One Laptop Per Child: Vision vs. Reality
June 20, 2009 11:19 PM   Subscribe

One Laptop Per Child: Vision vs. Reality. Three researchers at the University of California, Irvine evaluate the progress of the One Laptop Per Child initiative (Wikipedia). The vision is being overwhelmed by the reality of business, political, logistics, and competing interests worldwide. As of June 2009, fewer than six hundred thousand OLPCs have been shipped, while 10 million netbooks were sold in 2008 alone. From Communications of the ACM.
posted by russilwvong (67 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Newegg has EeePCs for $169 right now ($30 off the regular price). That's the ultra-low end versions, you can get one with a camera and windows XP for $270.

I always thought the whole OLPC thing was condescending. There was all this worry about keeping the machines "out of the hands" of adults, as if grownups with computers was a bad thing. There are a lot of grownups out there with a capacity and desire to learn and giving people like that access to Wikipedia and other knowledge bases could be just as trans formative, and the results could be more immediate as well.

Netbooks, of course, can be used by everyone.
posted by delmoi at 11:34 PM on June 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

There was all this worry about keeping the machines "out of the hands" of adults, as if grownups with computers was a bad thing.

No, it's as if the OLPC were to be seen perceived as desirable for some other purpose than classroom learning by children, they would be very swiftly taken from those children and sold on the black market. You're talking about people who never put their hands on the price of an OLPC at any time in their lives, in countries where microloans of a few tens of dollars have to be guaranteed by several reputable people. The only way to keep this from happening is social engineering.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:49 PM on June 20, 2009 [8 favorites]

delmoi: "There was all this worry about keeping the machines "out of the hands" of adults, as if grownups with computers was a bad thing."

More like, in the hands of grownups, on their way to a market to sell it.
posted by pwnguin at 11:51 PM on June 20, 2009

If we had fewer children, we wouldn't need so many damn laptops.
posted by grounded at 11:55 PM on June 20, 2009 [7 favorites]

You're talking about people who never put their hands on the price of an OLPC at any time in their lives

Right, everyone knows the third world is totally full of thieves.

The only way to keep this from happening is social engineering.

Right, because social engineering is such an easy thing to do. People just love it when rich outsiders swoop in and tell them how to live.

Now obviously the fact that they created a secondary market with the Give one Get one program makes it much easier to sell OLPCs if one wanted too. Looking at EBay, they appear to go for about $200. So has the fact that you can sell OLPCs lead to widespread theft?

If not, then the idea that they needed to make these things useless to adults in order to keep them from being stolen was wrong.

And anyway, it wouldn't be any harder to make a netbook "theft proof" then one designed for children only. The security would be the same.
posted by delmoi at 12:03 AM on June 21, 2009

I love how the OLPC initiative basically invented the idea of the netbook and then utterly failed to capitalize on it. Pretty much everyone's first thought upon seeing the OLPC design documents was 'wow, that's pretty cool, I think I could even use one.' It was blindingly obvious that you could take the technology, make one not obviously designed for children, and it would sell like hotcakes. But I guess they had their ideological mission to fulfill and such crass consumerism was below them.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:12 AM on June 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

Silicon Snake Oil
posted by TedW at 12:15 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is my shocked face.
posted by zardoz at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

When Negroponte announced the OLPC, I remember conversations where a number of people who'd spent years in the ICT for Development community rolled their eyes. Absolutely nobody at the time thought the problem was a lack of cheap hardware. Hell, anyone who'd spent any time in the field knew that there was no way that the project could work exactly as designed - created a magically intuitive and self-explanatory project that would let the children of the developing world explore on their own, etc. All of the hard questions of ICT4D were buried here, with a naive belief that good design could fix everything. The project's relative lack of focus on delivery, training, distribution, etc, was immediately apparent from the start. And then it turned out that having glossed over these extremely hard questions, the research team itself largely ignored them to focus on the things mentioned in the article above.

