One Fake Steve Jobs Sarcasm Per Academia Laptop Project

   
   
   
   
   

Recently, Fake Steve Jobs had a blistering commentary on One laptop Per Child. He encapsulated the reality of an entire year's worth of OLPC fantasy in 675 concise words of biting satire.

He started with over-the-top sarcasm and pointed out the major flaws of the OLPC leadership in developing the XO-1 laptop:

Frankly I'm shocked to see these guys having problems. I mean, a brand new hardware design, a new screen technology, a customized Linux operating system, a one-off user interface, and the customers are the poorest nations in the world, …and the whole project will be run by woolly academics who have never even worked in a real company let alone run one. What could possibly go wrong?
But FSJ saved his most stinging critique for the press corps that fawned all over Nicholas Negroponte and his band of merry men. The very people the public trusts to do the due diligence on new ideas and new initiatives.

To the reporters and journalists who cover technology, the ones who wrote fanboy odes to Negroponte's grandiose ideas, FSJ asks:

olpc negroponte
Dr. Negroponte's OLPC dream
Ever wonder why nobody, and I mean nobody, ever stopped to think about whether the whole thing could actually work? Or even to question how it was going to work? Did you notice that nobody looked at the business realities?

Did anyone even consider looking at Negroponte's disastrous track record and his utter lack of experience? Did anyone point out what a ridiculous waste of space the entire MIT Media Lab has been? Of course not.

Partly it's because no reporter wanted to pee on Negroponte's shoes and get branded as a meany and a kid-hater and a racist by the noisy freetards who backed this silly project.

FSJ goes on to disparage the average technology reporter as not understanding the business of deploying laptop technology. While I do not completely agree with him, technology reporters being a great sounding board for me to develop many of my OLPC theories and vet my XO stories, I do have to agree with his first point: no one really questioned Negroponte in 2006.

Well no one but me.

Do you know why I started OLPC News? Why I spent untold hours hunting down obscure back data, cultivating sources and co-writers, and spent waaaay too many nights typing away in mad frustration, using the /strike tag till my fingers bled?

Because few reporters, press organs, or voices of record were consistently reality-checking Nicholas Negroponte on his One Laptop Per Child dreams. No one would say that his implementation plan was "The Gods Must Be Crazy solution" or that his maintenance plan was "Humpy Dumpty on a Million Unit Scale" or questioned his miracle results paradigm:

And this may surprise those who think there was a OLPC News conspiracy theory, but I risked much by speaking out. I risked angering and annoying those who would help Geekcorps, a program I loved and directed until recently.

There were many who thought Negroponte's ideas, while over-the-top gave needed press attention and international exposure to ICT for development. Technology practitioners and NGO's who promote technology in the developing world and stood to gain from a financial boost around his idea of a cheap laptop solving the world's education problems.

olpc wayan
Wayan Vota, speaking up!

But unlike the press corps and no matter if my actions harmed Geekcorps, I could not stand idly by and watch Nicholas Negroponte portray teachers as drunkards or say there was no need for after-sale support of computers. I would not let him declare technology, in of itself, would end worldwide poverty. I had to speak up.

So I did, and Fake Steve Jobs, in one short post, just explained the very reason behind my obsession, my drive, my need to celebrate yet correct Nicholas Negroponte's great One Laptop Per Child dream.

The idea is captivating, the technology clock-stopping hot, and yet the lack of a defined implementation strategy or realistic cost estimates threatens to create great waste and disillusionment with technology in the developing world.

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25 Comments

If you think that the education methodology hasn't been thought out, you need to read Alan Kay, who's arguably the father of the OLPC concept and is also Dr. Negroponte's long-term friend and colleague and deeply involved in the project. Alan's work over his entire career has centered on computers in education and guided learning with children.

It's unfair in the extreme to disparage the OLPC project as divorced from reality when there's more than 30 years of solid academic work--going all the way back to Kay's Dynabook concept--that's gone before it. Just because you don't know about it doesn't make it any the less real.

