This morning I attended a session at the World Summit on the Information Society entitled "Creativity, Culture and Capacity", organized by Prof. Mike Best of Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech, or gatech.edu). I had first met him in 2003 when he was at the Media Lab and he was researching the kinds of systems I was building for Laos. He later went on to manage the Media Lab India, left MIT and is now editing "Information Technology and International Development", a journal published by MIT press. I will have to subscribe now.
The session was not well publicized and Best had invited certain people, myself among them, to attend. At four hours' duration, it would not draw many casual onlookers, especially with a bland title. Originally, Nick Negroponte had been scheduled for a panel, along with Alan Kay, for whom I have the highest respect. Another panel member was an acquaintance of mine, and I hoped there would be a good round debate on the OLPC.
But Negroponte had canceled a few weeks before, so instead we had a pretty good discussion on the whole issue of creativity on the internet. I particularly want to quote a comment by Alan Kay, the only one he made that was even tangential to the OLPC.
He said, "There's a hierarchy of elements, each of which is harder than the other. There's the hardware and that's easy - that's just engineering (I don't take that wrong - LF). Then there's software, and that's harder. Then user interface, and that's even harder. Then there's courseware, which is harder still. And finally there's mentoring, which is really, really hard."
I think this is an important taxonomy, and in a later session (Alan had to leave to be part of the OLPC road show) I realized how important it was. Clotilde Fonseca of Costa Rica said that "the digital divide doesn't exist. The use of the term implies there were no divides before the digital one, and there were many... the digital divide is just the old divide in a new area."
That got me thinking about how the digital divide was in fact a design failure. We should have been able to design computers and their software so that everyone could use them. Then Alan set out his hierarchy, and I was thrilled. "He's made my case," I whispered to Bob Marsh, sitting next to me.
Because you need to design from the right end of the hierarchy. PCs were designed from the bottom up, in the order Alan Kay listed, and he was a major player in areas like user interface. But we should have designed them from the top down, taking on the hardest first (hindsight is great!). So now, if we're going to redesign things (or put forward an initiative intended to change everything, as OLPC is represented), we have the ability (and responsibility) to make use of hindsight and structure our efforts the right way.
Mentoring (the human interactions which are both necessary for successful use of the technology and which constitute an important outcome) is the key. Exactly how you design them and design for them is not obvious to me, but you have to start somewhere. Then courseware, then user interface, then software and finally hardware. Each step reveals the requirements for the next.
And, of course, starting from a different set of assumptions about mentoring yields an entirely different path through the hierarchy and results in a different system. Taxonomies provide structure for thought, and the rest is mostly just hard mental work punctuated by insights.
So let's all remember Kay's Hierarchy and try to apply it in designing the next generation of everything. It won't be easy, admittedly, but we've been doing it the hard way until now.
And I rest my case (for now) about the OLPC. It's being designed as a piece of hardware, with all the other hierarchy elements pushed out into the future. You'd think we'd learn.