It has been a little more than one year since I first posted about the "One Laptop Per Child" project (OLPC), also known as the "$100 laptop". So far as I can tell, these were the first sustained criticisms of the project concept, and they have been linked to extensively, most notably in the Wikipedia entry on the OLPC. Over 26,000 views have occurred since then, the largest number of them originating from the Wikipedia entry.
Wayan Vota has since set up the OLPC News site with daily postings giving an independent look at the progress of the OLPC project and raising issues that are not always comfortable for the principals to discuss, such as the total cost per child. Wayan is the Director of Geekcorps , a division of the International Executive Service Corps, and is directly involved in getting computers and Internet implemented in the developing world. I have met him and I have a high opinion of him. I recommend his site as a primary source of news on the OLPC project.
In all of the discussion on the OLPC News site there is a recognition that the matter of educational approach and content are lagging far behind the development of the hardware and software. However, there is not much commentary that would encourage a sense of alarm about what is and is not being done. I feel that such a sense of alarm may be justified, as the OLPC project is based upon a strong "technology push" approach which has in many other cases led to negative outcomes.
It is my observation that in such cases the leaders say to the technologists "let us worry about the consequences - just do the job", and that afterward they say to the world at large "we're not technologists - how could we have known that there would be such consequences?" As a technologist who takes his responsibilities as a citizen seriously, I feel the occasional need to play the part of the biblical prophet Jeremiah and issue unsolicited warnings about the woe that will betide those who act in unknowingly dangerous ways.
While I very much want to move on to facilitate discussion about what should be done, I feel that I cannot let go of the subject without putting forth my most dire concerns. Perhaps doing so will exorcise my demon, and get it out into public view where it can be defanged.
I lack the poetry of the biblical orators, so I will state my premises and conclusions as clearly as I can. My essential argument is that the implementation of widespread networked computers in the hands of children and without sufficient guidance from adults will lead to disruption of the civil order, especially manifested in the growth of criminal gangs.
My premises are as follows:
1. Communication is the structure on which community is built. Put another way, a community is a group of people who communicate on a regular basis.
2. When new paths of communication become available, new communities form around these paths of communication.
3. Viewed from this perspective, the dependent variable of politics is control of the channels of communications. We have been living in a "communication age" ever since the ruler no longer had to be the strongest and best fighter, but could be someone who convinced others to fight on his behalf. When the palace guard will no longer take orders from the palace, the leadership will change and the new occupants of the palace will be those whose orders the guard will obey.
4. The best description we have from the OLPC project as to the usage model is that the machines will be given to schoolchildren only, that no restrictions will be placed upon the ways in which the machines can be used, and no guidance wll be given to the children as to their use.
5. The OLPC machine is designed to implement device-to-device communication using mesh networking, which will create a local area network where two or more of the machines are operational. This network will be supported by machines whether their users have them turned on or not, as the networking chips will function to relay messages even when their CPU is in a dormant state.
Based upon these premises, my argument develops as follows:
Children with OLPC machines will quickly discover ways to pass notes to others through the machine's wireless network. This possibility has been noted before as a source of potential aggravation to teachers, who have never countenanced the passing of notes in class. It is possible that, as a result, the use of the machines will be controlled during classroom time.
Whether or not the machines are constrained in class, children will try to find some usage that benefits them and their families. The OLPC concept seems to acknowledge this, positing how children will use the machines to "learn how to learn" and suggesting images of groups of children happily ranging through their world, laptops in hand, communicating back and forth and learning how to make their world work for them.
What's missing in this concept is adult supervision - the factor that the presumably obsolete classroom specifically provides. By locking the adults of the community out of the communication structure that the machines create, the OLPC concept creates a vehicle for exclusive youth culture having orders of magnitude greater capability than any available to others in the society.
While the phrase "youth culture" here might be taken as benign, evoking ideas of consumption-oriented foolishness common in wealthy countries, I suggest that there is a darker side to such youth culture when it is empowered in societies with limited wealth and significant degrees of privation.
I expect that this dark aspect would appear in the development of gangs of children ready to steal whatever they could and empowered by the laptops to run circles around the institutions of adult society which supposedly work to suppress such forms of acquisition. In urban environments the authorities, both official and informal, would be completely outclassed and rendered impotent.
It could get much worse. In some countries warlords maintain armies which pillage and murder at will. Many of them already abduct children to become soldiers and sex slaves - what a benefit it would be to these armies to have such sophisticated communications equipment come along with the children to operate it! I shudder to think what newer, decentralized versions of such marauding armies could be created around the mesh-network model of communications built into the laptops.
My point is that the introduction of greatly advanced technologies of communication must not be done in a way that makes them exclusively available to children without enabling adults at the same time. One of the salient characteristics of youth is that the moral sensibilities are underdeveloped and often overshadowed by desires. Cross-generational communication is the mechanism, whether in the structure of the family or in other settings, through which moral values are communicated and lessons imparted. A technology that renders such communication obsolete is not one that advances the society in any way.
This is basically my argument for the introduction of networked communication technologies in such a fashion that the primary users at the outset are adults, with the technology accruing to children as the modes of use become understood and worked into the fabric of society. This would be the normal mode of diffusion in a market economy where used and obsolete models gradually come into the hands of children who can afford little.
The OLPC model declares that such a market economy is too slow, too limited and is ultimately not necessary in this case. Laptops will appear as fruit of government (or supra-governmental) programs arranged at the highest levels. Children will be empowered far beyond the power available to their elders - and they will be intentionally left to their own devices.
I put it to you - is this not a recipe for disaster? Where is moral instruction and cross-generational communication of values in this model? Can we afford to carry out mass experimentation to find the answer empirically?
Remembering my own adolescence, I am grateful for having been caught a few times when I and my friends decided that we could get away with something. Experiences like that bring the hitherto-abstract moral dimension into clear focus and the lessons thus learned are permanent ones. It would not have served anyone's interest had we been guaranteed to get away clean with our larcenies.
I urge technologists not to let someone else worry about these issues. If you do so, you will end up being blamed for the results.