The science and technology blogs were alight with adulation last week with the news that with no assistance, illiterate Ethiopian children had learned to use and even “hack” computers given to them. Speaking at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference, the founder of the One Laptop Per Child initiative revealed an experiment in which Motorola Xoom tablets had been given to young children in two remote villages to see what they would do with them, and found that within months the children had learned to access a variety of pre-loaded material and even change the locked settings.
Like others, I was skeptical, not because it seemed too good to be true, but because it so cravenly played into the fantasy of technology as an instant catalyst of civilisation. There are any number of reasons that I’m uncomfortable with this story. The first is that OLPC saw fit to run an experiment on these villagers, as if they were simply a backdrop for a techno-utopian vision to be projected onto. It’s deeply reminiscent of a sci-fi novel by Charles Stross in which the singularity on a backwater planet begins when mobile phones clatter from the skies, the first in a cornucopia of gifts to a pre-electronic race by a passing caravan of bored aliens. I worry that this experiment gives succour our worst hero fantasies of charity and development – that there is no need to learn about a community, to engage in discourse, to slowly learn and understand the challenges it faces and the solutions it wants. Rather, this latest OLPC effort promotes a solution that seems designed to exist outside of any wider-scale organisation of education services. That alone should worry us. And I fear that it also supports a facile view of poverty in that what separates the third world from us is not economic stability, peace, physical and electronic infrastructure, access to food, medicine and clean drinking water, but a lack of gadgets.
To me, dropping laptops from the sky as a solution to a lack of education is akin to dropping food from the sky to resolve hunger. Superficially, it appears to work, enough even to convince you that it’s a solution, but it’s at best a temporary remediation specifically because it does nothing to address the conditions that brought about famine in the first place. Is it lack of teachers that holds children back? Or lack of basic healthcare? The very idea that these computers could take the place of a teacher is I think absurd and inane. Here in the UK we still haven’t solved the problem of providing affordable and thorough education to our children to our satisfaction, and we have more than enough computers to go around. Does anyone think that we could replace teachers in the UK with iPads? And to those who might say – well, something is better than nothing, ask yourself: why should these villages accept a lower standard of education? Why should they be palmed off with tablets instead of teachers?
An acquaintance pointed out to me a few days ago that the most iconic image of Sandy’s destruction was not flattened homes or flooded neighbourhoods, as so often in the past, but the little clusters of mobile phones gathered around multi-way power sockets. How it presented the narrative that re-establishing connectivity, not food or shelter, was the primary concern of those hit. Make no mistake – connectivity is good. More people have access to a mobile phone in sub-Saharan Africa than to clean drinking water, and that’s made a huge and positive impact on the continent. But I don’t think it means that we, like Stross’s aliens, should expect a revolution in development by sending phones clattering into the forest canopies and the rice paddies of the third world.