OLPC Reality Check

There have been quite a lot of people trying to impose reality checks on those of us who have put all our eggs in the OLPC basket. OLPCNews has been dutifully covering the praise with the criticism, and as Vernor Vinge said in his recent Long Now speech, it is important to remain open to counter-scenarios, and the signs of their arrival. Here's a slice of negativity pie from Eduardo Villanueva Mansilla, in Lima Peru. Originally written on November 16, 2005, but posted on OLPCNews today.

This new tool, in the best possible scenario, will force a poor country's whole educational system into becoming a very different animal, without consideration of the goals looked after and the possibility of reaching them through lesser, although cheaper and locally produced and locally enabling, means. And in the worst possible scenario, this gadget will end up changing nothing, and the poor will get the chance to receive the worst education possible in full color.

Without doubting for a minute the good intentions of those involved in the project, it is impossible not to think about the whole idea as a world-changing attempt just like many that the computer has brought, and a sort of good intentioned but massive ego trip.

The computer has changed the world in so many different ways but for those imagined by the apostles of computing. This could be the final proof required to make the entire computers-will-change-the- world meme finally moot? I certainly hope so.
Mansilla's main contention is that a computer is not a substitute for an education, and the local environments; the schools and towns, will bend to serve the laptop, not to be served by it. Mansilla is guided by a principle that at times makes me question any technological revolution; wait, how are computers going to make things easier, when they have only ever made things more complicated? Isn't the shadow of every machine a mountain of troubleshooting?

But the death of schools at the hands of OLPC? Eh. So what. Like most people who enjoy tv-links, gmail, and blogging, I never got much out of school. To see the classroom replaced with something else, does not fill me with fear. I hope the next evolution in education is a real one, a good one, and inherently linked to the Internet. And this is where people misunderstand the $100 laptop. It's not an education project and it's not a laptop project, it's an Internet project. Once we give everyone the Internet, nothings going to matter. Adapting Vinge, the Internet must swallow all bureaucracies, within the century, if mankind hopes to survive and to thrive. It's kind of like the opposite of privatization.

However, will the Internet alone be enough to educate the children? In a recent video of the OLPC design team on OLPCNews, a top Engineer revealed a secret goal of the project; to indoctrinate a generation in the open source philosophy. Sounds plausible, possible, and a great first step in tearing down all known businesses and governments. But will there be any benchmarks for it? As I write, Chief Executive Bush is getting ready to veto a Democratic budget for Iraq that has benchmarks for measuring success. Similarly, Chief Negroponte has denied the need for benchmarks or even trials of the system with children. At times Negroponte's stubbornness has seemed frightening, but also strangely reassuring.

When will we know if this is working? Within the year. How will we know if this is working? Trust us, it will be so big, no one will be able to miss it.

Portuguese Wikipedia, April 3, 2006 - 248 907 artigos

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