On the OLPC Movement…

02/20/2008
A couple of months ago I was asked by Icon Magazine to write a review of the OLPC XO laptop for the developing world. You can read the finished article in their January issue or on their site (OLPC review on Iconeye.com). However, since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the context and background to the review I wrote and decided that I wanted to elaborate around it a bit. I’ve also wanted to put up a version in public that hadn’t been edited for length (however judiciously). Hence this post – firstly some background to the piece and then the piece itself.

When I read a review of the XO I expect to stumble across some fairly standard positions. I expect the article to question whether the developing world really needs a laptop. I expect them to talk about the ecological impact of these laptops. I expect them to decry the project as (at best) utopianist folly and (at worst) some form of western naïve semi-colonial oppression. Most of these arguments make no sense to me at all.

The first position seems to be based on the assumption that the people of the developing world be better off gradually developing their economies through farming to manufacturing and ending up gradually in high technology industries. I personally think this ideology dooms these countries to always playing catch-up to the west. If there’s any chance of them leap-frogging great swathes of industrialisation to create a working and creative population that can compete on a world stage, then I don’t understand how any of us could stand up in good conscience and decry it.

Environmental damage through a proliferation of laptops seems to me to be probably indisputable, but what’s the alternative? Is it fair for rich countries to consume vast amounts of resources but stop poor countries having access to the same services ‘for the good of the world’? Can we really in good conscience deny other people what we take for granted? Perhaps if we were sending out hundreds of millions of Macs or PCs there might be an argument here, but the XOs are massively less damaging to the world than any of those devices.

The utopian accusation may have some truth to it. It’s difficult to know precisely how much chance a project like this has of success. And it’s difficult to know whether the technologists behind it are busily projecting their own ideologies onto developing countries in defiance of what those countries actually want. Probably the only way we’ll find out for sure would be to provide the machines to a few disparate groups of young people across the world and see how they develop–see what opportunities it opens up for them. Personally, I find the arguments convincing. I think there is a net benefit to come out of this. I think it will help. But it’s pretty tricky to distinguish your own beliefs from your prejudices. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being so confident.

For me, it comes down to the way we want to operate in the world. It’s extremely easy to adopt a pose of scepticism and cynicism about any attempt to change things or push them forwards. I’ve said before about a particularly aggravating tech commentator that naysaying is a sure-fire way to look sensible and intelligent without any of the effort of actually having to think. I stand by that, and I think the OLPC project has had its fair share of this kind of thinking.

Personally though, I believe that it’s possible to work for the good of all and improve the world. I think it’s a decent and honourable thing to apply whatever means you have at your disposal to raising the aspirations and possibilities of one of the planet’s most squandered resources–its residents. And I do buy the geek rhetoric that access to information, communication and education cannot but help people. As such, I’m prepared to give this project and others like it, the benefit of the doubt. And that’s why I decided to write this article in this particular style. I hope you enjoy it:


There’s something grotesque about reviewing Nicholas Negroponte’s XO–the so-called “$100 dollar laptop”–for a magazine like Icon. And that I’m writing the piece on my gas-guzzling SUV of a MacBook Pro can only compound the horror. This is not a machine designed to be evaluated by people like me. Nor is it meant to be bought by the kinds of people that will read this magazine. To talk about it in the same design terms as a lamp or a set of headphones borders on criminal, because in every way that really counts the XO is not a consumer artefact. It’s not trying to wheedle itself into your living room. In fact, quite the opposite. It has more in common with a clean water pump or an honourable approach to third-world debt than it does with an iPod. It’s a sincere but radical political act.

The result of a two-year project by “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), the XO aims to introduce primary school children in the developing world to the educational possibilities of technology and the network. Green and white with a tough, textured plastic body about the same size as a lunch-box, it has been optimised in every way to deal with the extreme conditions of its use. Its astonishingly frugal use of electricity allows it to function in areas where power is sparse or even non-existent. The screen switches into an energy-efficient black and white mode that is also readable in direct–even aggressive–sunlight. The rubberised keyboard seals the device against dust and water. Even the friendly green “ears” of the device serve a triple function – acting as latches, protective shields for USB ports and as antennae designed to extend the range of the distributed wifi networks that will connect children across the planet.

And this is a device optimised for the young. The keyboard immediately reveals the clumsiness and size of fully-grown fingers. Each key is springy and responsive–fun to touch and explore–but they’re packed tightly together to help small hands roam effectively. In every dimension, the XO is child-shaped. The grasp of the handle, the heft of it in your hands, the way it swings when you walk–it’s enough to make any adult feel like a freakishly large mutant. And it’s not only child-shaped, it’s child-resistant – it feels resilient, solid, indestructible–as if it could be used as a tennis racket without sustaining any real damage.

Yet what’s truly extraordinary about the XO isn’t the way it’s been tailored to work under extreme conditions, but the bets it places on our collective political and creative future. Geek utopianists have infused every aspect of the device with their own profoundly aspirational, positive and humanist political ideology. The XO is their lever to effect change at a global scale.

You can spot it everywhere. Every aspect of the device — from the operating system to the mesh networking that distributes connectivity to each machine — works on the principle that each node on the network can accomplish more together than they can apart. Every application on every machine is designed to operate in a social context – you can show off your work, share your web browsing or advertise an ongoing discussion. Some applications–including a version of Connect 4–are only functional at all if you have other people to play with.

The collaborative, communal experience is tied together by the “zoom interface” – the XO’s version of the Finder or File Manager. It allows a user at any time to zoom back from one particular application to their desktop, then to their community of friends and then still further to see everyone on the network. While zoomed out, you can see clumps and clusters of people collaborating and playing, always connected and situated within their community. The XO is not a device for loners. It is a device that believes aggressively in society and aims to support it.

There are also challenges to our traditional understanding of intellectual property. The communities in the developing world that cannot afford life-saving drugs can find themselves similarly constrained by the cost of textbooks–and often for similar reasons. But with a turn of the screen, the XO becomes a simple ebook reader connected to a network. It’s an environment ideal for the distribution of free knowledge, and so it’s no surprise to see Wikipedia involved in the project. Information, as the technologist’s mantra goes, wants to be free–and the XO is there to help that happen.

You can see similar principles at work in the pervasive use of open-source applications and software like the Firefox browser or Linux. This software is free to use, install and distribute but–more importantly–offers its very code up to exploration and change. The XO revels in this opportunity, making it easy for children to access and edit the very software of their machine. There are no finished creative works here, but simply sites for continual exploration and learning.

In every area, this iconic object is an attempt to refashion the world in the image of the dreams of its creators – noble, vigourous, creative and expressively utopian dreams. Every element is impregnated with these aspirations of sociality, play, creation, freedom. As a project and as a device, it’s beautiful and revolutionary.

If the perfected whole succeeds in its mission, these aspirations may find a new home in the minds of generations of children in the developing world. And this new generation – growing up able to access and manipulate knowledge, technology, literature, music and code – will bring to the networked world their new perspectives, voices and needs. It’s a project to transform the world: this small device has a substantial mission. It’s not a laptop, it’s a movement. And it deserves our full support.