Cultural Morality?

I just left Nicholas Negroponte’s keynote about his international $100 laptop program. It was the most complete presentation I’ve heard about the project, and afterwards I got some “hands-on” time with the prototypes and OS of the little laptops.

The funny thing is that there are elements of this program that completely baffle me. I think back to Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heard of Borneo, which raised interesting questions of how first world products and services could have radical effects on indigenous cultures, and how the societies themselves could be permanently transformed by the integration. The end result could be a community that is much less sustainable and independent in the long run, or one that dissappears entirely.

To really get behind Negroponte’s program, one has to beleive that a major infusion of small, sturdy and Internet-enabled laptops will be a definite benefit in villages that don’t even have electricity yet. As he noted, in some pilot programs the parents likely the regular laptops used by the kids because they were the brightest light source in their homes at night.

So, I have one reaction that makes me think hard about how this is different or the same as missionaries building churches and converting the populations to Christianity. Is what is being provided stronger and better than what is being displaced? In pilot programs, the argument is that the laptops leverage the kid’s ability to learn and to teach each other. The laptops are about learning about learning, problem-solving, programming, the Papert approach, etc.

Yet, at the same time, it’s reported that the first English word the kids learn is Google, and then they live on Google. I see that more as a content tap, mostly into commercial content, and mostly into culturally different content. World travellers cringed when they saw small villages with TVs, and the people watching Dallas re-runs. The Internet offeres two-way communication, but is most of the content really superior to that of Dallas?

If we look at 1:1 laptop programs in the US, we can’t even find an accurate database of what schools are doing what. Many programs simply deployed laptops with no clear training or support structure, and teachers and students went into sink or swim mode. Will the countries who receive these laptops in bundles of one million do it differently, or are we saying that it doesn’t matter. Is simply deploying, with the mesh wireless system and Internet connection enough… Sounds like a judgement– I cringe when I hear any argument that “nothing could make matters worse.”

At the same time, of course, I’m attracted to positive potential benefits of the program. Cell phone communications, and the Internet, have been strong, interesting forces in China. Could these laptops effect interconnected social change in other countries? New ways of thinking?

I have an idea of doing some world travel in a few years, and visiting schools as I go. A trip at that time may be well timed to help with this project, through evaluation and “reporting back” if nothing else. Of course, I would like to do more than just focus on this project– what else is occuring world-wide in schools as a result of the presence, or lack of presence, of computers and the Internet?

The picture below is from the One Laptop Per Child site. It’s the prototype I played with– note that the screen swivels and folds back into a tablet form. Also note that the “hand crank” mechanism has now been moved to the AC adapter brick, which is why it’s not present on the laptop itself anymore. The prototypes with the on-board crank had stress issues.

Orange Prototype of $100 Laptop

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