If the project was half as good at its mission as Negroponte was at self-promotion, then maybe we'd have a massive success on our hands. Instead, this was always an ill-conceived boondoggle that misallocated resources and attention away from lesser-heralded ICT4D projects currently underway. Any gains it has made need to be seen relative to the missed opportunities that could have been accomplished had these resources gone to others at MIT, or to the ongoing projects at Cal, CMU, Stanford, and elsewhere.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:43 AM on June 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

Metafilter: If the post was half as good at its mission as the poster was at self-promotion
posted by lukemeister at 1:03 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Any gains it has made need to be seen relative to the missed opportunities that could have been accomplished had these resources gone to others at MIT, or to the ongoing projects at Cal, CMU, Stanford, and elsewhere.

Allen: references?
posted by honest knave at 1:03 AM on June 21, 2009

TedW, I'm slightly confused by that book.
Among these are the notions that electronic networking will "oil the wheels of commerce"; that electronic voting and on-line public discourse will remedy the shortcomings of representative democracy; that interactive multimedia represents the educational medium of the future; that electronic communication will bring about a "literary revival"; that e-mail and networks are great places to meet people; that the Internet will foster a new culture of telecommuters; that electronic communication is virtually instantaneous; that there is a vast population on-line; and that new data storage techniques will make traditional libraries obsolete.
A lot of this stuff is just totally bogus. I can go to Amazon and click one button and buy essentially anything I like, with the payment processed instantaneously across the network. The idea that the Internet will "remedy the shortcomings of representative democracy" has never been touted by anyone knowledgeable about the medium, as far as I'm aware. Interactive multimedia helps people who don't share the traditional "memorize and regurgitate" style of learning actually learn, and can make dry subjects more interesting. Literature online is a strange beast and the market for the short story is dead, but good literature is certainly more available now than it ever has been before due to both web pages and the long tail phenomenon in online shops. There are people who I have met via gaming communities and MOOs who I have kept in touch with for well over a decade, and who I consider friends. Telecommuting is a reality for many people who do jobs suited for telecommuting—web design, systems administration, and the like.

Perhaps the worst offender, however, is the next statement, a complaint so far out of left field that it baffles me.

"...that electronic communication is virtually instantaneous."

...well, yeah. If I can type messages in a box and press enter, and the woman I'm talking to in Tokyo receives that message in seven tenths of a second, isn't that virtually instantaneous? How can you dispute that?

I'm as much of a critic of the OLPC idiocy as anyone, and have been since it was announced, but I see nothing in that description of Silicon Snake Oil than the old Luddism that characterizes people uncomfortable with their own ignorance but unwilling to learn.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:09 AM on June 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

What sonic meat machine said, and then some. These things Stoll holds up as "popular fictions" and "pernicious myths" are almost entirely manifest reality. Point by point:

that electronic networking will "oil the wheels of commerce";

It does and has: not just online commerce, which is itself huge and transformative, but business-to-business transactions are predominantly internet-mediated as well, to say nothing of the fact that all business interactions rely heavily on email. And getting back to the grass roots, WTF does he think the Ebay and Craigslist phenomena are all about?

that electronic voting and on-line public discourse will remedy the shortcomings of representative democracy;

Obviously written before the 2008 presidential campaign, just for a start. No, it hasn't cured democratic ills (nothing but a change to human nature will), but it's certainly changing the nature of public involvement in the political process to a degree unprecedented at least since the invention of television, and the degree of change is accelerating. Dear god, have you ever seen anything like the global involvement in this Iran situation?

that interactive multimedia represents the educational medium of the future;

Are you fucking kidding me? Does he have any idea what's happening in every classroom in the developed world now? To say nothing of the complete absence of a physical classroom, which is itself getting downright commonplace.

that electronic communication will bring about a "literary revival";

