My name is Lars Bo Andersen and I have spent the last five years studying OLPC and, in particular, one small project at a school in Nigeria (which I call Akila's school after one of the students).
There is, amongst others, a chapter describing the theories and debates around OLPC, there is one investigating how the initiative rose to fame and there are several more specific investigations of the laptops at Akila's school (e.g. chapters 5 and 6).
In this post I would like to share some general thoughts with the OLPC News community and, if possible, have them debated in the comments.
Let me give away my position from the start: I was/am highly enthusiastic about the opportunities of new technology for learning (I have benefited from these my whole life). But studying OLPC and the project at Akila's school has convinced me that we need to fundamentally re-conceptualise what it is we do when bringing laptops, tablets, internet, etc. into impoverished settings.
What OLPC projects do, I argue, is not to bring in laptops, but to reconfigure already existing networks of relations between children, teachers, hardware, software, pedagogy, parents, poverty and so forth.
But my argument is not only that we should re-conceptualise what we do, but also what we bring. What is it, really, that we are working so hard to deploy/implement/sustain?
I argue that XO laptops (or tablets) too are networks of relations. Not objects, not tools, but networks of relations.
The various XOs are, in the strongest (ontological) meaning of the word, sitting on each their respective network within which several actors are busy deploying each their own variant of the XO. I have described these many criss-cross deployments as a development encounter.
At Akila's school, for instance, the different deployments running through the network make the XOs suffer from a multiple laptop disorder. The laptops have several different identities and logics, some of which are even mutually exclusive and in friction.
The point is that not only is Akila's laptop different from itself, it is also different from Negroponte's laptop, or the ones in Peru and Uruguay.
What laptops are and what they can do is the outcome of dispersed negotiation (in the network).
In fact, we readers of OLPC News are part of this negotiation. When I claim that laptops are networks, some of you may write (or, at least, think to yourself): "nonsense, that is not what they are; they are tools with which to learn; they are X, no, wait, they are X and Y, but, in either case, they are not networks".
This is not just your opinion, or mine, this is in very specific ways something we are working to realise in praxis.
In this outlook, the rational, modern world of stable identities (XO as formally described) causing well known effects (trojan horses, mega change, literacy, empowerment, digital inclusion, learning French in Paris...) has turned trickster.
The purpose, impact and logic of laptops are evasive and emergent - not beyond control and not within control.
Even Negroponte, when claiming that laptops (or tablets) are for helicopter deployments, must accept that it is not really for him to decide - he is not alone in the network. Or, that is, he may make helicopter deployments in Ethiopia, but not at Akila's school, in Uruguay and elsewhere.
The world is acting back at Negroponte just like the Nigerian teachers are acting back at the Sugar philosophy.
We (as in all of us working with OLPC projects around the world) invest ourselves in the network, we add to the laptop, and so too does children, parents, NGOs, Quanta, solar panels, satellites and everyone else.
Quanta adds assembly lines, some of you write activities, and I add a story about Akila to supplement Negropontes stories from Cambodia, Ethiopia and elsewhere.
By the way: how can satellites add to laptops? Well, the satellite-isp-company-network adds a rather substantial invoice to Akila's laptop each month in order for the laptop to bridge the digital divide.
So, what does this mean? That everything is relative and unpredictable?
No, but it is a call to attention that 'XO' is simply the name we give large heterogeneous ensembles (Sugar+Quanta+AMD+Plastic+Scratch+Akila+Teacher+Papert+Batteries....) in which the specific components differ from deployment to deployment.
I have tried to re-think (by way of many others) what it is that we do and what it is that we bring.
A good question to the community, besides from general comments, is, then, what do you think we do and what, really, are we bringing?