OLPC: BBC article

13 Dec 2007 - 9:49am
6 years ago
10 replies
610 reads
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

Here's a BBC article and associated slashdot discussion.

http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7140443.stm

http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/12/13/0415245&from=rss

There've been a number of articles on the popular as well as tech press,
each with a different slant (usually positive or negative, but rarely
anything in-between). This piece from BBC is very positive. The OLPC
project has become very politically charged. Many of the discussions and
articles dwell not so much on the technology, but the principle involved.

Questions for this group:

1. Has anyone here had a chance to play with the OLPC for any extended
period? What do you think of the tech entirely from an interaction design
perspective?

2. What do you feel about well-meaning scientists and technologists in
'advanced societies' developing artifacts for the 'less privileged members'
of 'third world societies'? One, of course, is the principle behind it.
The second, perhaps more important from a design perspective is: is it
possible for someone immersed in one social milieu to develop meaningful
designs that could have significant social impacts for an entirely different
social milieu? (I know that designers do, but is it a good thing?) On the
one hand, it is nice to have fresh eyes look at a situation. On the other
hand, one needs to be careful while messing around with culture.

Thanks.

Murli

--
murli | www.murli.com | murli at murli.com | +91 99 02 69 69 20

Comments

13 Dec 2007 - 11:15am
Dave Malouf
2005

I like part of the response here which is a mix of Bruce Nussbaum's
and Mark Vanderbeeken's:
http://www.experientia.com/blog/what-happens-when-the-100-laptop-actually-gets-used/

I think it is a great example of designing a bridge instead of
designing 'a way to cross the river or chasm'.

The tool itself is "great" (arguably), but it doesn't necessarily
fit the entire eco-system.

Now the other question you've asked is if the separation of
developed vs. developing industrial peoples is a viable and important
split.

This is where Mark's response is so important. He stresses that one
of the failings is the top-down approach of the project, which is
"designing for" as he puts it, but what is most important when
trying to design outside of your own culture (any axis) is that you
be sure to include those you are designing for, and turn the design
process into "designing with".

At Motorola Enterprise Mobility we have made "designing with" the
core premise behind our design process using field research and field
validation processes of design research at many iterative steps in the
total design process so that we engage those we are designing for, so
instead we are designing with.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://www.ixda.org/discuss?post=23456

13 Dec 2007 - 11:25am
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

> 1. Has anyone here had a chance to play with the OLPC for any extended
> period?

I haven't yet, but one is on the way to me, and I do plan to study/analyze
it as much as possible.

2. What do you feel about well-meaning scientists and technologists in
> 'advanced societies' developing artifacts for the 'less privileged
> members'
> of 'third world societies'?

We should all be so fortunate to use our skills for the greater good. It is
the job of the privileged to raise up the less privileged by whatever means
necessary and available. The problem is that it's so difficult to do the
right thing and make money at the same time that most people have trouble
justifying the time and energy.

>From what I've heard, the XO designers have done some great things, powering
multiple machines from a single source, designing to support proximity-based
collaboration, and so on.

We all know it's more than possible to design something meaningful and
powerful for a culture outside of our own, so I'm not sure I understand your
question. You sound skeptical that these "well-meaning scientists" can do
something that has a real impact.

-r-

13 Dec 2007 - 12:17pm
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

Robert, I'm looking forward to your review of the OLPC. From what I have
read, it has some really neat interface/interaction innovations. Then the
peer networking, low power consumption, and so on.

As regards the skepticism. I have spent 60% of my life in India and 40% in
the US, and lived in both large cities and small towns (in both countries).
I have been involved with startups and had the pleasure of interacting with
some really smart people doing bleeding edge technology research. It was
all very heady and exciting. Time and experience have mellowed me. Lots of
very cool stuff never took off. Some of it was due to foolish business
decisions, and some others due to plain lack of vision. But many of those
cool technologies that I was dazzled by, seem rather silly, in retrospect.

Techies more often than not, mean well, and a significant fraction will
admit to a deep-seated need to make a positive impact on the world by
helping the less-privileged. But that does not always translate into ideas
and actions that 'succeed'. I have encountered too many instances of
intended beneficiaries spurning or misusing the 'wonderful gifts' that
Benevolent Wizards From Distant Lands have designed and built for them.

My limited understanding of the OLPC project is that it was almost entirely
designed and built under the aegis of MIT's Totally Cool Media Lab in
near-perfect conditions and in an environment overloaded with Very Smart
People. Hence my skepticism.

