Will Shipley Meets Negroponte's Ego


Monsters Inc - Monstera deliciosa
I've read, digested and regurgitated an inordinate amount of stuff written about the One Laptop per Child initiative, but a recent post by Wil Shipley, founder and CEO of Delicious Monster, in which he recounts meeting Nicholas Negroponte on a short hop flight to last year's TED conference, is the first piece I've come across that made me laugh out loud.

In posting his thoughts about, well - a good few things really - Wil recounts a flight he took to this year's TED in Monterey. Upon boarding, he found himself seated next to an older gentleman and having struck up conversation, entered into a great spiel about a software product he was developing. All the while he studiously "dumbed down" so as not to baffle the businessman. In conversation turning towards the gentleman's line of work, Wil gradually senses he's swum out of his depth:

So finally I'm all, "Well, if you're not a businessman, what do you do to get five houses?" And he says, "Well, I'm a professor, actually."

"Really? What do you teach?" He's smiling big now... too big. My spidey-senses are tingling. I'm no poker player, but even I know when I'm about to get trumped. (I might be better at poker if I knew that "trump" is a bridge term.)

"Oh," he says, as noncommittally as possible, as he wants to keep this fish on the line until it's all the way in the boat (now I'm a fish who plays poker?), "I'm in your line of work, actually."

Now, let's just appreciate that phrasing for a second, shall we? "Your line," as in, you know, the field where I, Wil Shipley, am such a star. Computing is my game, he's just visiting... oh, he's good.

"Really?" I'm getting suspicious at this point. This man is enjoying this too much. "Uh, hmm, would I, uh, know your name?"

Smirk. Pause. "Yes."

Sinking feeling. "Oh... so it is?"

He silently reached into his satchel and handed me this business card:

[it reads Nicholas Negroponte - MIT Media Labs]


On a more serious note, Wil goes on to talk about egos, fighting and corporate philosophies, concluding that when it comes to big picture ideas, such as getting a laptop into the hands of every child on the planet, what you are fighting for is something beyond yourself; a "greater good":

There's an interesting side-effect to [...] the fight for good. When you're not doing it for your own ego, you can win just by convincing others to join your side. If you get enough people to fight for you, you can even win without anyone actually knowing it was you.
Wil appears to be arguing that in such circumstances you have more freedom to define what constitutes a successful outcome. With Nicholas Negroponte in mind, he goes on to conclude:
So do you think Nicholas Negroponte will feel like he's lost if his OLPC initiative forces Intel and Microsoft to subsidize PCs for children in every developing nation in the world?

I do not. Oh, sure, I know he's a proud man, and naturally part of him wants the credit for changing the world. And he'll be (validly) pissed that the Classmate is not based open source and that he's not able to prevent Microsoft from basically using this as a chance to infect the rest of the world with its blecherous software...

But deep down in his heart? He's laughing. He wins.

Perhaps Negroponte's ego will be bolstered come what may, but does a world full of ClassMates constitute a win for OLPC?

Measuring OLPC's success or failure purely in terms of laptop distribution seems to ignore a large part of what OLPC is about. Nicholas Negroponte himself, along with Walter Bender and Jim Gettys - all senior OLPC figures - have often stated that theirs is "an education project, not a laptop project". Walter Bender has gone a step further, saying that OLPC is not bound to distribute its own product - OLPC would distribute other laptops if they are as cheap and as effective.

Would these people - this growing community - truly feel they have won anything if their laptop is supplanted by another that shares little in the way of educational philosophy? Would the predominantly open source developers share feelings of victory in watching a billion children become default Windows users?

I'm not so sure.

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1 Comment

While Negroponte is shooting for immortality and would probably settle for having forced someone else's hand, I'm thinking a lot of the contributors to the project are shooting for free software getting an instant overwhelming majority market share.

But would the Classmate actually end up being the vision Negroponte's been pushing? How long would Intel and Microsoft be willing to subsidize a billion kids' computers?

I'm guessing the answer is "until enough of them get hooked." It's not sustainable, and so it's not Negroponte's dream. (Or mine, but I'm just observing this and not actually contributing, so that's really moot.)