Accretions - reply to Negroponte

Fata Morgana
2010-11-29 17:35
reply to Negroponte
Public
I couldn't help but submit a comment disagreeing with parts of a recent post by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte on Boston Review. The original post to which he is responding, though, is excellent, and I really recommend reading it for a critical take on "ICT4D" (Information and Communication Tech. for Development). I'm reposting here to help me keep track of it (and for your potential horror/amusement/edification).
"Laptops arrive, and generators-for-hire appear, or suddenly, as in Rwanda, the school is electrified." -- I don't know about Rwanda, but I have spent time in Perú, and laptops in schools without power don't magically get charged by libertarian fairy godparents with portable generators; they just *don't get used.* The Peruvian government had to step up by buying solar panels, though last I heard, these were still not actually distributed.

"In Peru and Paraguay, local, independent software developers and repair shops start popping up." -- Huh? Where in Paraguay are these? I've spent five months there studying their OLPC deployment, and the only repair shop I know of is run by Paraguay Educa, which also deployed the laptops. And the software has been developed by them or through their outreach, as well. Don't ignore the hard work that deployments are putting in to create this capacity. It doesn't just spring fully-formed from the forehead of a community.

"Imagine I take a five-year-old from the most rural part of India and drop her in Paris for a year. She will speak French by the end of that year. Did Paris magnify her knowledge of French? No. It created it from her potential to learn language." -- No. It WOULD be created from the concerted kindness of French people in teaching her, as WELL as her ability to learn (definitely helped by her age). But if nobody talked to her for a year, or if she stayed in a community that spoke only her language within Paris, there is NO guarantee that she would learn French.

"... all of us who can afford a laptop buy one for our kids." -- My research on middle-class parents in Silicon Valley, including many who themselves work in the tech industry, indicates otherwise (forthcoming in CSCW 2011; advance copy available at http://research.morganya.org/ames-cscw11-class.pdf). Many middle-class parents have been massively restricting their children's access to technology -- including computers -- to the very ages that OLPC is targeting. (It's working-class parents who give their children more freedom with technology.)

On the topic of independent evaluations, there are a number out there and many more in progress. Plan Ceibal in Uruguay has been publishing eyes-open (though mostly descriptive) evaluations of their countrywide project. BID will be publishing a (not that favorable) evaluation of the project in Perú soon. I will be writing up my dissertation and publishing it in the next year or so. I recently co-wrote an article with Mark Warschauer that has been published in the current issue of Journal of International Affairs. And there are many evaluations of pilot projects. We're working on it ...
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2010-11-29 22:25 (UTC)
(no subject)
Well, it's illustrative of the kind of people you may encounter pretty often in the field of ICT4D, but I'd recommend not making yourself go through the pain more than necessary. Let me know if you get the job, though -- I'd love to hear about it!
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The Limitless Potential of a Slap to the Face
starchy
2010-11-29 23:51 (UTC)
(no subject)
It would be an interesting change, to be sure. I agree with a lot of Toyama's criticism's, and in particular I doubt that social enterprises are the best way to get a lot of this work done, but at the same time I think increased access parity can do an incredible amount of good when it is well thought-out.

Waiting around for the best way to do something is a good way to never get it done at all, but ignoring all of your actions' consequences is just irresponsible. If you advocate a solution, I think your responsibility to respond to its realities and work to improve its results. Negroponte might think his responsibility is still to defend the Platonic ideal of his solution instead.
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Fata Morgana
chimerically
2010-11-30 12:30 (UTC)
(no subject)
Agreed. The best projects I've seen, including the OLPC deployment in Paraguay, keep their eyes open and direction agile to acknowledge and adjust to what's actually happening. It's really difficult, but social change always is. But I suspect Negroponte is pretty well insulated from having to deal with actual results.

Perhaps, like a politician, he's afraid that any show of weakness will be blown out of proportion by the ravenous press and lead to the project's downfall. Of course, that works a lot better in a totalitarian regime (or a corporation), when there aren't other sources of information, but the historic closedness of OLPC has been crumbling from the voices of all of those with deployment experience and different perspectives.
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