(This commentary is occasioned by the announcement from the OLPC project April 28 that Microsoft Windows will be put on the XO Laptop, that the price will rise to $175 and that the minimum order quantity will be reduced. See OLPC News for further details and history. See here for my initial post on OLPC.)
So, let's say you've got a dysfunctional society and things have to change but nothing is forthcoming from the top. A charismatic leader turns up and convinces a lot of people to help him build a new order with or without the permission of the rulers. Enough people join in and coordinate their work so that things can be done the way everyone agrees they ought to be done and not how they are done.
Eventually this comes to a point of confrontation with the rulers and, surprisingly, they clear out, leaving nothing behind. Your group fills this power vacuum and everything seems to be going great. Your charismatic leader has good political connections with the outside world, and you trust him to set things up right. You've had a peaceful revolution!
Then, with no warning, an invading army appears and begins a march on the capital city.
It seems that the departed rulers had other, better political connections than those of your leader, who backpedals and starts making secret deals with the invading forces. "Compromise is the only way to save our new society," goes the explanation, "otherwise we'd be crushed". Gradually, the compromises give back everything the revolution has gained, except that the new leader remains in power.
This is approximately where the OLPC revolution now stands, when translated into a fable. And this fable has constantly been repeated in human history. Did anyone really believe that Microsoft would confine its opposition activity to disparaging commentary? Any regional manager of theirs who did not work frantically behind the scenes to apply pressure on target governments to block acceptance of OLPC as originally designed would have found himself out of a job.
Political analysis always comes down to an analysis of constituencies - those groupings whose consent must be secured before a plan can be acted upon. OLPC had at least two constituencies - the geek community that has been remarkably forthcoming with effort and resources to attain the desired goal, and the higher circles of governments and international financial institutions. OLPC was first proposed at the World Economic Summit at Davos, a venue where geeks are very little in evidence.
What Nick Negroponte ignored was the potential constituency that could have provided a workable counterbalance to Microsoft's economic power. That would be the teachers, and ultimately the parents, of the children in whose name the work is being done. The opposition I have expressed was based on Nick's rejection of this constituency, with OLPC's embrace of Constructivism and its disparagement of any direct involvement by teachers.
The software work (and the hardware work, certainly as manifested in the display) that has been done on the OLPC laptop has been excellent - a necessary break from the bloatware-driven designs of the past (and thus a threat to Microsoft's way of organizing the world). If OLPC is to drift off to find its berth in the Microsoft world, we need to make sure that this work does not go with it to the exclusion of other possibilities.
Organizations in target countries, such as OLPC Nepal, who are doing the necessary curriculum development work in spite of Constructivist ideology, should be supported however possible in building upon the software base. Their work will yield fruit among the constituency of educators and parents, and it is they who will be responsible for the success of the idea of making inexpensive computers widely available for education and community economic development.
What is the status of the code base currently developed for OLPC? Is it accessible and freely available to be used by others? Someone closer to the project should make sure that this code base cannot be appropriated and kept from use by others.
If the XO machine becomes unavailable to those who develop external software for it, then a replacement platform should be designed. This isn't the hard part - the foundation of the project will be the software, especially the application software. I would recommend that a substitute platform for software development be specified and made available.
A realization that led me into what became the personal computer area was that politics is exercised by control of information channels. Fortunately, there is OLPC News to provide an alternative to the official channels of OLPC, and there need to be more, especially serving the needs of software developers who pursue the OLPC vision.
The historical fable we have laid out above has several possible endings. Throughout most of human history the revolution was crushed and survived only in literature and folk culture. In recent times, however, due to advances in the democratization of technologies (primarily weaponry and communications), people at the lower levels of society have been able to resist the counter-revolution and build a society that can defend itself.
The only weaponry in our version of the fable is the software technology we all use. Life and death are not at issue, thankfully, but what is at issue is our understanding of who we are and what we can make happen.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses was the charismatic leader who held the Israelites together for forty years as they wandered in search of the Promised Land. When the time was at hand to enter this land, Moses was prevented from entering with his people. Biblical scholarship tends to agree that this was not incidental, but constitutes a warning against turning over the community's judgment to charismatic leaders - beyond a point.
Perhaps this is the point at which the community of developers who follow the vision of OLPC need to begin the process of breaking from the direction of the charismatic leader, and begin to realize their own potential to lead in necessary areas. We have the technology to do so.