One Laptop Per Child and the Blank Slate


In "Is Anybody Home at One Laptop Per Child?", Edward Cherlin wonders what is happening at OLPC:

Ivan Krstić says in his blog that he quit OLPC a few weeks ago because he was no longer to work with Walter Bender, but with an unnamed manager with no technical knowledge. Also that OLPC’s kernel manager is leaving.

Walter is, in his own words, "out of the loop" now. Supposedly there will be a new CEO and COO sometime.

In the meantime, Nicholas Negroponte is the only person in charge, and he has nothing to do with the people doing the work. We are not allowed to talk with him, we cannot get questions sent to him for answers, and he will not tell anybody what is going on, except to make bizarre remarks to reporters about becoming more like Microsoft.

Well, all right, I exaggerate. I have sent in one communication that I was told would be passed on to Nicholas. But I don’t exaggerate by much. I haven’t heard a peep in response.

From the start of the OLPC project, I’ve always wondered at Negroponte’s motives.  Of course, no one can be against educating children in the third world, but I have always thought that the OLPC was utopian in every sense of the word.  This is what I said on Technocrat a few months ago:

The OPLC strikes me as a quintessentially utopian experiment.  It’s a tabula rasa, a blank slate.  In Steven Pinker’s, "The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature", Pinker discusses the ways in which people deny human nature for various utopian reasons, and the ways in which they all fail.

I have always thought Negroponte was a utopian.  His OLPC is going to be the force that saves the world (and one thinks, brings down Microsoft…)  The third-world children that are his beneficiaries are unsullied by the modern technological culture.  Rousseau would have identified these "noble savages" immediately.  I wonder, however rationalized, if that was the real reason why the OLPC’s were not intended to be sold in the first world let alone America.  No noble savages here, we’re already corrupted by civilization.

These "noble savages", I mean, children, won’t need teachers;  they’ll teach themselves!  They’ll fix laptops themselves–without even knowing what a screwdriver is (or so the hype makes it seem)!   (I ripped apart my jack-in-the-box toy when I was 3, but I seem to recall reading LOTS of books when I became one of these tinkerers.  Where are the books for these noble savages?)

The hardware is brilliant, but I admit I was turned off when I saw that crank in the early mockups.  The AMD chip is low powered, but there is no way that it can be powered by a crank.  And if you’ve seen one of Trevor Baylis‘ radios, the crank-spring-generator assembly  is rather large, and that for a relatively low-powered cheap radio.  Not a single techie pointed this out during the OLPC hype.  I wonder if that turned off Baylis, in addition to, his management concerns.

Early prototype of OLPC with power crank, which turned out not to be feasible  [from Wikimedia Commons]

Lee Felsenstein wrote about the crank in 2005:

But what of the absence of reliable electrical power? OLPC statements refer to the hand-cranked generator included in each unit, having a ratio of 100:1 for operating time to crank time. For an optimistically low power drain of 1 watt this implies a 100 watt generator.

A hand crank of 6 inch (15.24 cm) length operating at 2 turns per second would require a tangential force of 11.8 pounds (5.3 kg), assuming 100% efficiency of generation and storage. This would tire a strong adult quite rapidly. It would seem apparent that the figure of 100:1 was arrived at by means other than calculation.

Even after the OLPC entered full production, there are still problems with hand-operated generators.  From OLPC Human Power Generation Reality Check:

The Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art is acquiring two XO laptops for their permanent collection because MOMA’s Paul Galloway believes the design of the XO Laptop and the ideas it embodies belong in the museum’s collection. While I’ll not dispute his concept, I do think the display is in error

If you look closely, you’ll see that the display case has two XO laptops and a Potenco pull-cord generator. Personally, I don’t think the MOMA should be showing off vaporware.

While XO laptop is in full-scale production, I even have one myself, no one has a Potenco yoyo, no matter the fancy Wired interviews. Individual purchase inquiries are rebuffed with this polite but vague brush off we’ve heard since last June:

We appreciate your interest in Potenco’s human power generators. We’ll be posting much more information about the product as we move into full scale production.

I’m not surprised there are problems with human power generation.  There’s a reason we moved from humans to horses to, gasp, "Machines!" to generate power.  It is infeasible to hand crank an OLPC, and perhaps just barely possible to use a string-powered generator as the Potenco uses. 

Those are just some of the problems OLPC faces.  There are some bright kids out there, including this child from Peru whom I see myself in, but it’s still a very utopian experiment.  That kid from Peru would probably be a engineer, a tech or a mechanic, but you still have to reach all the other kids. 

OLPC is just the latest generation of the thinking I encountered when I learned computers in the 1970’s.  Back then, the thought was if you taught kids computers and BASIC, they would know everything.  While I much prefer technical pursuits instead of, say, management or business (no MBA for me), there’s no way that lines of code are going to replace the many dozens if not hundreds of books and magazines that I devoured at a young age.

It’s a wonderful piece of hardware.   I just wonder if the organization can live up to those same expectations.

Linux: Great quote on Linux and people with disabilities

A housekeeping note:  I’ve been away from this blog for a while.  I’ve been kept away by a private beta I’m in, and local politics (see my other blog).

Jeff Atwood is donating $5,000 to a .NET open source project.  A commenter makes an excellent point about why MS seems to reinvent the wheel:

Simon – Subversion, CruiseControl and Nant are great for my purposes in this little shop, but those tools don’t scale well to large businesses. Microsoft didn’t develop Team System due to NIH, they developed it because they were targeting an entirely different market.

I really wish people would at least try to understand what the hell they’re talking about before piping up. Microsoft has to worry about i18n, backwards compatibility, patent and copyright issues, security issues, usability issues, and all of that fun stuff that’s part of developing "commercial" software. It’s not as if they can just pick up a copy of Subversion and deploy it with Visual Studio and have everything just work; and if they’re going to have to tackle the mountains of work involved in bringing those tools up to snuff for everyone who uses VS, why the hell should they do it for free? Those translators and testers and lawyers and analysts all cost money.

I think it’s wonderful to be donating real money to open source projects. But please, for the love of god, stop bitching about how Microsoft or Google or whoever is dragging its heels and refusing to accept the divine blessing of open-source software. Microsoft has millions of customers to worry about; CruiseControl or [insert your favourite FOSS project here] only has to worry about white English-speaking Americans and Europeans without any disabilities and with plenty of time on their hands to fix all the minor compatibility problems themselves.

Aaron G on April 11, 2008 07:29 AM

Emphasis added.  I still haven’t tried the latest Ubuntu.  Unless I hear that they’ve updated Gnopernicus, the screen magnifier I had such trouble with, I’m going to pass for a bit longer, perhaps indefinitely.