Sugar's Impact on History: The Age of Heroes


Whenever we get around to writing a World History textbook (or the individual books for particular countries) for Sugar, we have to find more than Ambrose Bierce did.

olpc history
HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

The "unimportant" events brought about by knavish rulers particularly include war, pillage, and oppression (which is quite important to the victims, of course), as opposed to advances in the arts and sciences, religion, and the general welfare. The conquest and rule of one people by another, as described in several books of the Bible, the Iliad, and other early sources, appears to go back to Neolithic times.

The scale and organization of such operations requires the support of agriculture. Racism appears to go back much further, if we can judge by the historically documented practice of calling one's own tribe People (for example, "Bantu", plural of "mtu" person), and everyone else by pejoratives such as "Barbarian" (Greek onomatopoeia for "person who cannot really speak; babbler", who just says buh-buh-buh).

Age of Empires

On a larger scale, kingdoms and empires with their even larger-scale wars, pillage, and oppression go back as far as we can trace in recorded history, and undoubtedly well before that. Akkad, Egypt, Persia, India, China, empires in Africa and South America...coming down to Greece, Macedonia (Alexander), Rome, Parthia, Attila, Arab Muslim empires, Genghis Khan, Turkey, and the European global empires in the Age of Sail and the Industrial Age. Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, England, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia/Soviet Union, Japan. But Spanish control of almost all of its colonies fell apart in the 19th century, and almost all of the rest unraveled in the aftermath of World Wars I and II, culminating with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The ills of empire did not go away with the dissolving of imperial regimes. Land ownership and corporate control of resources remain major problems. Various forms of Neo-colonialism have followed, along with corruption, civil wars, diseases, and natural disasters that the former colonies could not or would not cope with. The current form of undue influence goes by the name of Globalization, in which governments, corporations, political parties, and public commentators pretend that a market open to corporations but not people is a Free Market.

In many respects the 20th century before this collapse was the worst of the Imperial period, due to the technologies of war and of centralized mass media, unchecked by effective freedom of speech and press.

olpc history

We had the tyranny of the Belgian Congo, when Mark Twain called King Leopold of Belgium the most hated man in the world. But Leopold is almost forgotten today, eclipsed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Lenin, Stalin, Ceausescu, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Togo, Mao, Ho, Pol Pot, Milosevic, Castro, the Kims in North Korea and the Colonels in Burma, and an assortment of "tin pot" dictators, warlords, and theocrats in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And, according to some, the Bush/Cheney Administration.

One major reason for the collapse of the smaller tyrannies, and the collapses of a number of civil wars and terrorist operations since 1989 was the end of the Cold War. The defunct Soviet Union couldn't pay its supposedly anti-capitalist tyrants, and the US no longer felt the need to support its supposedly anti-communist tyrants. There are arguments made about this, but since it has nothing to do with the larger empires, I don't want to get into it here. Certainly we have not seen the last of the South American coups, and a variety of other disasters.

The Role of ICT

I attribute much of the collapse of empire to improvements in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). Some empires, such as Turkey in World War I, the "Sick Man" of Europe, were also decrepit. There were major social changes worldwide after the Axis powers were defeated in World War II. Economics comes into it. Transportation technology and wider trade have important effects. Asymmetric warfare is a factor in several former colonies in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and North Africa. But I claim that it was the breakdown of central control of information by governments, and the growth of international information systems, that were the most important factors.

Governments have attempted to control information in every age, and some are still able to do it. There was not so much information to control before the printing press, which enabled the Protestant Reformation (Luther Bible and all that followed), the Scientific Revolution (books by Galileo and many others, scientific journals, and so on), and assorted political uprisings in Europe (the Eighty Years War between the Netherlands and its previous Spanish rulers over trade and religion, and many others since) and later the Americas.

If you know where to look, you can find that historians and others have documented the importance of printing and of later ICT, including the telegraph, telephone, facsimile, computing, mobile phone, and the Internet. In various ways in various times and places each has advanced formal and informal civil society institutions and thus governance, notably in campaigns against slavery and in favor of expanding human rights.

The Committees of Correspondence in the American Revolution are a well-known example. Fax machines and personal computers are credited with a major role in preserving the Yeltsin administration in the USSR from the 1991 coup attempt, and we have all seen the effects of Internet access for uploading videos to Youtube and elsewhere since the election in Iran.

Sugar's Impact

Thus I believe that one of the most important impacts of XO computers, Sugar software, and all that will follow is going to be a massive acceleration of these trends. Children will first be able to access existing information and each other, in particular to learn languages. Then, as they get older, they will create more and ever more information, make a great number and variety of informal connections, and start up formal organizations for all sorts of purposes.

One of the starting points for this process is that children in Uruguay can blog about their school experiences. I would suggest the creation of a social networking site specifically for millions, and eventually hundreds of millions, of such children, and I am talking to Free Software companies about how such a system could be created.

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Yes, Pollyanna.

But it can only happen with the XO. No other computer has the magical wiki powers :-)

Sugar's impact on history? I think it's reasonable to think about the impact of computers on history, or the impact of the Internet, or even the impact of new low-cost laptops. But Sugar???