Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Ryan Bigge’s “Road-testing the $100 laptop's 'appropriate technology'”

Ryan Bigge continues to write thought provoking and insightful inquiries into our current technological situation. His most recent piece in the Ideas section of The Toronto Star (January 20, 2008) is unique for his interesting use of journalism across media. See:

1. Bigge’s original article in The Star (with an extra movie clip on how to use the laptop):

2. Bigge’s Blogge (Yes, that’s humour) -- Extra excerpts from his article which were not included in the print piece are included on his blog:

Bigge’s story is about the One Laptop Per Child Project (OLPC). The charitable act of being able to purchase a laptop for $400, also provides a laptop for a child in a developing country. Despite the feel good nature of the project, I feel there are two further conversations that need to be opened up here:

1) About media use in general.
2) About the $100 laptop as a solution to the digital divide.

I’ll tackle the first item as follows: In the print version of his article, Bigge wasn’t able to fit his entire story, and so he includes extra excerpts on his Blog which add a more balanced tone to what originally read more like a McLuhanesque, techno-humanist piece in favour of the technology. The Blog remarks offer more of critical perspective to the piece with discussion of some of the issues the project has created and faced.

Another interesting point in terms of media is that the print format couldn’t offer a complete tutorial on how the laptop works, so the article provided a hyperlink to the digital video explanation starring Bigge himself (as seen at the link above). This coordination of media may in fact entice some of the techno-phobic into spending more time on-line because of the limitations and technical constraints of the print product. I know it worked for me.

This extra mediated experience only increases the use of our limited resources in terms of time and the resources of the natural environment, but offers a moment on which to comment during our current in-between media period, where we straddle several media options at once in the West. These coordinated media strategies are becoming more prevalent, and offer many narrative threads to trace for the interested, while also allowing more points of access to grab the attention of a potential audience.

I’ll develop this thought further as a part of my discussion on the $100 laptop. I was fortunate to get to visit the OLPC headquarters in Boston over the summer. Here’s some pictures from my visit:

1) One of the $100 Laptops (photographed at MIT):

2) Laptop display table at the OLPC HQ:

3) The Testing Lab at OLPC HQ:

When I read Bigge’s article, I had some rare quibbles with his description of the OLPC project based on my experiences during my own OLPC visit. As I said, I usually agree whole heartedly with Bigge, but here's a few things that I didn't find in either his article or Blog:

If one were to read only the print version of his work, Bigge seems to sit on the fence a bit when mentioning the problem of the new cheap laptop market that's formed because of Negroponte’s brainchild. In his piece, he mentions a bias for ‘appropriate technology’ that performs the logical tasks that a device should, without any useless or superfulous features that are currently being marketed. I've become a bit more Naomi Klein-ish about liberal markets since visiting the OLPC though, instead of just hoping technology will change the world. Klein's new book The Shock Doctrine talks about the entrenchment of neo-liberal markets during crises, like wars and natural disasters. Basically the idea is that when a crisis hits, big business moves in (e.g. Iraq and Haliburton).

I think something that could be added to her list is "the digital divide" crisis. Specifically, we can ask do agrarian societies need to be (or want to be) attached to the Internet?

Further, is an abundance of cheap laptops without a cradle to grave waste management solution just another environmental disaster waiting to happen? Like the billion cell phones dying in landfills, these $100 laptops aren't bio-degradable...

NB - Clarification from SJ's comment below: The OLPC Project is trying to make the laptops 100% recyclable and have a minimum impact on the environment, but they are still in the process of accessing how to ensure proper disposal according to the following site:

I know it's all high and mighty of me writing this on my own computer, but when we were down at the OLPC they talked about how kids in the developing world were already using laptops (perhaps, not the OLPC laptops yet) in rare situations to make pornography (to make money), or selling them (for money), or hacking (for money), or being beaten by adults who would then steal the laptops (to again sell for money) – that’s just to name a few issues. Overall, in terms of liberalization, could these laptops just be a way of creating armies of third world call centre employees out of a young, cheaply trained labour force, while also taking time away from children's time learning skills they need to survive in a non-digital society? Think scary, Kittlerian style discourse networks here of the variety that occurred around the creation of the typewriter (and now, of course, the laptop).

During my visit to the OLPC, we had a number of problems on the technical side as well. For example, getting the laptops to work in the mesh network never occurred, and obviously Bigge’s own laptop all alone here in Canada will have problems linking to other mesh-network-ready computers since there are none (until other people purchase them).

Another problem during our visit included the laptop’s operating system freezing on a number of the computers we were testing. To their credit, the OLPC project admitted openly they were working on all of these issues, and the system Bigge demonstrates in his video is definitely a bit different from the one that I remember playing with. Hopefully the bugs have been worked out.

The one thing that I was hopeful about with the OLPC project was their commitment to on-going maintenance of the technology, and their focus on going to places and educating people about use and care of the laptop. However, without sustained money, the laptops do break and the issues listed above develop when there is no money to fix them. Several of my peers during the visit were emphatic about embedding the laptops in an educational environment to create a vital culture of care. Without a care network, if (or when) those developing regions become emblazoned with other problems, which they often do, the child cannot eat the laptop, which most would consider a more pressing need, but the laptop could instead be used by others to download bomb making instructions.

I thought I'd write and see what others thought, especially those who have connections to the OLPC project?

Specifically, I know that some other SDP-ers have blogged about this previously, and one of you has done the same as Ryan Bigge and contributed to the give-one-get-one campaign -- hopefull informed discussion can assuage such fears and issues as those listed above:

- Give-one-get-one:

- Law Professor Wendy Seltzer on the project (A comment in this post talks about Korean Laptop Boot Camps for helping Koreans get over Internet addiction):

- Other links and pictures from people during the summer visit to OLPC:





1 comment:

SJ said...

Hello Peter,

It was good to have you visiting the office over the summer. I have a few bones to pick with your article, however.

You say:
"when we were down at the OLPC they talked about how kids in the developing world were already using the laptops in rare situations to make pornography (to make money), or selling them (for money), or hacking (for money), or being beaten by adults who would then steal the laptops (to again sell for money)"

None of these things has happened. They are possibilities we want to make difficult if not impossible, so worrying about them has been part of the design process.

As for being part of a landfill : the XO is fully recyclable. For details, see:

Regards from Cambridge,