technology from back to front

OLPC v. the Intel Classmate in Nigeria

Tony directed me to this documentary (BBC iPlayer, so probably only valid in the UK and for a few days) about the One-Laptop-Per-Child pilot scheme in Nigeria. It also covers an ostensibly similar pilot run by Intel with its Classmate PC. Intel recently pulled out of supporting OLPC, saying among other things that competition was the best way to achieve both projects’ goals.

Although the documentary only touches the surface, two things are clear: the kids involved love having the computers (both varieties), but otherwise these pilots have little in common. The Intel folk have splashed money about, and happily admit that they have not entirely charitable goals — of course they are trying to open up a market. On the other hand, one local educator involved in the OLPC pilot insisted that the laptops were only a detail of the programme: the goal was to empower the kids to improve their lot.

The difference that most struck me was embodied in the laptops themselves. The Classmates are, and look like, small notebooks with some token robustification. They cost about $400 and run Windows XP. At the end of the school day, they are taken from the children.

The XOs are designed for being carried around by kids. Not only do they have dust- and shock-proofing, but they are also designed to be kid-proof when opened up. They cost $200 and run an operating system made specifically for the OLPC programme, with wireless mesh networking. The kids can take them home after school.

Aside from giving better access to educational materials, what are these laptops going to teach the children? The Classmate will teach them to use Windows XP. The XO will teach them to engage with technology, to tinker and hack and share discoveries. One child was teaching his father how to use the XO in the evenings. Another kid who had previously been struggling at school had become the class XO expert, helping the others fix hardware problems.

The difference, then, is between manufacturing dependency and teaching self-sufficiency. Intel are wrong to say that competition will help achieve both goals, because their goal is opposed to OLPC’s goal; but competition from Intel could easily kill OLPC, and it would be a huge opportunity wasted.

  1. The Classmate seems purpose-built to reinforce social hierarchies, whereas the OLPC seems more neutral regarding the environment it operates within. In a way, it’s as if the OLPC XO is mechanism without policy, whereas the Classmate has a particular view of social relations in mind.


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