OLPC and its XO laptop – truly open access?

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014 by samanthalong88

ImageAfter tinkering around with the XO laptop, I decided to look a bit more into the non-profit group behind it– One Laptop per Child. Much like the motto “if you build it, they will come” from Field of Dreams, their mission is simple:  if a kid has a laptop, he/she will learn. More specially, if a kid in a poor, developing nation has access to a laptop, he/she will learn and that education will allow them to eventually solve whatever other problems plague their community or country. A bit too starry-eyed for my tastes, though I think everyone has the right to access such technologies and decide for themselves their worth or place in their lives.

As I thought more about the mission statement though, I couldn’t help but see how it conflicted with opinions on the relationship between children and technology in developed nations. It seems that, in places like the United States, we often cite our preoccupation with technology (like computers, cell phones, video games, and the Internet which connects them) as detracting from education and learning. Thus, all the conversations about increasingly short attention spans, textspeak, difficulty reading, etcetera etcetera. While “educational” uses are out there, in the first world they are too often subverted for playtime, Facebook, and looking for the name of the band that played that one song. Our dream for these technologies in developing nations seems to be that they will be used “purely,” eventually solving complex problems like war, disease, and poverty–all without us really having to give or change much of ourselves.

It’s complicated. In class we often talk about the darker sides of internet access, the loss of privacy, the mining and selling of data, even the ways in which our thinking is structured or limited by computers. The picture I’ve provided of the kid looking intently at the Google homepage is subsequently disturbing, then–further entanglement into the machinations of late capitalism disguised as educational and financial opportunity, tsk tsk. (Man, am I talking about XO laptops or higher education in general now?) This kind of thinking will always make programs like OLPC (even if it’s carried out in a far less bumbling fashion) seem shady, potentially even dangerous for the communities they target.

However, I think what is more dangerous is if we decide what is and isn’t dangerous for others who are not seated in a similarly privileged position (which is due, in major part, to these technologies). And perhaps that’s what I found most bothersome about the XO laptop, that it has made such decisions in its design and promotion (especially with its Sugar interface), even while trying to be about open access. With such a strong  emphasis on learning and young learning, it seems that the laptop discourages adult users (too old for change) while insisting that kids only use the device to learn in traditional ways (much of the time, the Internet is still out of reach, so opportunities are limited to a word processor, a painting program, and a rudimentary music program…from what I gleaned).  The result is an ideology of truly pure educational technology, with no threat of play (like video games, for example).  Of course, the word “play”  might often be used in the advertising, but it’s a kind of “play” with high hopes behind it, a high-stakes kind of “play” that will eventually figure out a way to bring clean water to the village and so on. I can understand the angle from a marketing perspective (investors more sold by “education” than “cool toy”) as well as a budget perspective (more features equals higher cost), but if the idea is to give these children equal access and opportunity, the XO falls short.

Then again, something like the XO is better than nothing, or at least might help hatch better programs and devices in the future. I always want to be sure, when I critique a non-profit like OLPC, that I am not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Given a lifetime of always having access to these kind of technologies and never understanding what it is to be without them, I’m not sure I am able to truly judge their efficacy or their dangers.

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