fact that concrete skills can be imparted by the one rather than the other may be a significant factor in their decision–making.

A religion of technology

I have already touched on the techno–romanticism of Negroponte and his OLPC colleagues in a previous section, yet it is necessary to re–introduce it here because the belief in technology as means of salvation is an extremely powerful social force that is also likely to help the OLPC Project as it tries to enroll other actors on behalf of the XO. David Noble argues that technology and religion have been intimately entwined in the West for hundreds of years and that today the link is as strong as ever, noting that

“... although today’s technologists, in their sober pursuit of utility, power, and profit, seem to set society’s standard for rationality, they are driven also by distant dreams, spiritual yearnings for supernatural redemption.” [18]

The computer and networked communications are key technologies around which this relationship currently unfolds. Margaret Wertheim would suggest that the Internet in particular represents “a technological substitute for the Christian space of heaven” and that the euphoria surrounding its introduction reflects “a profound psychosocial vacuum” within the West today [19]. Similarly, Streeter argues that

“... the dramatic success of the Internet, small computers, user–friendliness, open systems, and hypermedia is evidence of a widespread desire for connection and cooperation in a context free of the private and public hierarchies that so often dominate our lives.” [20]

If these authors are correct, then the OLPC Project has some fertile ground in which to take initial root as the XO becomes in this schema a mechanism of salvation; a technological means to eliminate the scourge of poverty that has afflicted countless human generations.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

In this article I have used the insights of actor–network theorists that technology depends on a dense network of enrolled actors to sustain and nurture its development to make sense of some of the characteristics given to the XO by the OLPC Project. The scale of the operation is immense, simply because the XO is meant to enroll for–profit manufacturers in the quest for a new goal — low prices and a stable set of features. But because of the need for scale, governments, and more specifically education bureaucracies, also become essential members of the XO network as they are only institutions capable of efficiently distributing the machine on such a scale through the already existing network of schools that they control. It is here, however, that the OLPC Project appears to be running into problems as their own constructivist educational philosophy is difficult to fully reconcile with the need to enroll teachers in the project as well as children. Children certainly are a central group that the OLPC Project is trying to enroll by making the machine “cool” but not they are not the only ones that are likely to be enrolled through such an appeal; the open source movement is also invited along as providers of content for the machine.

However, alongside the networks put together by the OLPC team, there are social forces, that consciously perceived or not, have an influence on the outcome. The changing nature of global capitalism is one of these forces. In its requirement for a new kind of worker, the OLPC may have an ally. The desire for technological salvation is another force that offers solid ground for the Project. On the other hand, given the newest international division of labour, the kind of constructivist education enabled by the XO may not be perceived as intrinsically worth the effort. And finally, if a new market niche is developed, the XO faces the prospect of ruthless competition from for–profit firms anxious to establish their dominance in an industry that would view laptops as essentially mass commodities.

The future of the XO is, as a result of these forces, by no means certain. What will help determine the trajectory it takes is how willing the OLPC team is to further negotiate the meaning of the new technology. In their own minds, the XO is a radical departure from the educational status quo that has the potential to revolutionize the world. But other groups, most especially teachers and the educational bureaucracy, and also many in the development field in general [21] view things differently. Is the OLPC team capable of developing the necessary alternations in meaning to accommodate these groups while at the same time staying true to their convictions about its potential? There is a great deal more at stake here than another failed technology. As one commentator warns:

“The OLPC Project has dramatically raised the profile of ICT and development. For those of us who labour in the same vineyard (in my case a project to make computer networking more affordable) that is unambiguously a good thing. But Negroponte & Co have also raised the stakes. If they fail by ignoring the educational and social context, they risk tarnishing the dream of using ICTs humanely.” (Naughton, 2005).

Given the press attention the Project has received, the OLPC now serves as a symbol of efforts to bridge the digital divide more generally so that its failure may unduly taint other projects and approaches for years to come. End of article

 

About the author

Brendan Luyt is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Information Studies of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.
E–mail: brendan [at] ntu [dot] edu [dot] sg

 

Notes

1. Callon, 1987, p. 83.

2. Bazerman, 2002, p. 2.

3. Law, 1987, pp. 113–114.

4. Latour, 1987, pp. 114–117.

5. Fuller, 2000, p. 11.

6. Fuller, 2000, p. 27.

7. Ibid.

8. Streeter, 2003, p. 650.

9. Latour, 1987, p. 114.

10. Latour, 1987, pp. 121–124.

11. See, for example, how Microsoft was able to enroll the U.S. ambassador in its confrontation with the Peruvian government over a bill mandating the use of free software in the public sector in that country (d’Empaire, 2002).

12. Latour, 1996, p. 10.

13. Gee, et al., 1996, p. 50.

14. Gee, et al., 1996, p. 59.

15. Gee, et al., 1996, p. 31.

16. Gee, et al., 1996, p. 54.

17. Gee, et al., 1996, pp. 63–67.

18. Noble, 1997, p. 3.

19. Wertheim, 1999, p. 30.

20. Streeter, 1999, p. 60.

21. The World Bank, USAID and CIDA have apparently refused to extend loans for the purchase of the machines, although the Inter–American Development entered into an agreement late in 2006 (Vota, 2006).

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 7 March 2008; revised 7 April 2008; accepted 15 May 2008.


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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

The One Laptop Per Child Project and the negotiation of technological meaning
by Brendan Luyt
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 6 - 2 June 2008
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle/2144/1971





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