Regards,

murli

13 Dec 2007 - 12:29pm
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

On Thu, 13 Dec 2007 08:15:32, David Malouf <dave at ixda.org> wrote:
>
>
> The tool itself is "great" (arguably), but it doesn't necessarily
> fit the entire eco-system.

Dave, this is exactly the sort of thing I worry about.

be sure to include those you are designing for, and turn the design
> process into "designing with".

Precisely. And I understand this is difficult. It requires an enormous
amount of patience on both sides, and especially, perhaps, on the part of
the Bearer of Gifts [BoG]. Also, the willingness on the part of BoG to
eliminate the one thing she believed was the coolest aspect of her Gift
because the Giftee had no use for it. A lot of the time, a big part of
BoG's ego is wrapped up in her design, because she came up with some really
cool ideas that were incorporated in the design. And when these begin to be
eliminated, her sense of ownership begins to ebb, and along with it, her
desire to pursue the project. This is when she realizes that she was more
interested in Designing And Building Cool Things than in Trying to Address
Somebody's Problem. When the Cool Thing is not used the way she hoped it
would, she feels a sense of betrayal.

This sort of issue comes up not only in design, but in any kind of
collaboration across cultures, such as when musicians from different
cultural paradigms collaborate. Most the time -- in my experience and
opinion -- their collaborative efforts never quite rise above a level of
mediocre mish-mash. There is little that is of lasting value. <I don't
intend to start a flame war with this last extension of my thesis, BTW!>

At Motorola Enterprise Mobility we have made "designing with" the
> core premise behind our design process using field research and field
> validation processes of design research at many iterative steps in the
> total design process so that we engage those we are designing for, so
> instead we are designing with.

That's great. Could you share some stories, some examples, Dave. It's good
to hear war stories, about things that have worked and things that haven't.

Thanks and regards,

murli

14 Dec 2007 - 2:48am
Jeff Axup
2006

Hi Murli,

As it happens, I'm writing a book chapter on this topic at the moment, so I
took interest when I saw this thread. The main point of the chapter will be
to point out that designers (and by extension tech firms) do far too little
thinking about the sociological and political impact of the technologies
they build, and that they should not be afraid to specifically design
technologies to encourage certain positive cultural ideals. The examples I'm
specifically mentioning will be democracy, education, charity, etc.

There are two points I'll try to make succinctly here:
1) Developing nations do need assistance from richer nations
2) That assistance would be better spent on solving underlying problems,
than on short-term band-aids

When I was doing research into the design of products for travelers/tourists
I read papers by authors indicating that local cultures were being "ruined"
by groups of travelers from foreign cultures who were changing the places
they visited. While there is some truth to the point that travelers cause
change, it is also a fact that cultures are always changing by their very
nature. There is no "pure" culture, and the very emergence of culture is due
to millions of people "messing around". Cell phones have been rapidly
introduced into many third world countries. They chose to adopt them because
they are useful, but that surely has been a case of developed nations
changing the culture of undeveloped nations. Should the "bearer of gifts" as
you mention not build or distribute this technology simply because they come
from a technologically advanced society? Is the undeveloped nation worse-off
for the gift?

Dvorak has made a somewhat similar argument to yours (
http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/12/09/1845224&from=rss) where
he claims that he'd prefer to spend his charity money on rice instead of the
OLPC. This seems extremely short-sighted. His rice will feed a small number
of people for a short time, but they still will lack proper education and
opportunity, and hence will require continued support. While I don't think
the OLPC is a silver-bullet, it certainly is a step towards attempting to
improve the education and opportunities of disadvantaged children, which is
the source of the larger problem in the first place.

So the OLPC will probably have it's cultural hiccups, but at least it is a
step in the right direction. I have no idea how much participatory design,
or action research, or contextual design, (or similar methodology) they used
while creating the OLPC, but it is possible that it's not as culturally
imperialistic as you seem to think. I personally think that we have a duty
as leading creators of new technologies with worldwide impact to think more
about instilling values in our products that would make the world better
off. Our technologies could teach people for free, enable free-speech,
enable efficient collaboration, or facilitate secure voting. All of these
technologies that would greatly benefit the world, will probably be created
by highly-educated technologists in developed countries, and will certainly
change the cultures of the societies they are used in.

