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One laptop per child

Last post 01-27-2008 11:21 PM by paulcarson. 0 replies.
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  • 01-27-2008 11:21 PM

    One laptop per child




    The much-anticipated XO laptop is an upbeat little instrument, the size of a Bible with a handle. It’s green, the universal color of contemporary virtue. It’s dandy.


    The XO was designed, with much fanfare, for One Laptop Per Child, the marvelously hubristic organization created by the M.I.T. new-media guru Nicholas Negroponte to equip two billion children in poor countries with a means to educational salvation. In October, Negroponte presented the laptop at the Vatican to an audience of Roman Catholic schoolteachers and nuns. He stressed that his laptop would not run programs like Word, PowerPoint or Excel. When third-world kids use mainstream office software, he said, “that breaks my heart most.” Instead, he went on, “the children should be making things, they should be sharing things, they should be creating music, creating pictures, making videos, playing with mathematics, accessing the Internet.”

    Using his programs, then. Fair enough. Like all artifacts designed and disseminated by missionaries, Negroponte’s XO laptop reveals a great deal about his worldview and how he and his colleagues perceive the benighted people they seek to enlighten.

    All the world — “experts from academia and industry,” as the laptop’s press materials put it — seems to have gone into the making of the XO, which Negroponte first conceived in 2002. Originally known as the $100 laptop, the XO now costs $200. My first reaction to the XO and its price was outrage: not at the laptop itself, but at how much bloating and frippery must go into my own $1,000-plus computer.

    Kate, my neighbor across the hall, brought over her XO for me to try. She had taken advantage of One Laptop Per Child’s $400 “Give One Get One” offer in November, and while a child in the developing world was presumably exploring the donated XO, we now had her matching XO to investigate ourselves.

    In my apartment, the sight of an electronic device that was built to last was almost jarring. My trembling, delicate, temperamental laptop suddenly seemed like a dying tropical bird, while the XO is a happy, healthy puppy. A tough puppy. The XO is said to withstand desert heat, direct sunlight, thick humidity, distressing falls, dirt, rainstorms and (I’m not kidding) assault by cats. Kate and I invited some preschool-age kids, including hers and mine, to come beat it up. They squealed and crowded in cinematically to glimpse the holy thing.

    It was hard to open. That killed the communitarian buzz for awhile. I had charged it — with a standard AC jack, though it can also run off a custom-designed solar panel — but ignored the (online) instructions. Antennas, which I mistook for kickstands, needed to be raised. An enticingly big button that looked like a latch turned out to be a hinge.

    Sarah, my upstairs neighbor, came down with her two daughters. Seeing my bewilderment, she was the first of us to mention “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” That 1980 comedy has lasted: the indelible image of a tribesman coming upon a Coke bottle in the Kalahari seems in retrospect like the last word in any number of 1970s arguments about cultural hybridization. I wondered what promises and threats the XO laptops, air-dropped like propaganda leaflets (or trucked to Catholic schools by the thousands, whichever), would conjure for students in poor countries.

    At last, the XO sprung open, powered up and beeped a theme like the haunting “Close Encounters” melody. The tinny audio boosted spirits, and the kids clustered around again.

    The touchpad is miniature, as are the Altoid-size keys on the hermetic, rubberized qwerty keyboard, which can be peeled off and replaced with other character sets. (The XO’s default language can also be changed.) The interface is cryptic. Icons like a speech bubble and an artist’s palette abound, circling on a zodiac-like wheel. We came across some odd words too, even on the English-language XO: Concret, Byke. Cartoon images of a turtle and a drum promised “TurtleArt” and “TamTam Jam.” We tried our hand at TurtleArt. A demo showed an exploding bubble scheme, but we couldn’t create our own. The XO’s music program tinkled along arbitrarily, simulating the sounds of an electric guitar, bongos and even a cola-colored bottle.

    A strange rhythm to our experiment emerged: the kids kept losing interest in the XO, only to be won back with a beep or a flash. Once their attention was secured, we could instruct them briefly about the touchpad or the computer’s features. We ourselves increasingly succumbed to the spell of its cute, smart design, but the window for spreading the word was brief. The children needed spectacle to keep them engaged.

    I thought of the Global Recordings Network, an evangelical organization in Los Angeles with 70 years of experience introducing technology to underserved populations. In the process of recording Bible stories in every known language, Global Recordings has created a variety of hand-cranked machines, which it delivers to remote places, where Christian parables can be played without a power source.

    In “Tailenders,” a 2005 documentary about the organization, the alien-looking contraptions can be seen making converts. But not necessarily to Christianity. Rather, people who hear the recordings come to desire, somehow, simply to share in the supernaturalism of disembodied audio. Whoever controls these animistic effects, it seems, must be worth listening to. When missionaries approach, these people are vulnerable, having just witnessed a small miracle.

    If Negroponte wants to convert kids to the global information economy, he might consider the chief virtue of the XO laptop: its lights and sounds. Even Western kids, whose toys flash and squeal, are drawn with primitive wonderment to the peculiar phenomena of this computer — the distinctive hums and blinks that seem like evidence of its soul.

    I love the One Laptop Per Child project. But I’m already a believer. If Negroponte wants to keep evangelizing, speaking at the Vatican and trying to save the world, he should take a page from the real missionaries’ playbook. For XO 2.0, he ought to consider more volume and dazzle, as well as an electrical storm, a booming voice and the light and heat of a burning bush.

    Points of Entry


    THE MISSION:The Tailenders,” by the filmmaker Adele Horne, gets into the nuts and bolts of far-flung proselytizing with hand-crank technology. (XO prototypes, curiously enough, had hand cranks.) Bow down before the flickering, bleeping idol?

    A PRAYER FOR THE LAPTOPS:, the home base of One Laptop Per Child, gives all the details of the vast project, as well as testimonials from third-world children who rhapsodize about Negroponte’s project: “I pray that God will give them more knowledge, and God also gives them the spirit of giving, so that they help us more.”

    MAYBE IT’S A GRENADE? The two-part series of “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” starring the farmer and actor N!xau as the bottle-finding bushman Xi, is still funny, and weird, and funny, and wise. The second movie yields his insight into the People of the Coke Bottle. They “seem to know some magic that can make things move,” he says, but they are “not very bright, because they can’t survive without their magic contrivances.” Clips available on YouTube; DVD set on Amazon.
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