Cerebus,

Negroponte divorced itself from reality the moment is announced a "$100 laptop" that could change education independent of teachers.

In his reality, technology should be priced at just the hardware costs, not to mention a fanciful hardware cost at that, and radical change to existing educational systems didn't need or want the participation of the most powerful and vocal stakeholders involved, teachers.

In my reality, when you talk technology, you talk about Total Cost of Ownership first, then work back into specific hardware costs. And you make damn sure to start the entire conversation around any change with key stakeholders, especially those that would interact with your product or service on a daily basis.

So far, my marriage to reality has outlasted his.

If the start of the OLPC initiative had been the announcement of a '$500 Laptop' would the effect have been the same?

What about $400?

Would a $300 laptop cause a stir?

The $100 price point was chosen very carefully and Nick knew it would garner enthusiasm just on the price alone. It could still be made for under $100 if the minimalistic specs were lowered further to something like the 'Illumination Reader'.

On another point, I have only recently discovered the 'Leap Frog' series of educational books/readers. They are available on the Leap Frog web site for around $24 plus from $8 to $12 per book/cartridge.
From my recent research and reading reviews and talking to parents these seem a far better educational tool than laptops. Certainly for 4 to 8 year olds.

Oh, I do give Negroponte credit for brilliant marketing - "$100 laptop" is very sexy, but its also very misleading. Now OLPC is known by a price point, not a function.

Less sexy but more focused would be "Children's Machine - a education revolution" or something along those lines to value the goal - Constructionist learning - not the price point.

I think the point I was trying to make was whether the OLPC project would work as 'An Education Revolution'.

Who cares about education revolutions? Pricepoint is interesting, solutions are boring.

People have questioned education principals for many years. Look at Paperts theories. His constructionist (constructivism?) methodologies certainly caused a lot of interest but coupled with a '$100 Laptop' it gives it the mainstream momentum that was needed to catapult it into the media.

We now are starting to see the fruits of Nick and Seymours efforts. Low cost educational solutions are finally appearing and more importantly, people are discussing it (and I found out about LeapFrog)

Dare I say Wayan, Your site owes its life to Nick and Seymour. Without OLPC we wouldn't be here discussing this and you'd be planning your next adventure abroad.

Now, Wayan, allow me a little credit for priority - I published my first blog article (Problems with the $100 Laptop) in early November 2005, having circulated a copy at the Hackers Conference on Nov. 11.

Oddly, in all the intervening years no one involved with OLPC has addressed my arguments in print or in person. For a pack of "wooly-headed academics" they certainly haven't applied academic standards to defending their assertions.

That was always one of the most distressing aspects of the project - its bullheaded insistence on making something happen whether or not it was the right thing to do. As an engineer I have always had to deal with this critique of my field, which is often justified, but it was rather alarming to see the issue arise in a project that relied heavily on the academic prestige of MIT.

It also relied upon Alan Kay's prestige and accomplishments, for which I have the highest respect. However, Cerebus' comment notwithtanding, Kay himself has been very reticent about the supposed advantages of the OLPC approach. I believe that no one can point to any particular line and verse of Kay's corpus of work that is to be implemented by OLPC (other than the fact that he invented the laptop).

In fact, I reported on a talk given by Kay in Tunis that November in which he basically refuted the OLPC approach, describing a hierarchy of design and advocating starting at the top (mentoring) rather than at the bottom (hardware). I titled this "Alan Kay Comes Through" and it's on my blog - you can find it easily with a search engine.

Of course, Wayan deserves high praise for his sustained journalism - something I was too lazy or distracted to attempt. The efficacy of his work is attested to by the fact that it is clearly the best venue to air any analysis of the OLPC project.

And while the Fake Steve Jobs article was indeed amusing, I cannot help but wonder whether, absent Wayan's hard work (and possibly my analyses among those of many others) the OLPC juggernaut would have continued unimpeded to its ultimate fate, dsimissing such quibbling as sophomoric.

