How the future helps sustain an OLPC project

Author(s): 
Lars Bo Andersen
Year: 
2010
Title: 
How the future helps sustain an OLPC project
Type: 
Conference paper
Publisher: 
Danish Association of Science and Technology Studies

My name is Lars Bo Andersen and I am a Ph.D. student from Aarhus University.

The gathering theme for my Ph.D. is to investigate information and communication technologies being transferred to developing countries with the aim of creating new opportunities for development. Using technology in developmental efforts is nothing new, but recent years have seen a wave of initiatives focusing especially on IT rather than, say, heavy industry or agricultural equipment. One notable example of such IT initiatives is One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) which has become famous through extensive press coverage.

As the name implies OLPC is an organization devoted to equipping every child in the world with a laptop. To that end the organization has developed its own laptop called the XO. The idea is to design and produce a cheap, rugged, and low cost computer for impoverished children around the world. The laptops is to be produced in large quantities thus keeping production costs down. They are then to be sold on a non-profit base to governments in equally large quantities. The purpose of providing each child with a laptop is to grant them access to knowledge and better opportunities for learning.

I have been following an OLPC project on a small provincial school in Nigeria since early 2009. The project is sustained by the work of a hoist of actors of both human and non-human character, from both Denmark, Nigeria, and the US. All these actors are of course contributing in multiple ways in keeping the computers at the school. In the following I will, however, have to limit myself to providing a short summary of how certain models of the future helps to make the computers sustainable.

Here is one example of the many important actors that I will not have the time or focus to include today:

Technology & Progress

The history of technology in development is full of unfulfilled expectations and failed ambitions. Also OLPC has been heavily criticized for disregarding the missing link between equipping children with laptops and them being educationally empowered by it. The official OLPC assumption seems to have been that given the nature of IT, and given the nature of children, combining the two will produce self-confident learners making full use of what IT has to offer.

One criticism applicable to many development initiatives utilizing technology is an inherent causal linking of technology with social progress. As Sally Wyatt writes in the Handbook of STS: “One of the most misleading and dangerous aspects of technological determinism is its equation of technological change with progress”. Robert Heilbroner, an explicit technological determinist himself, used the famous Karl Marx dictum “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” to explain that there is a certain necessary causal connection between a given stage of social evolution and a given breed of technological evolution. The steam-mill follows the hand-mill not because of chance or social preferences; it does so because it belongs to the next stage of socio-technical evolution.

In this way hybrids, as we know them from actor-network theory, are not only polarized along the opposites of technology and society, but also along a temporal trajectory leading from somewhere in the past or present towards some higher ranking future. The challenge for a developing country, then, is to make sure to attach themselves to this trajectory. In relation to both OLPC and the local community in Nigeria, there seems to be two manifestations of this model:

  1. The first is that given technological development today, the future will look something like a global village with IT seamlessly integrated into all activities.

  2. The second is that given that the future will look something like a global village, and that in that village you will need computer skills for most work activities, we better prepare by equipping our children with IT and the knowledge how to use it.

As stated by OLPC Founder Nicholas Negroponte himself:

The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people's wildest predictions. (Negroponte1995, p. 231)

Negroponte's point is not that the hype and excitement about technology should lead us to be critical towards its application, on the contrary, what is hype today will be an understatement tomorrow.

So we have a model justifying a certain amount of technological hype in developmental efforts. The question is now what to do with it. One approach could be to deconstruct this future belief as a modern work of purification. This can indeed be both academically and politically relevant. There is, however, also another approach, which I have attempted, and that is to examine different orderings of time and causality as empirical actors. To follow them as I would any other actor; where do they go, how are they translated, what do they relay, to what ends do they lead.

Global Village

At my first visit to the school, James, one of the teachers, explained to me what separates laptops from other types of school equipment. I asked him the cliché question when it comes to OLPC: Why use all this money on computers when they could do good so many other places?

Me: But why computers? For the price of these computers you could have bought a lot of other things for the school like new blackboards?

James: In this school we lack classes, there is not enough classes and there is not enough chairs. In fact the classroom we are using here is not meant for learning. But all these problems are because of economic matters. But what we are doing is future planning. So the future planing is to use the laptops!

(James #F09-25 – my italics)

I have asked this question to a lot of people, and James' answer is one of the best I've gotten. Indeed acquiring laptops can be justified in the present as an educational tool or a time saving instrument, but one important thing separating it from other types of equipment, such as blackboards, is its ability to connect children, teachers, and perhaps a whole community to an equal existence in the information society awaiting ahead.

