First, let me note that there are only a few things I like better than a debate where I have time to compose a reply. I’m terrible on the fly, but given time I can be pretty good in a clinch. ? So thank you to Christopher for continuing this discussion on OLPC. And let me be up front, as I failed to do in my previous response, that I am not a member of the OLPC team, and don’t mean to act as a spokesperson. Fortunately I can depend on other informed parties to chime in if I get something wrong. Christopher writes:
My only real concerns with the OLPC are non-technical: what would be the format of this machine? What I mean is, as a typical laptop, even one running Linux, this will be useless to all but a fraction of the children. If, however, it is preloaded with easy to use tools for literacy, robust multi-language support, and a plethora of worthwhile content, then it excites me far more.
Since Chris hasn’t had time to visit the OLPC wiki and get one of the qemu images running for inspection, let me say that this is exactly how the laptop systems are set up. Although they have a Linux foundation, what kids see is a very easy interface that breaks a lot of preconceived notions and is simultaneously intuitive and powerful. This is a tool designed for children, not to inculcate them into any particular future “operating system as religion.” Of course, if you believe (as I do) that free software is just an expression of human freedom in terms of the computerized toolspace, it’s fair to assume that the hackability of the platform will inevitably lead down that road. More on the content issue:
Since the networking features will often be very limited, these would be heavily reliant on whatever content is preloaded. But the notion of content – who chooses this? It concerns me to imagine the propaganda these systems might contain. Will kids be (eventually) reading Adam Smith or Karl Marx? How about both?
It’s important to note that the laptop is a means for creating content — it is not for propagandizing kids. Although the laptops presumably have the ability to join more conventional managed wireless networks, you won’t find those networks in the places where these laptops are going. As I understand it, the focus is on ad-hoc networking, where the machines communicate with each other over a reasonable distance such as a classroom or cluster of dwellings. This allows children and teachers to interact in new and exciting ways, again using the technology as a means, not an end. If the teacher wants to teach Smith, Marx, or Bob, the laptop is not built to interfere, but to encourage. In all fairness, however, Christopher isn’t the only person who’s questioned the idea of content on the system. (I haven’t seen a response yet by OLPC folks on this issue, but would welcome it.)
If I felt this was a misguided attempt to “force open” societies, I wouldn’t think as much of it, because I don’t think tools can perform that function — people do. I think the natural tendency of society, like information, is to free itself regardless of the disruption that behavior causes. But certainly a mind that has learned to solve problems imaginatively and consider itself an author of its own destiny is the primer for that particular social engine. And when a tool has the ability to expose young minds to very fundamental concepts of collaboration, community, and teamwork, that’s a big step toward the concepts of equality and freedom. So in that sense, I think OLPC is disruptive/subversive, but in a way that’s too subtle to be threatening.
Maybe that’s a lot of armchair philosophizing and pipe dreaming, but if “the real key lies in the doing,” as Christopher says, then OLPC has that key within its grasp as far as I can tell.