Well Lee, I will definitely defer to your greater wisdom and first in-depth blog post, but I will have to deny you complete priority credit. From a February 2005 article in the Guardian, my first published OLPC musings:

Wayan Vota, programme manager at Geekcorps, believes Negroponte is on the right track. "Laptops are portable, can be Wi-Fi meshed - each one is a transmitter and receiver of internet - and, with advances in technology, are getting smaller every day."

However, Vota does not believe hardware costs are the show-stopper. "It's the actual connection to the internet node or backbone that is expensive. In the developing world, you have entrenched monopolies that are loath to do much past rake in high margins on substandard bandwidth."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2005/feb/17/olpc.onlinesupplement

"I believe that no one can point to any particular line and verse of Kay's corpus of work that is to be implemented by OLPC (other than the fact that he invented the laptop)."

Ummm, don't you think Squeak and EToys count? Squeak alone has consumed how much of Kay's body of work? Could it be any more obvious?

The OLPC is as close to the Dynabook--a complete, OS-less live object system that supports software introspection and experimentation as well as provides the basis for simulation and modeling (which Kay described as the future of making an argument)--as we've ever gotten or are likely to get in the near future. These two tools have had a number of successes in education over the years. But what's been holding back the use of these tools on a wide scale is *the lack of ubiquitous hardware in the childrens' possession*--exactly what the OLPC project seeks to address.

When Kay advocates starting with mentoring, I believe he's talking about how to work in a computing infrastructure where the hardware exists and is available to the student at all times. Desktop machines locked up in the classroom don't help the student who has a brilliant idea during dinner. He's also talking about mentoring in the sense of older students helping younger students along--a process that teaches *both* mentor and protege. Teachers aren't strictly speaking a necessary part of that process; it's more a "How did you do that," "Here, let me show you" kind of thing. Further, for this kind of learning an internet connection is superfluous--but the mesh will be essential.

The reason for focusing on the bare hardware costs is simply because these are teaching tools. Negroponte, Kay, et.al. are idealistic enough to think that these tools should be equally available to everyone. TCO talk is talk *from* people concerned with making a profit *to* people concerned with ROI--a business focus that, IMHO, doesn't have a place in a non-profit scheme providing and supporting teaching tools.

OK, Wayan, you have me there. I was counting from the opening of OLPC News. I grant you priority.

Cerebus may want to contact Prof. Michael Best at Georgia Tech to see if there is an audio or video record of the session he organized at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, 2005. A review of Kay's talk will, I believe, reveal that Kay used the word "mentoring" to describe the collective process of learning, no matter who it includes.

Kay laid out his hierarchy as a hierarchy of design, and stated explicitly that it had been a mistake during the work at PARC to concentrate on the work from the bottom up (hardware first).

Design (which I claim to know about from practice) can be done at several levels at once, provided adequate communication between the teams working on the different levels and adequate coordination by management. It's a tough problem to organize, and therefore isn't done much, but the results can be spectacular when it happens.

The Dynabook was a conceptual design which provided the framework for Kay to do more research and design. Has OLPC made use of Kay's research to inform their design? I don't think they did, and I don't think that Kay claims that they did. Statements such as Cerebus makes imply that Kay's work was complete and had become part of the environment of the computer industry (or of MIT, or the Media Lab), and that therefore it is spurious to expect even a discussion about its implementation. I don't believe that you would get Kay to agree with that premise, certainly not based upon the talk he delivered in Tunis.

Wayan, get over yourself...You were a nobody before this project. You're like a dirty fly hovering around NN’s head, trying to steal your 15 seconds of fame. Out of all the press covering this project, you’re the dirtiest hack of them all. Pretending to be a fan of the project and then attacking it every chance you get. Meanwhile, you’re cashing checks from Paul Otellini.

You’re never going to be as cool as me. Just another freetard -until you start covering Apple...

Wow, "FSJ", you happen to have the very same IP Address based in Waltham, Massachusetts, as George Snell: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcmetroblogger/1477438290/

What a coincidence!

Sorry to disappoint but not George. Just a colleague of his that appreciates the volunteer work he’s doing on the project…

I really think we can do without the (extremely) rude comments.

