Shariq M. Shah 

شارق م. شاہ

One Laptop Per Child_


Charismatic Technologies and Savior Ideology in Global Socio-Political Networks 


A Case Study

The story of the One Laptop Per Child Project, spearheaded by Nicholas Negroponte, holds in its history a mythic rise and fall marked by global hype, skepticism, and an ambitious dream of democratized education. Images of smiling children holding bright green laptops in front of their villages, touted as the key to economic and educational empowerment, fueled support and excitement for this radical and charismatic proposal. The proposed XO laptop, robust and crank-powered educational tool, had grand plans to be deployed in the millions in communities across the world, including Palestine, Afghanistan, and Uruguay.  

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How did this begin?


Ideology


Seymor Papert03 is a name often left out of discussions regarding this historical project, as much of the attention, and critique, is saved for its leader and spokesperson, Nicholas Negroponte. However, Papert is cited as a spearhead for the major educational philosophy, constructionism, that led to the birth of the OLPC Project.

Constructionist learning operated on the premise that education and learning flourished through mental models based on experience. This educational philosophy, through Papert’s work and writing, created a perception of education that was discovery-driven, self-navigated, and hackable. These notions of discovery-driven education speaks to the larger ideological framework of hacking which, within the bubble of MIT, presented itself as a perfectly accessible and egalitarian mode of self-education.

One of Papert’s most influential works in this scope was a book titled Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, which hinged on the constructionist learning strategy and cited Papert’s LOGO programming language and its implementation in schools as a proof of concept.  These ideologies and supporting technical work even led to a partnership with the company LEGO on MINDSTORMS, “a line of programmable toys in which customized LEGO bricks were embedded with tiny computers.03




Despite its ambitious intentions, the project was plagued with issues that were not fully considered due to the charisma of the proposal and its leaders. A key concept at the center of this proposal was that of technological determinism: a fairly reductive idea asserting that a society’s culture is driven and shaped by its technology.

This is not a new idea, of course, and the narratives have historically been similar around proposals like this one, where the “printing press, railroads, radio, aircraft...all had charismatic aspects of spreading universal enlightenment with cheap gizmos.” In many ways, the lofty ideals presented by the proposal, like the yellow crank on the laptop that would allow it to generate its own energy, the “mesh network” allowing children to interact with each other without a central internet access point, and the Linux interface allowing children to “customize” their own laptops characterized the entire proposal as a “charismatic technology.”
This “helicoptering” in of all-in-one technology into growing communities reinforces a savior narrative and fails to acknowledge the imperialist, colonial, and militaristic histories that created those conditions in the first place. In a few words, it presents a band-aid solution to a complex set of socio-political problems.
Nevertheless, the proposal appealed to global leaders, who saw the influx of laptops as a tool to grow an educated and computationally literate workforce ready to brave a new digital and internet economy. Famously, the late Muammar Gaddafi, political and military leader of Libya, at one time was engaged in a partnership with OLPC to deliver 1.2 million XO laptops, a deal valued at $250 Million, to children in Libya. Complications within OLPC, including high production cost and intervention by Intel eventually undermined the integrity of this deal. 
The project’s allure captivated Gaddafi and other global leaders alike, and the bright green laptop become a symbol of the ideological framework that led to its inception. Morgan Ames writes, on this infusion of technology with meaning, “... science and technology studies (or STS) has shown that machines can have agency: they can take on meanings and act on the world beyond the intentions of their designers.” She adds that characterizing the charisma of this proposal is a “...first step in calling attention to the ways that many have taken its allure for granted, and how that allure was created.04

This charisma and allure played on the nostalgia and formative experiences of other tech giants in the circle of Negroponte and Papert alike and in this way “...it is appealing because it just amplifies existing values and ideologies...it promoted a vision of the world where children across the Global South would have the opportunity to have the same kinds of formative experiences with a computer that these adults remembered having.04

How was this deployed?


“We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.”

- Nicholas Negroponte, quoted in The Register, “Negroponte Plans Tablet Airdrops.”


Critiques of the OLPC Project cited its context agnosticism, where the XO Laptop, despite its intentions, failed to recognize and adapt to the diverse cultural, social, and political conditions of the deployment zones. The very semantic proposition of “deployment” conjures images of an airdropped technology into growing communities as a golden ticket to educational empowerment. In reality, educational technology will inevitably respond as an element in a network of social, political, economic connections. The question, for me, increasingly becomes in what way does that response influence the roles that people play in these networked systems.

The way that a person interacts with that situated technology can either reinforce or undermine the role that they traditionally play within these interconnected ecosystems. For teachers in deployment communities, their traditional roles as cultural disseminators, familial connectors, and disciplinary figures become undermined. For children, their possession of this technology, and the pursuit of skills to navigate it, alters their roles in familial networks.McCullough in Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing, 
states “living systems tend to maintain rich interrelationships of scale05” and these interrelationships become increasingly malleable in the context of technological intervention. 

How are interrelationships, and our perceptions of them, undermined, politicized, enhanced, or commodified when a technology is inserted into that context?