My main point is that we should design products to specifically to
cause/enable these changes, and that we shouldn't be afraid to take the
first step. If we continue to avoid initiating changes such as this,
undeveloped countries will still be undeveloped for a long time in the
future. When we see an admirable project such as OLPC I think we should do
more to support the experiment and see where it goes.

Thanks for the thoughtful discussion,
Jeff
________________________________________________________________________________
Jeff Axup, Ph.D.
Principal Consultant, Mobile Community Design Consulting, San Diego

Research: Mobile Group Research Methods, Social Networks, Group Usability
E-mail: axup <at> userdesign.com
Blog: http://mobilecommunitydesign.com
Moblog: http://memeaddict.blogspot.com

"Designers mine the raw bits of tomorrow. They shape them for the present
day." - Bruce Sterling
________________________________________________________________________________

On Dec 13, 2007 9:29 AM, Murli Nagasundaram <murliman at gmail.com> wrote:

> On Thu, 13 Dec 2007 08:15:32, David Malouf <dave at ixda.org> wrote:
> >
> >
> > The tool itself is "great" (arguably), but it doesn't necessarily
> > fit the entire eco-system.
>
>
> Dave, this is exactly the sort of thing I worry about.
>
> be sure to include those you are designing for, and turn the design
> > process into "designing with".
>
>
> Precisely. And I understand this is difficult. It requires an enormous
> amount of patience on both sides, and especially, perhaps, on the part of
> the Bearer of Gifts [BoG]. Also, the willingness on the part of BoG to
> eliminate the one thing she believed was the coolest aspect of her Gift
> because the Giftee had no use for it. A lot of the time, a big part of
> BoG's ego is wrapped up in her design, because she came up with some
> really
> cool ideas that were incorporated in the design. And when these begin to
> be
> eliminated, her sense of ownership begins to ebb, and along with it, her
> desire to pursue the project. This is when she realizes that she was more
> interested in Designing And Building Cool Things than in Trying to Address
> Somebody's Problem. When the Cool Thing is not used the way she hoped it
> would, she feels a sense of betrayal.
>
> This sort of issue comes up not only in design, but in any kind of
> collaboration across cultures, such as when musicians from different
> cultural paradigms collaborate. Most the time -- in my experience and
> opinion -- their collaborative efforts never quite rise above a level of
> mediocre mish-mash. There is little that is of lasting value. <I don't
> intend to start a flame war with this last extension of my thesis, BTW!>
>
> At Motorola Enterprise Mobility we have made "designing with" the
> > core premise behind our design process using field research and field
> > validation processes of design research at many iterative steps in the
> > total design process so that we engage those we are designing for, so
> > instead we are designing with.
>
>
> That's great. Could you share some stories, some examples, Dave. It's
> good
> to hear war stories, about things that have worked and things that
> haven't.
>
> Thanks and regards,
>
> murli
> ________________________________________________________________
> *Come to IxDA Interaction08 | Savannah*
> February 8-10, 2008 in Savannah, GA, USA
> Register today: http://interaction08.ixda.org/
>
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14 Dec 2007 - 1:13pm
Jeff Seager
2007

I appreciated Murli's questions, and replied to him yesterday when I intended to respond to the list. I've included a slightly edited version of my reply below. I also appreciate Jeff Axup's response, and his point of view that OLPC may be a step in the right direction. I may agree with Jeff, but not without reservations.

I have not seen a working model of
the laptop, though I applaud the effort to make it affordable and build
it around open source software.

Is anyone here familiar with the
Boxer Rebellion, when China drove away the outsiders who were bringing
too much in the way of foreign technology, including the opium trade?
After a century of intense Western trade in the southern Chinese
seaports, and after repeated and desperate attempts to resolve the
problem in other ways, the wisest of those in the crumbling Chinese
empire understood that they could not accept new technology without
accepting the implications upon which that technology was based. The
strict social and moral fabric of China had been disrupted badly by the
consequences of foreign trade, and communist rule followed a few years
after the death of the last dowager empress, Tzu Hsi (or Cixi, in the
pinyin transliteration). The communists brought China into the machine
age, which may have prepared the Chinese people for the much more rapid
modernization happening today. But at the dawn of the 20th century, it
was necessary for China to shun all modernization and take one big
collective breath. That function was served by the Boxer Rebellion.