In my view, Negroponte was struck by a brilliant idea which, like many such ideas, lacked think-through.

I think that then, as a rich man himself and dealing with the millions-of-dollars world, he believed that if he announced this as a bells-and-whistles project, and got a few like-minded rich organisations into the mix, any problems which arose --- and I doubt that he was stupid enough to think that there wouldn't be any --- could be solved by chucking money at it.

I don't in fact think this was daft on his part. There isn't all that much which appeared, at the start, to need solving. He had a nice new screen, and the rest was pretty standard PC stuff, right?

I think that if he had stuck to his guns, pushed a million bucks at it, got it built and working and was then able to say "here it is, the $xx Laptop", the project wouldn't have got mired down the way it is.

But he then made what I think was a series of errors:-

The first was to drop out of the target market he originally proposed --- the really poor kids with neithe schools nor, notably, any "infrastructure" . . . It's the bloody "infrastructure" --- technical and political --- which is throttling the project, right?

So the next error he made was to get into bed with his good friends from Microsoft, who know all there is to know about marketing and infrastructure, So what we have now is a market ---- meaning, "a way of making money", rather than the single greatest charitable idea for a couple of centuries ---- of which, with instant recognition, everyone else in the digital world sees they can take a piece.

This 'I have put a little slot into the side so that we can run Windows' was not, immediately and overtly, a daft idea either. I mean, MS runs powerful charities, has like half the money in the world, it must have looked on the surface like a sound move.

It's just that the moment I personally saw this little piece of information on the InterNet, I got a sudden "oh-oh" feeling. A feeling that we would all end up exactly where we have done, with a dozen people trying to cut themselves a small slice of an enormous new market.

Which is fine, except that (excuse me) it's boring, except for corporate and marketing persons, for whom it must on the contrary be fascinating.

------

But this doesn't mean that the original idea was stupid. It just means that rich and powerful people can make mistakes in execution just like everyone else. (Which, actually, I find vaguely reassuring in some ways.)

It wasn't. a daft idea to begin with, though.

AND IT STILL ISN'T.

Cheers,

Martin

Martin,

I agree, the idea isn't daft. i still embrace the overall idea that people, communities, countries can be empowered through information and communication technologies faster, better, and cheaper than other means.

The concept of a low-cost, highly adapted computer as one means of that ICT empowerment is definitely an idea I embrace. That such technology in education can be transformative, even revolutionary, I could agree to.

But that it would happen in Negroponte's way, no matter the millions thrown at it, no matter if MSFT was involved or not (I happen to think their influence on the current outcome vs. its original trajectory, was minimal), was a insult to informed intelligence from the start.

George,

You're not proving to be very swift. As Fake Fake Steve Jobs you are still using IP addresses that you've used to comment as a representative of Race Point Group: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dcmetroblogger/1479531666/

Now don't make me go all Troy on you, and ban you for faking persona's and being nasty like he was. We can all get passionate about OLPC and yet stay professional.

Wayan,

George and I work within the same building. Hence, I'm guessing that's why you're tracking the same IP address. Not sure why you are tracking IP addresses; as it is a little creepy. I'm now at home so you should be tracking me to Cambridge.

I have witnessed the work that George has done on this project as a volunteer and he would never be unprofessional.

From afar I've also built a love for this project and the dream of "one laptop for every child." It was I, that thought you could take a little jab from an impersonation of a fake persona. It was meant to be in good fun - as Dan Lyons would say himself. I apologize if you found it as rude. When anyone gets on Dan for ribbing Nicholas as NN or Microsoft followers as freetards - It's only in good fun.

I also feel very passionately about this project and may have got caught up in the moment. I just don't understand why you would essentially repost the ramblings of Lyons (hiding behind a satirical character). I mean we all know there is no "Real Fake Steve Jobs."

When you critique the news that comes out of OLPC, I find you very insightful; but when you insert yourself into the OLPC story as you've done in this post - you come across as "Me, Me, Me."

It's a non-profit project and I'm not sure that you come across as the independent source of "News" when you do this.

