I have been suspicious of Utopian plans to drop technology in impoverished hellholes. One such program is One Laptop Per Child. I’ve long harbored the concern that folks are prone to focusing on toys instead of learning. (Notice I said “learning” and not “education”?) I even see it in my child’s massively (overly?) funded school. Bureaucrats and teachers alike get orgasmic over wads of Apple products when the kids would fare just as well (if not better) with boring traditional materials like books and pencils. Here’s a hint; people have learned to read and write since literacy was invented, a $50,000 tech lab isn’t the key ingredient.
On the other hand I have long thought that it’s sad to deny any human access to the Internet. Everyone (and I mean everyone; illiterate pig farmers and tribal goatherders included) can, if they wish, benefit from information.
Information is power. It allows us to be more. I endlessly appreciate the information I can dredge from the Internet! Mine is the last generation of Americans (one would hope) that remembers how difficult even the simplest of endeavors was before the Internet. (Try this test; turn off your Internet connection and then determine the proper spark plug gap for a Buick, who won the Sheriff’s election in Munsee, the distance to Bangalore, and the proper climactic zone to plant rhubarb. Now do it with a cheap laptop.) A reasonably bright citizen in 2012 (with the Internet and a cheap laptop) is like an intellectual God from 1950.
Back to the Utopians; if only the technology could be supplied without a heaping helping of condescension on the hands of whatever yahoo provides the e-toys. So sad…
What’s this? Just such an experiment happened. Huzzah! The result is pure awesome!
Rather than give out laptops (they’re actually Motorola Zoom tablets plus solar chargers running custom software) to kids in schools with teachers, the OLPC Project decided to try something completely different: it delivered some boxes of tablets to two villages in Ethiopia, taped shut, with no instructions whatsoever. Just like, “hey kids, here’s this box, you can open it if you want, see ya!”
Brilliant! OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference describes what happened next:
“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
Isn’t that beautiful?
It gets better. There’s a tie in (however far removed) with Science Fiction:
“If this all reminds you of a certain science fiction book by a certain well-known author, it’s not a coincidence: Nell’s Primer in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age was a direct inspiration for much of the OLPC teaching software, which itself is named Nell.”
Those of you who’ve read The Diamond Age know that the subtitle is “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” and it goes into detail about a high tech “book” providing the intellectual underpinnings for a top notch (if fanciful) education. Those of you who have not read The Diamond Age should drop everything and read it now.
Hat tip to Aretae for the link.
P.S. If you buy The Diamond Age I don’t get a red cent. This blog is totally for my own amusement and I recommend the book because it’s a damn fine tome. (Though not as good as Cryptonomicon.) Also, why the hell haven’t you read it yet?