Another Kind of Laptop Revolution: OLPC-Enabled Youth Gangs


On September 11 of all dates, Michael de la Maza proposed that the Children's Machine XO could be the next must-have for revolutionaries worldwide. With his Guerrilla Warfare and the OLPC post on the OLPC Wiki, he felt that:

The OLPC will serve as an inexpensive and effective communication device for guerrillas. Many of the features that children want in a computing and communications device are also features that an irregular army would want: the OLPC is hardened; the OLPC is small; the OLPC is multi-functional; the OLPC is innocuous; and the OLPC is human powered.

Neutralizing the OLPC is difficult. Destroying OLPCs is politically unpalatable. Jamming the OLPC is not cost effective except for high value missions.

Reading that, I couldn't help but chuckle at its preposterousness. Can you really image any self-respecting insurgent accessorizing his all black and AK-47 look with a bright green laptop? Or a government allowing OLPC's to proliferate and operate if they are adopted by armed militia?

Tools of youth gang warfare?

Then, I read Lee Felsenstein's And Now for the Bad News post and Michael's idea didn't see seem so far fetched. Why? Because its not revolutionaries that may use the Children's Machine XO to facilitate destruction, but the very youth its intended for. A much different kind of gang charger. To quote Lee:

I suggest that there is a darker side to such youth culture when it is empowered in societies with limited wealth and significant degrees of privation.

I expect that this dark aspect would appear in the development of gangs of children ready to steal whatever they could and empowered by the laptops to run circles around the institutions of adult society which supposedly work to suppress such forms of acquisition. In urban environments the authorities, both official and informal, would be completely outclassed and rendered impotent.

Authorities, and that would include parents, teachers, community leaders would be impotent if they are ignored during the OLPC implementation process. If students are taught to "learn learning" in the absence of guidance and direction from elders who can instill the moral values required for the youth to develop and accept their cultural norms and rules, what is to stop them from using the OLPC XO to obtain their "wants" in the most efficient means possible - theft? Or as Lee says better:

A Dark Side here?
Children will be empowered far beyond the power available to their elders - and they will be intentionally left to their own devices.

I put it to you - is this not a recipe for disaster? Where is moral instruction and cross-generational communication of values in this model? Can we afford to carry out mass experimentation to find the answer empirically?

Lee then suggests that the OLPC distribution model be reversed, that adults should be the first to receive XO-1 laptops and then children, as the community develops ways to incorporate the technology into its culture.

While that may be effective in certain situations, especially where information and communication technology is completely alien, I don't think One Laptop Per Child needs to be so inhibited in its roll out. In areas where cell phones are prevalent and computers familiar, a comprehensive OLPC implementation plan with a focus on cultural integration could be sufficient if both recognize that no matter the child-centric dreams of Nicholas Negroponte, teachers (both the formal and informal kind) are the key to a positive OLPC-enabled youth culture.

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"Can you really image any self-respecting insurgent accessorizing his all black and AK-47 look with a bright green laptop?"

I imagine the insurgent would deal with this problem by the simple expedient of painting the laptop black.

In regards to the case where the technology is alien to adults and children alike, I can imagine that a traditional community with high social integration would involve all ages in the process of consideration about what to do with the alien technology, with elders' opinions having a great deal of weight in the process. This would probably result in a "go slow" implementation strategy, with preliminary results examined before moving to broader, less controlled implementation.

I can also imagine that the stalwarts of the OLPC program would be anguished and outraged by such caution, and that they would do whatever possible to prevent or derail such an approach. One of my central criticisms is based on the fact that the project depends upon a mass, compulsory "push" distribution strategy relying upon the power of the state.

31 years ago I published a little aphorism stating "If work is to become play, then tools must become toys". OLPC ideologues will say "of course, that's what we're trying to do - make a great toy that leads the child to learning learning!"

But I have to point out the symmetry involved in the aphorism - that toys are also tools and that play is one of the best learning processes. A community should have the right to know about and have a significant say in the learning processes to which their children are subjected by outside institutions. It's a matter of self-preservation for the community and its culture.

Clearly the XO just happens to be the first mobile computer that fits this bill - presumably other similar products will appear on the market. Plenty of munitions are de facto marketed to guerillas already, or to street gangs for that matter. It would appear to be a case of William Gibson's "the street finds its own uses for things".

I agree with you Lee.

But take it a step further. An object is defined by its use or how it is used. Any tool can be a toy as shown many times when my son finds my toolbox. The same objects from the toolbox do useful and practical functions in the hands of a tradesman.

If you delivered OLPC green machines to children and some found their way into the hands of (in Wayans story) street gangs would they play with them? Would they start using Tam Tam and create music symphonies? Would they use eToys and produce a document about their life as a gang member. More likely the wireless mesh networking would give them free communications within range and maybe even use non-stolen laptops to communicate through.

Do they then become a weapon?

Revolutionaries using the OLPC? Gangs of children using the OLPC? Authorities completely outclassed and rendered impotent by children with OLPCs?

How naive can one be?

I wonder, does all your knowledge about the third world come from Hollywood?

Thankyou for your informed comment Pierre.
Some of my knowledge comes from the gang that robbed my brother in Sao Paulo. Of course they dont communicate very easily. Telephones are usually fixed and not mobile but if they had OLPC laptops stolen from students its a whole new world.
If you comment about a topic at least do it with some real knowledge.

what are you talking about ? guerilla ? warfare ? this is just a laptop, with a weak processor and no hard disk, what do u expect gangs would do with it ? they can't even crypt documents cause there isn't a harddisk where to store an encrypting program !
how are u supposed to go into warfare with a laptop ? i must have missed something here

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