I hope to continue a civil debate on this.

Kyle

Kyle,

I give you great credit for faking Fake Steve Jobs so well, had the real Fake Steve Jobs and I not traded multiple emails around his post last week, I might have not looked at IP Addresses, which most blogs track as an anti-spam measure, and made the connection.

What isn't credible is a PR firm employee pretending to be someone else to slam or promote a product that they have a professional association with. Worse, by doing it from the office, you made it appear that the actual OLPC spokesperson was doing the fake-name slamming - George Snell as a John Mackey.

I am glad it wasn't George, I would hope OLPC has professionals representing it. And as a nonprofit professional myself, I feel that NGO's should be held to the same professional standard as any other company.

That means the ability to take constructive criticism, as well as a good ribbing, and in the case of Fake Steve Jobs, biting satire that makes a point while making me laugh.

So again, your skills at faking other's comments is remarkable, but please don't be a fake. Be yourself. Be civil. And if you dare, be a guest writer on OLPC News. The offer is always open to anyone who feels passionate about One Laptop Per Child and stimulates debate.

"I don't in fact think this was daft on his part. There isn't all that much which appeared, at the start, to need solving. He had a nice new screen, and the rest was pretty standard PC stuff, right?"

Please compare Negroponte's idea to the idea of eradicating Poliomyelitus. There was an idea of vaccinating all children against Polio and eradicate the disease. The amount of money involved was big, but maneageable. The goal was laudable and worthwhile.

It struggles, they are still trying but are far from the goal. For many of the reasons the OLPC struggles. there are more difficulties getting the children vaccinated, there are (small) outbreaks from backmutated vaccins, there is paranoid superstition and conspiracy tehoriies against "western" vaccinations (eg, in North Nigeria) etc. Most of these looked perfectly solvable at the start, but proved much more resilient than expected.

The moral of the story is that poverty is a really hard problem on EVERY level. No solution will be simple and most problems are difficult to anticipate. In the end you have to start somewhere and see how far you can go.

The OLPC is one such idea. It will also not be the first project killed by the very people that made it great to begin with.

Note that there are very vocal (rich) people who are against ANY project to help to the poor, on principle. I find them mostly easy to spot. The objections are always shifting, but the solution is always the same: Give Up.

Winter

Hi Wayan:
Kyle does indeed work with me on OLPC and we've discussed his "joke" post this morning. I apologize for any offense you may have taken for his post. We have a strict policy at Racepoint Group to identify who we are and who we represent when posting on blogs. I have reiterated this policy to Kyle.

But I'd also caution you to jump to conclusions about who is posting based on an IP address. We have almost 100 employees at Racepoint Group sharing the same IP address.

You can always contact me directly with any questions, comments or concerns at [email protected] Thanks again for following the OLPC project with such passion.
Best,
George

George,

Thanks for the follow-up and as you know, I always welcome commentary from Race Point staff. Its passionate feedback that makes OLPC News vibrant, lively, and an education for everyone involved.

Wayan,

I love your work, but you're killing me here:

"[N]o one really questioned Negroponte in 2006."

I guess because my Slate piece from 2005 is just a little over a month short, it doesn't count? :)

Ah, you got me Cyrus. I should have said:

"no one clean-shaven questioned Negroponte in 2006. Well no one but me."

And what am I, chopped liver?

I guess the term not-for-profit has not completely caught on.
General Motors is a non-profit.

While the American press was more favorable to the project than not (but see what was written after Gate's comments at the UMPC launch and also what followed the orginal Classmate/EduWise announcement), there were a ton of critical articles in Brazil in 2005 and 2006. This year all the local coverage has been very positive.

Many early complaints here were about not creating the machine nor manufacturing it locally. The government made a reasonable effort to look at native projects (not mine - I still don't have a prototype to show) but they were not very convencing.

About Alan Kay, Sugar and XO have been improved from listening to him but, unfortunately, not as much as they could have been. Alan's hopes for a reimplementation of eToys in Python, for example, have been in vain so far.

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