A travelogue of 100 laptops

Lars Bo Andersen
A travelogue of 100 laptops - Investigating Development, Actor-Network Theory & One Laptop per Child
PhD Thesis
Aarhus University

A travelogue of 100 laptops

Full thesis freely available in pdf and html from http://www.laptopstudy.net


Information technologies are intrinsic to all types of activity in the world's developed regions. But citizens in impoverished regions have limited, if any, contact with these technologies. At the same time, underfinanced educational systems struggle to prepare students for an increasingly globalised economy.

The American One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative seeks to remedy both these disparities through massive distribution of laptops meant for digital inclusion and education.

This thesis is the travelogue of 100 laptops from OLPC ending up at a small Nigerian school. I call this school Akila's school and the laptops Akila's laptops after a primary 5 student named Akila, who transferred to the school because of the laptops. The thesis is based on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and a multi-sited, qualitative fieldwork conducted in both Denmark and Nigeria in the period 2009-2013.

The overall concern for the thesis is to investigate themes of technology and development through the laptops at Akila's school. On a backdrop of development history, post-colonial critique of development and observed re-inventions of technology during transfer the introduction translates this overall concern into five more specific agendas:

  1. From a critique of technological determinism in the debates over the digital divide, an agenda is to investigate the theories on which OLPC is based as well as their empirical agency.
  2. From a post-colonial critique of development as an asymmetric exercise of power, an agenda is to present ANT as metaphysics and vocabulary for development encounters.
  3. From the observation within transfer and diffusion theory that technology does not travel out of necessity, that it requires the hard work of transceivers to carry it along, an agenda is to investigate the process which got laptops to Akila's school.
  4. From an observed tendency of transfer participants to transform and re-invent what they carry along, an agenda is to investigate divergence and multiplicity in and around Akila's laptop.
  5. From problems with white elephants and unintended consequences in the history of technology transfer, an agenda is to investigate why the project at Akila's school has ended up in limbo.

These agendas are investigated through seven chapters.

The first chapter is an in-depth account of OLPC and the theories on which the organisation is based. OLPC aims at massive distribution of laptops to the world's impoverished children in order to leverage these along two dimensions. The first is inclusion in an increasingly globalised information order. This is presented through the work of OLPC chairman Nicholas Negroponte. The second is educational empowerment in relation to problem solving and critical thinking. This is presented through the works of Paulo Freire and Seymour Papert. OLPC is rich with debate over whether digital technology can truly empower the poor and marginalised and in which ways. The chapter introduces these debates and positions the thesis in relation to them. In the end, it is argued that while OLPC indeed is based on some problematic assumptions these may have helped the initiative gather support.

The second chapter describes ANT as vocabulary and ontology for the study of development encounters. It positions development within a symmetrical and irreducible metaphysics of actor-networks and contrasts this to Cartesian dualism and Marxist dialectics. On this backdrop, the chapter argues that development encounters proceed through translations in a drift of construction and composition, that they bring into being novel compositions rather than introducing already established ones. Finally, the criticisms of ANT is investigated as well as ANT's potential for being critical itself.

The third chapter describes methodology and associated philosophy of science. It describes the background for the thesis and how a multi-sited fieldwork was conducted in Denmark and Nigeria, who and how I interviewed, where I did observations, and so forth. It also argues that the thesis is actively performing a special kind of academic laptop different from the one in Nigeria and the one advertised by OLPC. That the study is valid only in recognising its hybrid origin and agency, and reliable only to the extend that it opens up new possibilities for those considering it.

The fourth chapter investigates the transfer of laptops to Akila's school. It describes how theories of technology transfer are known for a producer bias, which attributes movement to technological superiority, and lack of movement to social or cultural resistance. The bias furthermore suggests that invention is kept within a certain perimeter reducing those outside to the role of adopters or users. The chapter then proposes an alternative understanding of technology transfer based on the notion of translation. It investigates how the OLPC laptops moved from the assembly line in Taiwan to the school in Nigeria by way of a multitude of translations between OLPC, the digital divide, Danish researchers and missionaries, a Nigerian church and their school, Chinese solar panels and orbiting satellites. The argument being that all these movements constituted a process of becoming that not only got the laptops to Nigeria, but also made them what they are in the process.

The fifth chapter describes how the laptops at Akila's school ended up being multiple. One laptop is backing a pedagogical transformation, another is upholding discipline amongst students, there is one bridging the digital divide while providing IT-literacy, one is a Bible and yet another is used by children to play around and have fun. These are investigated as enactments made by the partially connected actor-networks of Danes, Nigerians, internet and Christianity. Enactments are not just social perspectives or interpretations, they are intimately part of the object, they run through the laptops and bring them into being. The argument being that Akila's laptop is, in the full ontological sense, more than one thing, it is multiple.

The sixth chapter investigates how the project, and with it the laptop, has ended up in a kind of impasse described as limbo. Limbo is an ontological instability of not only what the laptops are, but also what they may hope to become. Limbo is suggested to extend the ANT genesis with a mode of existence full of despair, frustration and unravelling translations. But also with defiance, metamorphosis and lines of flight. A genesis riddled with exodus. The chapter describes how laptops were difficult to use within the classroom situation, how teachers lost motivation, how the electrical installation became crippled and the internet too expensive, and how Danes lost faith that the project could develop Nigerian pedagogy. All these failing translations have caused the limbo. But there is also hope as lines of flight point to possible revival for the laptops as part of an afternoon cybercafé.

The seventh chapter is a reflection chapter. The chapter introduces Michel Foucault's concept of apparatus and its use in critiques of development. It then argues for an alternative reading of the apparatus as a multilinear tangle based on Gilles Deleuze and Foucault himself. Using this Deleuzian apparatus, the lines of Akila's laptop are identified and investigated for their role in the travelogue. These include rigid lines from the archive of technology in development, supple ones intersecting these at Akila's school, pedagogical ones in mutual opposition and some that marginalised the poorest children. In the end, the chapter turns critical in discussing why the investigated lines are problematic in relation to each other.

Finally, a short conclusion summarises important arguments and offer three insights to the field of practice: that transferring technology is to engage in multilinear encounters, that impacts are evasive and that moving technology is to engage in ontological politics.

Read or download the full thesis at http://www.laptopstudy.net