Esther, who is a progressive member of the school board, is trying to expand the scope of the project to include many other schools as well. As she explains:

To me it is an opportunity for every child in this church, in [this] state, in Nigeria to become computer literate. Because if you train them young, when they grow up they will not have so many problems. The world is becoming just like a small village through the Internet. (Esther #F09-14)

The local state has started a lot of IT projects of their own and have shown interest in a possible collaboration with the OLPC project. When the Danish group met with the senior official from the state's board of education he gave the following motivation for the need of IT in schools:

IT-illiteracy is widespread among both teachers and students. Regardless what you might think about globalization Nigeria is gradually becoming part of the Global Village and having an IT-literate population is of uppermost importance. (Senior state official #F09-13)

The point for now is that in this area of Nigeria, and properly everywhere else, the prediction of a Global Village made by McLuhan back in 1964 serves as an important motivational horizon for prioritizing IT rather than textbooks and blackboards.

The Bishop of the local church, who is also the senior manager of the school, explained to me why they had decided to go along with the project and invested a large amount of their own money into it:

We are used to having books, and blackboards, and libraries in schools, and the world has changed. [...] These children are going to be the children of the millennium. Those of us who have children still going to schools with blackboards, our children will be running after them. They are our future engineers and our future medical doctors. They will need to use the computer to do surgery, they will need to use the computer to design, so when they get it early, then we have a brighter future. (Bishop Emmanuel #F09-16)

IT Literacy

Preparing for the labour market of the Global Village renders extremely important the notion of IT literacy since IT is expected to be pervasive in all occupations worth striving for. Because of this IT literacy is a central notion in sorting out who will have opportunities and who will not. As described by the chairman of the school board IT literacy has to a certain degree even replaced the notion of traditional literacy:

If you are not computer literate, it is like you are illiterate [...] The parents can see that when the children acquire computer knowledge, that means the child is already liberated from poverty, because the child with computer knowledge can go into the world of work and gain employment with a bank, and banks pay heavily. So that is what the parents see in computers. (Chairman of the school board #F09-11 – my italics)

At the school 125 new students have actually enrolled because of the availability of laptops, and this is a fairly small school with a maximum capacity of perhaps 2-300. Their parents have transferred them from neighbouring schools in order to secure them a better future where they won't be left behind since computer training is too expensive (an IT certificate cost about three months of wages). I asked Akila, a fifth grader who had just been transferred, if he knew why he had changed school and he answered: “because I live close by and mummy say that this computer is good for me!" (Akila #F09-27). Akila was very shy and did not know what else to say, but his good friend Joshua was more outspoken about the potential of going to a school with computers:

I like school because I am supposed to be someone in the future. And it is good for a child to be in school. All these people [child beggars his age] are hungry and waiting for food. Imagine all of them, they have nobody to help them! [...] And this school is very important because they brought laptops for us to learn. So if you are 20-25 you can go to an office. (Joshua #F09-27)


Joshua hopes that if he does well in school and learns how to use computers, he can work in an office when he is 25. Contrasting this future with that of the boys just outside the school gates begging for food and money Joshua, at the young age of 11, certainly does not not limit himself to considering the XO as merely a toy or a textbook.

Conclusion

The causal relationship between the proliferation of IT and a certain future model of society are, of course, purified hybrids.

Indeed as Richard Barbrook has noted in his book Imaginary Futures, the model predicting the information society has changed rather drastic since the 1950's. It has changed from "...a state plan, a military machine, a mixed economy, a university campus, a hippy commune, a free market, a medieval community or a dotcom firm... " (Barbrook2007, p. 273).

This, however, does not change that looking at the horizon of a Global Village projected ahead of the XO laptops in Nigeria one will discover that this model of the future actually serves an empirical purpose. It feeds the translation of the XOs as something useful and it makes things happen at the OLPC headquarters in Boston as well as at the school in Nigeria.

At the same time having organizations like OLPC with their talent for media exposure. And actually having 100 XO laptops at a school in a poor area helps co-construct this future projection. These activities of the present also feeds the translation of the global village as drawing nearer, as an achievable dream.

References

Barbrook, Richard (2007): Imaginary Futures - From Thinking Machines to the Global Village. Pluto Press.

Negroponte, Nicholas (1995): Being Digital. Vintage Books.