Hating on One Laptop per Child

Thanks to raganwald and his syndicated deliciousness, I found Sunday’s Fake Steve Jobs post about the problems at One Laptop per Child. I’m a big fan of satire, and especially web-delivered timely articulate satire. But I was a bit confused by this one, and quite dismayed by the vitriol of the comments. Why are y’all player hating on Nick Negroponte?

Confusing vectors of irony

So, a confession. I don’t quite get Fake Steve Jobs. I mean, I guess he’s supposed to be a way to a) make fun of Steve Jobs, b) make fun of the rest of the industry in the voice of said lampooned Steve Jobs, and c) allow the true author to voice some of his own opinions under this cover. But when the lampooned Jobs lampoons another industry figure… we have the problem of the unreliable narrator. Is the rant the true author’s opinion, or is he imagining how the real Jobs would react? If it’s not the true author’s opinion, are we supposed to see Fake Steve’s rant as credible, or as proof that Fake Steve is an idiot? Or has Fake Steve become a force in his own right, and the actual author has lost control over the vectors of irony?

Anyway, with an unreliable narrator you, the reader, have to come to your own conclusion, and mine in this case is that Fake Steve Jobs is full of crap.

Fake Steve’s rant begins — in my opinion reasonably — by pointing out that the technical and political challenges of the OCPL projects are so significant that delays and snags should be expected. He writes, “I mean, a brand new hardware design, a new screen technology, a customized Linux operating system, a one-off user interface, and the customers are the poorest nations in the world….” Quite true. In fact, this would seem to be a good argument to cut OLPC some slack. The challenges they’ve undertaken are significantly greater than those involved in creating an expensive cell phone without buttons.

But sympathy is not Fake Steve’s aim. Instead, he intends to use the size of the undertaking to prove that Negroponte is an idiot. (His being a professor and occasionally appearing on television are also reasons he’s an idiot.) What could academics possibly hope to accomplish, he’s arguing. Only business people have a hope to make big advances in technology. (BTW, I don’t use the word “innovation”, which is just watered-down BS that has taken the place of stronger words — and things — like ingenuity, genius, and — remember this one? — invention. The word “innovation” always makes me think of Microsoft.)

So here’s the problem in Fake Steve’s argument. When have the MBAs ever changed the world? Did the bold suits at Xerox save the day by ignoring all that crap those woolly-headed academics invented in Palo Alto? No, not exactly. And did IBM crush Apple in the personal computer market? No, again. Jeff Bezos had real business experience, yes, but Netscape, Yahoo, and Google — weren’t they all started and built up by grad students?

Fake Steve’s rant sounds like sour grapes. And his happiness at OLPC’s problems can only be described as schadenfreude. So, just jealousy? Of what, exactly? The second half of the rant criticizes the media for paying so much positive attention to OLPC and Nick Negroponte. Ah ha.

So, are supposed to agree with Fake Steve, or are we supposed to see through it? Or some measure of both? I don’t know, but an awful lot of the readers who’ve posted comments on Fake Steve’s blog seem to have reached the same conclusion, and they are lining up to ditto him. And this is where the post gets a bit troubling.

More evidence that Dave Winer was right about blog post comments

Nick Negroponte can take care of himself. As one poster felicitously wrote, “You keep harping on this guy and he’s gonna focus on you with those big lenses of his and take you out… or at least give you a severe sunburn.” But I wish they’d lay off the kids. Calling them “the poor bastards in Africa and the Middle East who haven’t been blessed with the ability to look up passages of their favorite religious text online (did somebody say pron?)” is not only a little mean, it’s also fabulously ignorant in my favorite way — ignorance that shows the writer doesn’t realize he’s actually completely wrong.

Religion and porn — why do you think Western Europe became literate in the first place? The first mass-printed book? The Bible. And the people who were reading it weren’t sitting at home by the bed at night feeling good about being saved. They were getting fired up to go fight the Thirty Years War. As for porn, care to take a guess about how dissent was packaged in pre-revolutionary France? And what did the French Revolution get us? Oh, just republican government, the spread of the Enlightenment, and the modern western world as we know it. It was bloody, yes, like the rest of history. But here’s my point. Even if the laptops are used to find and share religious ideas and pornography (the laptops will ship with anti-porn filtering, but you know the kids will figure out how to get around that), the spread of those things is actually probably of vital importance to shaping the future of our world.

And as for the notion expressed by some commenters that kids could never figure this thing out, and would never be able to figure out how to code software… um? What world do you live in? The one where young people are the last to figure out a new technology? The one in which grandpa has to show little Bobby how to program the VCR? The one in which only grownups are texting each other on their cell phones and building Facebook apps? Children love computers, in no small part because they love learning.

A commenter to Fake Steve’s blog suggests there is no pedagogical support for the project: “I’ve never seen any evidence that the pedagogical outcomes of this project have been given careful consideration. You might forgive academics for not understanding business fundamentals, but it’s not so easy to excuse them for overlooking educational ones.” I guess it is supposed to be easy to excuse the poster for missing that one of the leaders of the OLPC project is Seymour Papert, who has devoted his life to a theory of pedagogy, Constructionism, that is based on the work of Piaget and Dewey. Of course, Papert is another PhD, and he’s connected to (gasp) MIT, so I guess his ideas wouldn’t win over many blog commenters.

A shocking admission

OK, so I’m biased. I like OLPC. A lot. It may not happen for years, and it may not be as big as its boosters claim it will be. But it may still change everything. Really. Can you predict what those millions of kids will do with networked open-source laptops? People once thought personal computers would be used for keeping cooking recipes organized. A privileged sliver of the world showed they can do orders of magnitude more. What happens if an order of magnitude more people get their hands on programmable computing power?

As for the financial difficulties… one of the corporate backers of the project is Google, and you never know when the big G is going to drop a bomb of money on some long-term, loss-leader opportunity. If things get really bad, they might just drop that money bomb on OLPC. That’s almost too boring to write about. Here’s something more interesting.

Crouching Laptop, Hidden Smalltalk

I’m sometimes given to flights of near-utopian “what if” imaginative fancy, along the lines of “what if the people who wrote The Wire produced a series set in Iraq, right now?” Or “what if so-called tapas restaurants started serving authentic Spanish tapas at the bar, for free?” I am also a computer language enthusiast, and with the OLPC laptop, I sense just a whiff of a wild possibility.

Never mind the inclusion on the laptop of Forth, Python, and Logo, which is based on Lisp, the once and future uberlanguage. Go over to the wikipedia page for OLPC. Check out the photo under “History”. Who’s sitting there with Negroponte? Why, it’s our old friend Alan Kay. And read down the page. What’s included on the laptop, along with other programming languages? The “eToys version of squeak.” Pop over to Kay’s wikipedia page, and you learn that he has been influenced by Papert and Constructionism for decades, and that he himself is focusing on the laptop’s squeak applications.

Tired of the primacy of C and Java? How about unleashing a few million young Smalltalk programmers on the world?

Leave a Reply