Follow-up to the "Problems of the One Laptop Per Child Program"

This is a follow-up to a post a few weeks back about the One Laptop Per Child program. I had offered that post by way of summary to a class exercise about technology in cultural context. In part, it was an exercise about discussing the place of technology in global development efforts; at the same time it was an effort to take the history of technology discussions we'd been having and place them into a kind of global history context. For example, we needed to see more of the prior history of Western aid in the non-western world--the patterns of high modernist development, environmental health, foreign dependence, financial and infrastructure constraints, and so on--that precede OLPC by decades. This would be a useful means for thinking about how some in the so-called under-developed world might perceive the introduction of the colorful machine from the West here in the 2000s. Certainly not a comprehensive view, to be sure, but one that at least allowed the students to think about the basis for some critique from the other side. I should say too that, as an environmental historian, I was disappointed that we weren't able to discuss life-cycle analysis issues more fully - production, shipment, local distribution, and then ultimate disposal--but that would be the direction I'd want to take the conversation next. Where will all these laptops go when they die?*

The OLPC News Site reposted that write-up at their site. At the same time, I received a reply from a former student, now working on international development and social justice issues. He had his own take, as built from his experiences of the past year on his new job. So, instead of working on ways with which to think about the issues--as we did in class--he also brings grounded perspectives from the field. Apparently, said job has taken him to China, Cambodia, Thailand, South Africa, and certainly more.

In brief, he suggests that the aim of the program at individuals (one laptop goes to each child) and the educational goals may be mis-ordered, but that the product, the OLPC itself, could also have a role to play in other community issues. Perhaps, he suggests, it would be better suited for local leaders and for the purposes of local economy. The educational benefits, ostensibly, would follow from the increased viability of that local economy. Below is his perspective.

From Hy Martin (Civil Engineer, UVA, '08):

I have been in rural Yunnan, P.R. China where I was checking out a reforestation/community development project. I am currently in South Africa doing a bit of the same. Being in what most would consider the "developing world," as evidenced not only by a lack of internet but also clean water and economic stability, has given me some time to reflect upon the OLPC discussion in a different light.

No doubt, socio-technical systems and their interaction with people vary within a given cultural context, but weighed against the other pressing problems faced by such sustenance-driven populations, these technologies present a real opportunity for empowerment. Many of the places I have visited, classically impoverished areas such as Cambodia, rural China, Southern Thailand and mostly black South Africa, have shown a need for economic development.

Giving a laptop to a child can create much opportunity for learning, but it also makes ample room for mischief. If, however, the laptops were given to key figures of the local community for disseminating information about market prices for local produce grown or high-yield crop production techniques, it seems the laptop could be utilized more effectively. This is not to say such a targeted delivery of laptops would not cause unintended switches in social dynamics; I certainly think it could. But when a calculation is done regarding the utility gained from increasing villagers' livelihoods by implementing a new agricultural method or playing minesweeper, I find it difficult to think any self-interested agent would choose the latter.

This suggestion, of course, implies that there is a strategic educational component to the new proposed project which carries with it the risks of implementation and implicit power structures but such is the quandary with any project implementation.

In this comment, I recognize that the project I suggest is not outlined in the original guidelines of the OLPC but focuses on more economic engagement rather than the childhood education goals of OLPC. It seems important, though, to recognize both the valuable aspects of the program as well as those unforeseen detrimental effects.

*I should note too that OLPC just announced dramatic budget and staff cuts, another victim of the recession.

More like this

I almost wrote an article one time about OLPC, but I couldn't get my act in gear to do it. My thesis was that it almost didn't matter what the goal of the project was. Once those little items were out in the hands of the community (and I do think of it as a community thing, not an individual thing so much) they were going to get used to suit the best of the local needs.

Like cell phones that get the current price of gold at remote mining areas, or remote farms. I mean--could you have predicted text messaging on the commodities markets from the original ideas for the cell phone?

And it made me think back to the printing press. Gutenberg wanted to print indulgences and calendars--the local needs. But it went much much beyond that very quickly as it spread to more areas.

I know there are other issues. But I think some of the analysis is over-thinking on the perfect way to do things...and that just doesn't exist.