[iDC] One Laptop Per Child - MIT/Negroponte Initiative

Steve Borsch steve at iconnectdots.com
Wed Jan 2 21:20:49 UTC 2008


You're right when you say, "*I think what people are doing here are acting
out in a relatively rarefied way more general cultural concerns about
technology, culture, and economics.*" As I read that statement, I had a
flashback to a discussion on an airplane many years ago.

I was seated next to a distinguished looking gentleman (turns out a
professor at an Ivy League university) and we struck up a conversation.
After the obligatory smalltalk and subsequent baselining of ourselves (what
do you do? and you?) he asked me about a book I was reading (Frances
Cairncross' "Death of Distance"). We got to talking about what it meant when
the essence of human connection could be made so as to render geography, and
even time, irrelevant. I segued into points about people, culture and that
the "resolution" of the communications medium needed to get good enough so
that interacting virtually felt at least close to being as intimate as being
together in meatspace.

As I said, "*...and people all over the world could connect...*" he stopped
me dead in my tracks with this question: "*So how will someone in a village
in Kenya join the conversation?*" I stammered a bit and said in my most
intellectual and learned manner, "I dunno."

We then talked about those Kenyans, their lack of infrastructure and
inability to "play" in a technological way which then saw me ask out loud
(almost rhetorically), "*I've never been able to understand how certain
people's in the world developed highly specialized civilizations and rich
cultures when others remained hunter-gatherers.*"

He heartily recommended a new book (at the time) entitled, "Guns, Germs &
Steel" by Jared Diamond. Most of you have probably read it, but it was an
intellectual turning point for me in terms of understanding how and why some
cultures accelerated while others remained static. It helped me to think
about the world in significantly broader terms and connect some new dots.

Diamond's thesis that geography, indigenous animals and foodstuffs, as well
as climate all played much more of role in civilization development than did
any inherent intellectual or other superiority. It made me think long and
hard about the world and the people within it. It's later informed my
thoughts when I read articles about the "why" of Silicon Valley being such a
technological creative epicenter and why that's hard to replicate elsewhere.

If you accept Diamond's premise (which I do and his arguments are pretty
tough to refute), then isn't sharing our enablers (e.g. OLPC-like devices,
mesh networking, software) one way to ensure that the same thing doesn't
happen to those not fortunate to live within the geographies where they have
access to these catalysts of development?

I think this is less of Westerners acting like cultural imperalists (*Oh
those poor savages....let's help them become enlightened to our ways*) than
it is opening a window so they can stick their own head out, climb out and
discover their own light. To me, that's much better than no window, one
that's economically, geographically or culturally painted shut.

One more quick story about a technology....

Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote this post ("Solar LED light instead
of kerosene lanterns":
http://www.iconnectdots.com/ctd/2006/01/free_light_inst.html) since I was
really delighted with this technological device...an LED lamp...and it's
material impact in rural India since the using of kerosene lighting is a bad

*"Until just three months ago, life in this humble village without
electricity would come to a grinding halt after sunset. Inside his
mud-and-clay home, Ganpat Jadhav's three children used to study in the dim,
smoky glow of a kerosene lamp. And when their monthly fuel quota of four
liters dried up in just a fortnight, they had to strain their eyes using the
light from a cooking fire."*

"*As many as 1.5 billion people - nearly 80 million in India alone - light
their houses using kerosene as the primary lighting media. The fuel is
dangerous, dirty, and - despite being subsidized - consumes nearly 4 percent
of a typical rural Indian household's budget. A recent report by the
Intermediate Technology Development Group suggests that indoor air pollution
from such lighting media results in 1.6 million deaths worldwide every year.

Is this "Western" created technology bad? Are we somehow foisting lighting
upon an unsuspecting Indian proletariat in order to educate them to be
productive and turn them into better consumers? Is it our values and the
imposition of our culture or are we instead just trying to help out off-grid
families by enabling kids to do homework in their home and for parents to
read...basic stuff...instead of doing so anyway by inhaling noxious kerosene

To wrap up, there are layers of complexity in the OLPC vs. an LED light so I
might be accused of comparing apples-n-oranges. But at its most basic
they're the same: both are enablers. The LED light enables seeing in the
dark...the OLPC enables the mind to generate its own light.

Steve Borsch

On Jan 2, 2008 1:23 PM, davin heckman <davinheckman at gmail.com> wrote:

> Steve,
> I don't think that criticism/critical thinking/creation is an all or
> nothing proposition.  I think what people are doing here are acting
> out in a relatively rarefied way more general cultural concerns about
> technology, culture, and economics.  These kinds of discussions are
> entiely necessary, especially in light of the history of imperialism
> which was an undemocratic process that had drastic consequences for
> real people.
> For my part, I would not question Negroponte's intentions.  Every word
> of his that I have ever read indicates that he is an intelligent
> utopian seeking to make lives better....  and he has the will and
> resources to do it.  But I do think it is fair to rigorously critique
> a project like OLPC.
> The world is desperate for solutions to problems (economic, social,
> environmental, etc).  We are so conditioned to accept that a
> technology can solve the problem that we run a real risk of not
> thinking things through, putting up hedges, or even waiting.  And
> though we live in an age of perpetual crisis in which every aspect of
> freedom is nullifiable due to the hypothetical ticking time bomb
> scenario...  usually hesitation and reflection are good.
> One recent example:  The internal combustion engine, fueled by
> gasoline.  Now, people are desperate for "energy independence,"
> "renewable resources," and "carbon-neutral fuels"....  so we use
> ethanol.  Now the price of corn is going through the roof.  People may
> very well starve to death over some poor decisions.  Or, maybe people
> will die because of wars and global warming and repressive
> governments.  GMOs.  In response to rising corn prices, seed companies
> are pushing for GM crops to solve the resulting hunger problem.  How
> will this effect farmers?  Public health?  The security of the food
> supply?
> I am troubled by this tendency among very smart people to throw out
> lines of criticism because they seem obvious or cliched...  as if
> criticism needs to be sophisticated or aesthetically elegant.  We need
> to start with simple questions....  even if they might be construed as
> "marxist" or "luddite" or "positivist" or "logocentric" or
> "chauvinistic" or "christian" or whatever.  These kinds of questions
> become cliches because they can be found useful in a number of
> contexts.
> Assessing the ethical merits of OLPC based on intentions is just not
> good enough.  Judging Carnegie's railroad business based on the
> libraries he built is not quite sufficient either.  I think it is
> possible to both admire Carnegie's contributions to the health and
> happiness of the poor...  and to question his business and labor
> practices at the same time.  While I am convinced that Negroponte and
> his many collaborators have taken great care to create a device which
> seeks to democratize the new media revolution in powerful ways...  it
> is also true that there are some questions and problems that lists
> like this are built to anticipate.  And maybe these discussions can
> create an atmosphere of reflectivity that will lead to more purposeful
> action.
> Respectfully,
> Davin
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