Technology
is not culture, but culture is implicit in all technology. Besides
their overt purpose, technologies are languages by which we transmit
our culture. If we buy into this idea that we really are improving the
world by exporting computers or any other technology, we may one day
have to accept the inevitability that all world cultures must be
assimilated into one world culture. Altruism aside, I promise you that
somebody is making money on this deal and I suppose that is the real
motive force at work in the OLPC program.

I like diversity in
theory and in practice, and I believe that cultural diversity is an
advantage to all of us. Some of that advantage may be forever hidden from us until such time that diversity is no more. Perhaps this technology won't eliminate
cultural diversity, but the possibility is something to consider. At worst I
think the desire to disseminate such technology is a well-intentioned
arrogance, and certainly not the first or the last in human history.

Jeff Seager

_________________________________________________________________
i’m is proud to present Cause Effect, a series about real people making a difference.
http://im.live.com/Messenger/IM/MTV/?source=text_Cause_Effect

14 Dec 2007 - 3:30pm
.pauric
2006

Murli: "But that does not always translate into ideas and actions
that 'succeed'."

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to the Minister
for Culture for Brazil, Gilberto Gil, about the OPLC. He described
how a pilot classroom was seeded with the XO and how that injection
of technology in to the community went as far as involving the often
illiterate parents in to their child's education.

He was not able to give a clear answer to the larger issues of
product lifecycle/recycling. But on the whole he was hugely positive
about the initiative based on the findings from the pilot scheme.

Regards -pauric

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Posted from the new ixda.org
http://gamma.ixda.org/discuss?post=23456

15 Dec 2007 - 6:31am
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

I just realized that I had sent this message to Jeff alone rather than the
group, so here it is again. (As an aside,it looks like the list options
have been set so that 'reply' goes to the poster rather than the group. I
don't know whether the listmaster intentionally chose this setting -- I can
see how "reply-to-poster" can prevent the occasional embarrassing situation,
but it's a bit of pain to consciously have to choose reply-to--all each
time.)

---------------------------

Jeff, nice site; also, now that I know you're a musician, I'm prepared to
take back everything I said about music (since I merely appreciate music,
but am not a musician)!

At any rate ... since we're talking culture here ... almost everybody who
speaks of 'modernization' treats the term synonymously with
'Westernization'. I read articles in magazines and newspapers and academic
journals where the writer makes approving comments (without realizing how
patronizing they sound) about how some society or organization looked
'modern' (always meaning 'Western'). Which becomes the One True Way. The
Correct Political Systems, the Correct Social Values, the Correct Form of
Attire, the Correct Food, the Correct Language, the Correct Forms of
Entertainment, etc. and of course, the Correct Designs is equated to
Whatever Is Being Done in The West Right Now. Things that the West no
longer does are naturally, No Longer Correct. There is belief in a steady,
monotonic improvement from last year to this year and on to the next.

This the larger Weltanschauung within which the Designer from MIT operates.
So her belief in the technology's worth for just about any social group out
there is very strong. After all, everyday, every magazine, newspaper,
journal, media source tells her than at least technology-wise, things are
getting better and better. So whatever spouts forth from the center of her
forehead, must be good. This is not unlike a strong religious belief and
fervor. I know friends who are this way, and they are decent and smart
people. Very informed too, but nevertheless.

Consequently, it is often the Design Beneficiary's fault for not properly
accepting and adopting the Gifted Design. Or so is the belief. And even
where the Designer appreciates cultural differences, the hope is that One
Day They Will Modernize ( i.e., Westernize). And then they can gain the
full benefits of The Design.

You're absolutely right that technology is implicit in all culture. Many
technologists react with disbelief if they are told this. Again, that
Weltanschauung thing. There is something called Adaptive Structuration
Theory which explains how people Appropriate technologies according to their
own culture and social structure regardless of how the technology was
intended to be used. The designer sometimes (often?) views this outcome as
a failure of her technology and intent. One strategy she uses to prevent
such adaptive appropriation is to build in RESTRICTIONS in her design so
that it can be used only in one (or a few) specific, anticipated ways.
Where the user culture has no option, they might bend to the dictates of the
technology, but in others, they may end up rejecting it.

Regards,

murli

15 Dec 2007 - 2:35pm
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

On 12/14/07, Jeff Seager <abrojos at hotmail.com> wrote:
>
> I like diversity in
> theory and in practice, and I believe that cultural diversity is an
> advantage to all of us.