I don't know what this is even supposed to mean, but we certainly have about a billion times more self-publishing online than ever existed or could exist in print. I think that qualifies all by itself.

that e-mail and networks are great places to meet people;

Heh. Look around you. No, at your screen. This page. And let's not even start on facebook, it's previously fashionable predecessors and a billion instances of PHPBB on every interest group. People who don't owe some significant part of their social lives to the internet are in the minority these days.

that the Internet will foster a new culture of telecommuters;

Yep. My peer group and co-workers include a very high proportion of full-time telecommuters and I'm at liberty to telecommute a significant proportion of the time myself, if I choose.

that electronic communication is virtually instantaneous;

40 milliseconds of latency is effectively instantaneous in terms of human interaction.

that there is a vast population on-line;

You mean there isn't?

and that new data storage techniques will make traditional libraries obsolete.

Libraries are taking on new roles to adapt. The shelves of books may never go away but they are diminishing in importance.

Damn near every word of that suggests that he wrote it more than a decade ago and is the world's worst prognosticator, or that he simply doesn't have any idea what's going on all around him. Oh: 1996. So it's the former.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:41 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, see, George_Spiggott, the entire online population is actually played by five very clever actors and a few thousand markov generators.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:44 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, see, George_Spiggott, the entire online population is actually played by five very clever actors and a few thousand markov generators.

Now you've done it, you've given away the plot of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:50 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, but my comment didn't include seven hundred pages of tangents about the alchemical properties of metal—or an awkward sex scene!
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:54 AM on June 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

:) Anyway, I assume Stoll's thesis, if he has one, is that tools don't solve problems, people do. Well, duh. The mere presence of a jack and a lug wrench in my trunk won't stop me getting a flat tire, but it sure makes a difference in my ability to fix one.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:57 AM on June 21, 2009

What will the children do with the laptop? How is a laptop any guarantee of emancipation or equality? I don't mean to be broad, but I still don't see blanketing the world with Internet-enabled PCs as any kind of solution to social ills or educational disparity. Please, explain to me "empowerment-via-PC," someone.
posted by ford and the prefects at 2:30 AM on June 21, 2009

I'm a big fan of the TED Talks, and so I've seen all of Negroponte's presentations on OLPC, as well as a discussion by the designer he worked with. The laptop is undeniably a triumph of product design and engineering, and for an layperson like myself it was intriguing to hear how the team made choices about what attributes the laptop should have and how to manufacture it in such a way that it would be functional, durable, and affordable.

However, I was dismayed by Negroponte's dismissiveness and arrogance -- not only toward naysayers who told him he couldn't make a $100 laptop, but toward seemingly anyone who raised even the most innocuous issue about his plan, including educators who questioned the effect and net value of mass introduction of networked laptops in rural, impoverished communities in developing countries. Anyone who received his plan with anything less than unmitigated enthusiasm seems to have been dismissed as a short-sighted bureaucrat.

He also seemed astonishingly oblivious in his inability to recognize that OLPC would be implemented in particular political and social contexts, and that this might affect the long-term prospects and success of the project. In the short talk where he delivers the laptops to schoolchildren in Columbia, he is accompanied by the Minister of Defense and talks about how the delivery of the computers will shore up opposition to the FARC guerillas. His apparent naivete to the complexities of the situation, as well as his poor choice of travel companion for an ostensibly non-political aid project, was striking.

We need people like Negroponte, who are willing to think big, take risks, and not be deterred by barriers to the creation and implementation of new technologies. But the kind of uncritical bravado I saw in the TED talks and Negroponte's seeming lack of interest in thinking carefully about potential challenges to putting OLPC into practice seems to be undermining the project.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:25 AM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Also: the article is really good.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 3:33 AM on June 21, 2009

Silicon Snake Oil came out in 1995; Stoll was reacting to the wildest of the wild predictions for the Information Superhighway in the pre-dot-com-bubble days. I still don't think many of his criticisms were valid, if only because the "we'll all be Borg by 2005, hurrah!" people then weren't any more worth arguing with than are people today who insist that Obama is a Communist Muslim. But it's still worth pointing out that the computing world when Stoll wrote that book was very different from the computing world today.