In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky describes the transactional nature of these social, political, and technological networks, where technological tools allow groups to self organize and, in many ways, subvert socio-political hierarchies. These technologies, in a few words, “enable new forms of group forming” and foster the tools to “share, cooperate, and take collective action outside the framework of traditional institutions.08” The XO Laptop presents a number of these possibilities, through an educational infrastructure, a digital connector of teacher and student, community partnerships towards developing language specific keyboards, and the proposed “mesh network” allowing children to see what their peers are doing and where. In these conditions, the “flow of information requires meaningful contexts” and the older and more grounded in tradition these contexts are, the more persistent those peripheral conditions become. In tightly bound communities like these the role of the teacher moves from a complex one of cultural dissemination, mentorship, and familial connection to a flattened one of digital tool facilitation. 

Pilot Site: Atlas School Between Islamabad and Rawalpandi




As we investigate the specificities of this within the socio-political conditions in Pakistan, how does this augmented mode of group forming respond to the existing realities of the site? Traditionally, groups often form around shared forms of identity and values, further solidified by educational curriculums that reinforce traditions and cultural dissemination. If we zoom into the Pilot Deployment Site between the major metropolitan centers of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, we find diverse clusters of informal settlements. Some of these are home to many communities of Afghanistani refugees, we can find an increasingly complex set of community networks. Many children at this pilot site were children of Afghanistani refugees, and as such, did not speak the national language of Pakistan: Urdu. The interaction is described by OLPC Team: 
“...we faced language issues because children could only speak Pashto or Dari. Thanks to Dr. Habib Khan our Afghan volunteer (Usman & Sohaib) for explaining every thing in Pashto.06

...of the old rusty school the first day in a slum area called Pir Wadhai located between the cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad). Eyes sparkled bright with excitement and gave way to numerous questions that sprung from everywhere. Students and teachers alike, all were eager to learn about the XO. A phenomenal change was observed amongst the teachers and students. Their relationship seems to have taken on a friendlier stance. Where teachers would previously use sticks to control the students, they now peacefully bond to discover the OLPC together. ”

Local information sharing is exhibited in a simple case of problem solving:
“Children didn’t know how to control and use the cursor (mouse) in XO when it just was not moving in the direction they want... Here they discovered a new technique: One student from grade 4 told us to add some chalk (used to write on black board) on touchpad and when we did this, it works.06
 
These modes of translating the local-physical to the foreign-digital develop hybrid interactions that draw out, measure, and reconfigure the spaces communities co-create and cohabitate. They respond to our interrelationships, community networks, personal, shared values, and have the potential to serve as a platform for the co-creation of new contextual rituals and narratives.

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We can see here the local educational infrastructure of Pakistan having improved significantly since 2002, experiencing some of the most rapid improvement even into time frame of pilot deployment of the XO Laptops in 2008. This trend of rapid, locally led, socio-political improvement of education calls into question the narratives and perceptions that frame the radical OLPC proposal. The case again reinforces the need for Charismatic Technologies to serve and perpetuate the percieved conditions that they seek to change. 

Conclusion


From the ideologies of constructionist learning and the context agnostic approaches of airdropped XO laptops as the key to educational and societal improvement, we can examine the growth of the OLPC Project into a radical proposal infused with the ideas of technological charisma, determinism, nostalgia, and innovative saviorism. Operating on the premise that education can, in these ways, be hacked and democratized through a singular product based solution, its deployment strategies were closely tied to the ideological frameworks behind Papert’s Logo programming language, Mindstorms writing, and Nicholas Negroponte’s saviorist rhetoric. In the cases of large-scale XO deployments, quite literally described as airdrops by Negroponte, we can investigate the malleability of socio-political roles when a technology is inserted within this complex network of interrelationships. In the Pakistani Pilot Site of Pirwadhai, we can see such relationships being renegotiated, undermined, and reconstructed as a mode of co-creation, albeit one embedded with saviorist power dynamics. In this site, the translation of the local-physical to the foreign-digital develops hybrid interactions that reconfigure the spaces that communities co-create and cohabitate. Through the OLPC project, in its mythic rise and fall, we see the involvement of corporate and international partnerships in pursuit of new markets for large scale deployments. Although an international partnership with Muammar Gaddafi or a corporate battle with Intel seem to be stories specific to this project, current day proposals, infused with similar ideological frameworks of technological charisma and determinism, are similarly embedded with power structures and narratives. In the current day propagation of Chromebooks and iPads as educational tools, and the corporate and international partnerships that structure them, it becomes imperative to investigate and question the driving ideological frameworks that fuel them and their resulting renegotiation of networked roles. The ideologies that frame these technologies embed within these networks the underlying biases and
assumptions that drive ideology, and it becomes necessary to dissect them in order to reconstruct our socio-political responses to them.

Sources


"One Laptop Per Child." , directed by Anonymous, produced by Catherine Olian, and Columbia Broadcasting System., Columbia Broadcasting System, 2007. Alexander Street,
https://video-alexanderstreet-com.proxy.library.cmu.edu/watch/one-laptop-per-child
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“One Laptop per Child : Zimi's Story.” Youtube, OLPC Foundation, 15 Nov. 2008,  youtu.be/rpRRivQgpjc
02

“Seymour Papert.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 July 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Seymour-Papert.
03


Ames, Morgan G. “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child.” The Charisma Machine, MIT Press, 2019.
04




“OLPC Pakistan/Atlas School.” OLPC RSS, wiki.laptop.org/go/OLPC_Pakistan/Atlas_School.
06


Humanitarian Data Exchange. Pakistan Education Data https://data.humdata.org/dataset/world-bank-education-indicators-for-pakistan
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