I cannot agree with you more. At the same time, the religious fervor and
evangelistic zeal with which ideas are marketed (even in secular contexts --
evangelistic behavior has become embedded in culture) as being the Best/Only
solution to problems -- with free-market economics supporting/promoting
evangelical behavior (because, you see, you Grow, or Die) makes the
sustenance of cultural diversity very hard. The Abiline Paradox

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abilene_paradox

kicks in. (Very likely, it was this phenomenon which led to that disaster
called the Iraq War, but I don't wish to stray into politics here.)

Some of that advantage may be forever hidden from us until such time that
> diversity is no more. Perhaps this technology won't eliminate
> cultural diversity, but the possibility is something to consider. At worst
> I
> think the desire to disseminate such technology is a well-intentioned
> arrogance, and certainly not the first or the last in human history.

Amen to that, Brother Jeff! Well-intentioned arrogance, indeed -- the key
cause of many avoidable man-made calamities.

-m

murli nagasundaram, ph.d. | www.murli.com | murli at murli.com | +91 99 02 69
69 20

18 Dec 2007 - 6:48am
Murli Nagasundaram
2007

Jeff (Axup), thanks for continuing the discussion and opening up many new
sub-threads -- I would like to address every one of those, but clearly
can't. But let me continue the conversation anyway. Bear with me through
the following points which seem unrelated to the issue initially.
1. The idea of 'developing' versus 'developed' nation is a Western, 20th
century one. I don't quite care for politics, or ideologies, left, right,
center, religious, political, sociological, etc. but this much seems clear
to me; ALL nations deemed 'developing' or 'underdeveloped' were those that
used to be European colonies -- more specifically, the colonies of six
Western European nations: UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Netherlands.
Before the 20th century, there was no such dichotomy.

2. 'Underdevelopment' or 'backwardness' was a consequence of these
later-labeled 'underdeveloped' nations having been looted of their natural
wealth by the Colonial Six (C6) and their fragile, carefully evolved over
the centuries social order having been thoroughly destroyed. It is well
established that without the wealth looted from the 'backward' nations,
modern Western society (through the Industrial Revolution) would never have
happened. I also acknowledge that the other factor was the development of
modern Western science which was NOT looted from 'underdeveloped' nations.

3. Modern Western values, behaviors, etc. were then established as the
'Gold Standard' by which ALL societies would be judged and evaluated.

2. The terms 'developing' and 'underdeveloped' -- in my
not-so-humble-opinion were coined as a way of skirting around any guilt and
responsibility associated with the 'underdevelopment' of formerly
non-underdeveloped nations. By using the term 'underdeveloped' one creates
the impression in readers not acquainted or interested in history that such
a situation always existed, and it was left to the Magnanimous and Advanced
Person From the West to come develop your nation -- through the device of
various innocuous sounding institutions such as the World Bank.

BTW, numerous well-intentioned and decent Westerners bought into this (not
knowing history) and have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of the
less-privileged, without realizing that their efforts are probably being
constantly undermined by Western institutions more interested in maintaining
the status quo (of disparities) because it is these disparities that allow
for the maintenance of the high standards of the West that everybody in the
world is asked (implicitly, through media images) to aspire to -- but if
they actually did, then such high standards would become unsustainable in
every part of the world.

Left to themselves, and without external exploitation, all societies will
eventually develop and attain some quasi-steady state -- or at least a state
of 'sustainable growth/development'.

So what does all this have to do with the XO and technological interventions
in 'developing'/'underdeveloped' nations, you might ask. First, one needs
to change one's understanding of 'underdevelopment' -- where it came from,
how it happened, and how it might be avoided in the future. Second, human
society has been around for 2 million years or more, and has survived and
thrived in the most difficult of circumstance. People of all cultures are
resourceful. One must treat them with respect and work WITH them to develop
solutions rather than come fresh off the boat, bearing trinkets, determined
to solve their most pressing problems in a couple of months and walking away
satisfied, without thinking through the consquences, particularly the issue
of sustainability.

Alternatively, when you introduce an intervention, don't go about
proclaiming that it's earth-shattering and will alter society in profound
ways forever and that there's nothing nearly so important as it around --
much more modesty is advised. I think the quality of modesty was lacking in
the OLPC/XO project at least with regard to how it was promoted. On the
other hand, perhaps all marketing demands a lack of modesty -- I quit sales
after 5 years, early in my career, and never went back to that line of work.

I've already said too much, I think!

Regards,

murli

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