I think critics of the OLPC project make a related mistake. Many of the things OLPC critics have complained about - classically, for instance, the idea that the OLPC project was expecting to sprinkle little laptops over starving countries like fairy dust to fix all of their problems - are not actually things that the OLPC project set out to do. I think OLPC did make some very major mistakes, and still are making some of them, but those mistakes are not the ones that're most often ascribed to them.

An ex-high-level employee of the OLPC project wrote a very interesting essay last year about the crippling problems in the OLPC organisation. I sounded off about it here.
posted by dansdata at 3:51 AM on June 21, 2009 [7 favorites]

Dansdata, that post is terrific! I'm not well-versed in these discussions on the utility and politics of open source, but the essay by Krstic is really illuminating.

Can anyone tell me what Krstic means by "constructivist" and "constructionist" here?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:13 AM on June 21, 2009

Never mind.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 4:28 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

So rather than distributing millions of laptops to poor children itself, OLPC has motivated the PC industry to develop lower-cost, education-oriented PCs, providing developing countries with low-cost computing options directly in competition with OLPC's own innovation

You know how you get people to provide laptops to millions of poor kids?

Pay them.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:06 AM on June 21, 2009

As of June 2009, fewer than six hundred thousand OLPCs have been shipped, while 10 million netbooks were sold in 2008 alone.

Yes, but the really important metric is the price of tea in China.

Seriously, WTF do these two things have to do with each other? "I guess we'll never eliminate malaria in Africa because look how many people are using condoms in the US!"

The real problem with the OLPC is the 100% useless UI. Seriously, I'm a computer programmer and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to do simple things like saving and retrieving work. (Nor can my kids, who don't have the possible handicap of being an expert in the current paradigm.)
posted by DU at 6:20 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well... Netbooks certainly are very successful.
posted by Artw at 6:58 AM on June 21, 2009

The one-laptop-per-child idea would probably work, if the "laptop" was a cell phone.

Also, you need to make six billion of them. Then there's no resale value.
posted by rokusan at 7:17 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Right, everyone knows the third world is totally full of thieves.

No, the human race is totally full of thieves.

You really think in a country where the average person makes less than a dollar a day, there's no one who'd steal a laptop from a child to make a quick hundred bucks?
posted by EarBucket at 7:19 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

Typing this from a G1G1 OLPC. The hardware in this laptop is fantastic. However, DU is right on about the misguided GUI. It feels like it sprung fully-formed out of a well meaning Linux programmer's forehead. For the price of some usability testing, a lot of first impressions could have been saved.

The big problem with OLPC was that they were afraid of stepping on Microsoft's toes, so they actively tried to not sell laptops to wealthy programmers... and yet at the same time they decided to use Linux, software developed by those same wealthy programmers. The reality of Linux is that it's a "scratch your own itch" culture, and if programmers aren't using the OLPC, then they won't fix its problems.
posted by anthill at 7:29 AM on June 21, 2009

My dream computer is an OLPC with an aluminum Macbook's keyboard that runs OS X. Seriously, I loved the durable plastic, the handle, and the screen is the best I've ever used. The keyboard was terrible for my adult hands and the GUI was useless. But what I liked I loved... what I didn't like, I hated.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 7:56 AM on June 21, 2009

At heart, I think a lot of the OLPC's shortcomings stem from it being a technological solution to a social problem. They dressed up the program in a lot of social language (transformative, power of networking, etc) but in the end it comes down to a belief that providing the right technology will solve (or help to solve) problems of unequal distribution of resources and access to opportunities.

