Morgan Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. The questions that drive her current projects concern the ways in which young people construct their identities with computers, and how computers (and the technology design practices that produced them) shape the identities they construct. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies as Associate Director of Research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.
Morgan Ames recently presented insights from her book, “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child” at the CITRIS Research Exchange.
In your book “The Charisma Machine” you explore the grand ambitions of the One Laptop Per Child program that sought to strengthen educational opportunities in the Global South. What were the primary barriers affecting the program’s success?
In my book, I focus especially on the ideological barriers, or the limitations of the worldview shared by those who joined One Laptop per Child, as well as many all across the tech world and beyond, that contributed to the project’s popularity — its charisma — in its heyday. It’s easy with our 2021 vision to look at the kinds of promises OLPC made — to inspire children across the Global South to take charge of their own learning by using this underpowered laptop that was geared very much toward learning to program — with some amount of derision. But this worldview certainly persists and continues to inspire similarly doomed projects today.
This worldview included particular beliefs about childhood that are deeply ingrained in American culture, and much of European culture too — beliefs many take for granted, even though they are relatively new. While I go into this in a lot more detail in the book, I’ll just say here that this justified a belief in kids as agents of cultural change, and in particular, leaned on the trope of what I call the ‘technically precocious boy’ in how they described this change taking place. Many OLPC contributors also openly discussed how memories of their own childhoods inspired them — but curiously absent from many of these discussions was any sense of the support structure that helped them learn about computers. It was just about them and the machine, not about who got it for them, where they went with questions, and so on. I also write about how they believed that they and their peers in the MIT Media Lab, the free and open-source software community, and other ‘hacker’ communities contributing to OLPC had been able to hold onto their childhood curiosity in a way other adults supposedly hadn’t, which made them especially well-suited to designing this machine. It’s a form of the “smartest people in the room” belief that I’ve critiqued elsewhere.
This worldview also included the belief that just getting these laptops into the hands of kids was the most important thing, and after that the kids themselves would become the agents of change in their communities, in spite of all of the infrastructural and institutional disparities that in many cases reflect centuries of colonialism and exploitation. Of course, this didn’t work — the laptops needed a lot of infrastructure, as well as ongoing maintenance and social support, to really function at all. Even then, I found that the majority of kids just didn’t like them, and most of the rest used it as a media machine, even though it was designed very poorly for that kind of use. The few who had the social support to learn a bit about programming still faced massive structural barriers in taking that interest anywhere, much less creating the social transformation that OLPC envisioned. In my classes, I teach students about technological determinism or the belief that technology itself can basically force social change, no matter what else is happening around it. Even though there is ample evidence that technological determinism is flat out wrong, OLPC shows how forms of it are still very compelling to many in the technology world and beyond.
This worldview, this ideology, set up a whole host of other barriers. Instead of working with communities directly, OLPC basically told them what they needed was this laptop, and that other reform efforts were, as Walter Bender put it, only “treading water” whereas OLPC would be truly transformational. They designed it based on their nostalgic and highly individual memories rather than the real lived experiences of contemporary children. They didn’t set up any kind of maintenance or support network, because these laptops were supposed to be so rugged they almost never broke and kids were supposed to be able to — and to want to — repair the few breakages that did happen. And the list goes on. But I trace all of this back to that worldview, which supports what I call the charisma of the project and its laptop.
You document your months-long study of the One Laptop per Child program in Paraguay. What effects did the One Laptop Per Child program have on children and their education?
Paraguay was an interesting case study because in 2010, when I was doing the first round of my fieldwork, it was held up across the broader OLPC community as a huge success story. Of the just under three million OLPC ‘XO’ laptops made worldwide, only 10,000 were delivered to Paraguay (while a million went to Peru and another million to Uruguay, both of which I also visited) — yet Paraguay had this outsized role in early stories justifying OLPC’s vision.
Well, I’ll start by saying that Paraguay Educa, the NGO in charge of the OLPC rollout in Paraguay’s state of Cordillera, never followed OLPC’s “just hand out laptops and walk away” strategy. They invested heavily in infrastructural upgrades to allow kids to charge the laptops and get on the internet, and also in ongoing technical and social support for kids as well as their teachers, to encourage them all to use the software on the machines that were more geared towards OLPC’s goals, including Scratch, Squeak eToys, and Turtle Art. This kind of ongoing support did make a difference, but it was expensive, and ultimately Paraguay Educa wasn’t able to sustain it because funding for NGOs and development projects is much more geared toward ‘innovation’ than maintenance.
Even with this support, though, teachers in Paraguay found these machines incredibly frustrating to use in the classroom, and most just gave up. Imagine trying to design a lesson using laptops when nearly all of your students had either forgotten to bring them, or forgotten to charge them, or uninstalled the software you wanted to use — and your classroom only has one plug, installed by Paraguay Educa, for charging laptops and one rather slow Internet connection shared by everybody in the whole school. Even in well-resourced educational environments with well-designed one-to-one programs, laptops can be difficult to teach with (as I think we’ve all seen in this past year with the COVID-19 pandemic), and this was not a well-resourced educational environment — Paraguay has been under-investing in its educational infrastructure for many decades. So the few teachers who persevered had to design lessons that kids could do either on a laptop or in their notebooks, and that doesn’t lend itself to OLPC’s mission of fostering computational thinking.
Then again, classroom use wasn’t really OLPC’s goal in the first place. OLPC’s leaders had made it clear that kids would teach themselves and each other to use these machines, and would quickly leapfrog past the adults in their lives. But this just didn’t happen, and I would argue it basically never happens anywhere — people who claim to have done this as kids or have seen this in others are ignoring the social, institutional, and infrastructural support that helped them along the way.
The One Laptop per Child Program is a cautionary tale of unfettered optimism of the role technology can play in development. How can researchers and development practitioners avoid falling into the “charisma trap” of technology?
When I wrote The Charisma Machine, I did it very much with technologists, researchers, and development practitioners in mind — and with a deep sympathy for the passion so many in these areas feel for wanting to make the world a better place. I’ve been there too: it was one of the main reasons I majored in computer science as an undergraduate, though a number of experiences I had along the way gradually disillusioned me and ultimately motivated me to go to graduate school to further study why the technology world believes what it believes.
If the story I’ve told here seems bleak — and in many ways the trajectory of OLPC is rather bleak — I want to balance it by saying that the charisma I describe really is a potent social force. It brings people together to work against what might otherwise feel like insurmountable odds, it gives them a sense of conviction that they’re really making a difference, and more. But it also seems to restrict their ability to understand the limitations of the project they’re working on, and it similarly restricts their ability to recognize the worldview — the ideology — that contributes to the project’s charisma.
If there’s one goal I have for this project and this book, it’s that some will read it, recognize themselves in it, and maybe learn something about the worldview that drives them. Maybe they will start to recognize echoes of OLPC’s promises in other projects; maybe they will even start to see some of the broader patterns in the technology, education, and development worlds that reflect the assumptions of this worldview, this ideological frame. It’s in some ways a big ‘ask,’ though one that I very much orient not only my research and writing but also my teaching toward. And in that possibility, I feel like there is hope to avoid falling into the ‘charisma trap’ of technology.
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