So, a lot of people have been asking me this lately in the One Laptop Per Child context: "What keeps you going?" They ask me, because I am Dr. Sameer Verma, Ph.D., organizer of SF-OLPC.
Of course, this question has been asked by different people with different intentions. Some are genuinely surprised that I have so much free time, while others suspect a hidden treasure.
So, I decided to shoot off this e-mail to the lists for two reasons. One, I am not sure which list is appropriate, and two, I think many of us do question the merits of this project from time to time, and I want to share my sentiments with you all. Feel free to delete if you don't like it.
How I find the time
During my visit to India a long time friend asked me this question. "What keeps you going with a project like this?" He wanted to know where I got all this free time from. Well, the assumption is a bit off.
A lot of the time I put into the project aligns with my profession as well. Sustainable IT, network infrastructure, software development, collaboration, etc. are all parts of my research stream. so is FOSS development, adoption and use.
So, finding time isn't that much of a stretch. Its a two way street. I am able to bring these things into my classroom and into my research. Of course, without support from my family, this would be extremely difficult. For instance, when I am off, gallivanting in Jamaica and working on a pilot there, my wife has to cover for me and she does so with a lot of effort, but we think its all for a good cause. We hope some of this will make a difference in the lives of communities there.
What is my motivation
Others, such as some of my students, have asked me the same question but with a little "wink wink" glint in their eye. They think there is something ulterior or somehow I am getting paid or I am bucking the system (wonder where they got that idea from). Getting across the volunteer ethic is very hard. Either you get it or you don't.
Of course, volunteer-ism is driven by many things including ego, fame, and little green laptops. It is also driven by a desire to make a difference in the system. Sometimes the system doesn't want that change, but we still push for it. But that's another e-mail.
Then there are some of us who have an addictive desire to take things apart. You know who I'm taking about! Take apart and put back together things that most people would leave untouched. People who subscribe to Make magazine or own a soldering iron would know. Its a strange itch, but its an ethic that brings people together. Its hard to explain these things to people who've never opened a radio, or a watch.
On the other hand, if you are the "Maker" type, you would instantly know. We were surprised at the courage of attendees at the December OLPC-SF meeting. They took their XOs apart and put them back together. Well, most of us did. Only Robert needed some help from a 7 year old attendee :-) (Sorry Robert. Couldn't resist!)
My real inspiration: deployments
I think its a lot of these reasons that keep us all together in this project and its offshoots, but one experience has captured my enthusiasm unlike any other. This was a trip to Khairat, India's first OLPC pilot site. I had seen pictures, and even videos and news clips of Khairat. But driving out there with the folks from Reliance (the pilot partner) was a turning point.
Seeing five year olds handling their XOs with ease was just amazing. Seeing them document their lives and showing me photos via the journal suddenly made a lot of sense. All discussions of a lack of a file manager were moot at that point. Rahul and Manisha sure don't need a file manager to show me what they did! They could care less about /etc or /usr/local/ I wish I could get the journal on my Ubuntu Thinkpad laptop.
They had documented a tight rope walker who visited Khairat. They had documented Gandhi's birthday (2nd Oct) and showed me the photos. They didn't care that Sugar was slow. After all, for them to know that Sugar is slow, they would have to know something faster! They love their XOs and it shows.
Then there is Mr. Surve, the teacher at Khairat. With very little training, this man gets his gang going. He's built solar system animations in e-toys and precipitation cycle in Paint. He has made his own lesson plans in Write and is constantly yelling in Marathi (local language) "Go to the neighborhood. Join the mesh". Who woulda thunk it? In the middle-of-nowhere-Khairat, a teacher is yelling a his kids to join the mesh. A draft version of 802.11s has made it that far!
Of course Rahul and Manisha don't know that. And they don't need to, because we have a team of do-gooders who take care of all that. And that's where my respect and unconditional support for this group comes from. I've met very few of you in person. But, my sentiments for this group as a whole are always equated with the joy that is now in the lives of kids like Rahul and Manisha.
Only OLPC is focused on those in need
OLPC brings a level of hope that is rare in projects. Netbooks, while an offshoot of what OLPC has done, still fail to address key issues. They still have embedded Wi-Fi antennas with poor range, they still are not sunlight readable and I don't think any of these are fanless (no moving parts).
All these in my view are failures, and I think these companies have failed to address these items because their constraints and goals are very different. They are not thinking of Rahul and Manisha in Khairat, or Garima in Bhagmalpur, who does not have a classroom and has to sit under a tree outdoors. They are very much thinking of Lawrence and Raj (two of my students) in San Francisco, who will sit inside a well light room, next to a power outlet.
So, yes netbooks are cheap and many of us flock to it, but its still no answer to the original problem. Nothing revolutionary there. Its just "Honey, I shrunk the laptop".
In Bhagmalpur, my maternal village, I saw what passes for education. Its more along the lines of going through the motions of going to school.
The children are sent there so that they don't pester the folks at home. They also go to school because the government provides a free meal. But, as far as learning is concerned, there is none. At least none that happens in class.
The school has rooms too small to house children, so they sit outside. Many don't have books, or have books that are torn and need TLC. The teacher can barely corral 100 students per class, let alone teach from a book or the board. They are more like shepherds than teachers.
The children know this well, and have resigned to it as a way of life. Will XOs make a difference in their lives? The enthusiast in me says "Yes!" The researcher in me says "If the null hypothesis is 'no, it won't', then there is only one way to find out."
Times are difficult. We are facing severe cuts in our own system here at SF State and we have to start thinking creatively. In light of a weak budget, some are starting to look to FOSS for cheap software - something good is coming off of this downturn :-)
If the OLPC project were to shut down, I think some of us will still live in denial and hang on to our XOs like a worn blanket, but let's hope that day does not come. Please keep plugging away. Karma is a terrific attribute. I hope you all earn lots of it.
OLPC-SF will meet on Jan 17, 2009 and celebrate our first anniversary.