So while I'm all for providing computers to schools everywhere, I'd rather see those schools get toilets first, and I'm skeptical about how much will change as long as those newly-encomputered schools are embedded in the same systems that have kept them underfunded and understaffed. A school with no toilets, 80 kids per class, and with teachers who haven't been paid in three months has far more serious problems than a local shortage of affordable laptops.
posted by Forktine at 8:03 AM on June 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I saw Stoll talk at Printer's Ink Palo Alto (Silicon Valley Ground Zero) around 1995/1996 when he was on the snake oil circuit. He was always entertaining and a bit dangerous (one in that you didn't know what he would do, and two how he would climb on furniture that wasn't meant for people to climb on and break glass to emphasize his points - like giving a talk in bookstore could ever so slightly be an Iggy Pop show) and he got people riled up. At one point, some woman (for whom English was presumably not a first language) comes running up from the back and shouts "Take the computers of the schools, for the hearts of the children!!" He looks pleased and asks her to "say it again!" Which she does.

I found the whole anti-tech kick so odd and random, and more a product of whatever Stoll was going through in his life (he had some revelation after banding together with neighbors to stop speeders on his street or something); decrying the instantaneous communication really weirded me out because about 2-3 years earlier one of my personal transformative experiences was picking The Cuckoo's Egg and reading it in one or two sittings and seeing - gasp - an EMAIL address at the end and walking directly to my computer and emailing him and then seeing a kind response a few hours later when I got out of bed. Collision of gap between consumer and producer, collapse of time and space, etc. etc. Amazing stuff and he thinks it was crap? Boo :(
posted by stevil at 8:03 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

In that article that dansdata mentions Guido van Rossum (who?) pops up in comments to say that "I’ve thought for a while that sending laptops to developing countries is simply the 21st century equivalent of sending bibles to the colonies."

Quite soon words of the wise actualize in comments that worry how in many parts of Africa there already is a belief that Microsoft is the best that money can buy and how to relate to that, give these people what they want or lead them to Freedom? Then there is much discussion if Stallman's path is the right one to follow.

When translating and sending bibles, operations were not only religious, but mixed bag of religious, humanitarian and educational purposes. Often it was the first written text for language, and thought that it would help to bootstrap a written culture. If that was not necessary, then at least teaching at least that would lead to major increase in literacy. Always there was an assumption that because of these interventions at some point a cultural change will occur. At those times, it was ok to be open about what kind of cultural change was wanted: modest european clothing, lutheran work ethics, stable small-scale economies with possibilities of outside trade etc. It didn't go too well, some parts sticked, but other intented cultural changes did not happen or went into unintended evil directions.

If OLPC is stumbling with unforeseen problems with deployment and support, unforeseen because nobody has done anything like this before, then they should take the USB-stick from their own eye and recognize that this is a missionary program with the same problems that these have always had and same requirements for field work. There are organizations that have hundreds of years of experience to learn from. You are going to villages and give a tool that will open childrens eyes and lead them to the new, better life. Yup, that we've never seen before.
posted by Free word order! at 8:18 AM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

OLPC frustrates the crap out of me. I think their motives are great; for the past six years, I've taken (regular PC) computers to Peru, and I've seen first-hand how technology can be used to excite kids and transform their lives. However ...

- I agree that the UI is incredibly unintiutive. Also, configuring them to do anything out of the ordinary is maddening. I spent two days trying to get one hooked up to an external projector, which involved way more editing of X11.conf than I would've preferred, and I've used Unix for 15 years. No way I could expect a kid or teacher to do this.

- You can really tell that they've been designed for geeks by geeks. (caveat: I am a proud geek.) There's this underlying idea that you can give a kid a computer and let them explore and they'll teach themselves whatever they need. This is certainly true for a subset, and probably for most of the engineers who worked on the OLPC. (I learned BASIC that way back in grade school.) However, most kids aren't going to learn this way - they need a more structured environment with teachers and lessons. I think that leaving adults out of the educational loop is a big mistake. My personal opinion is that technology has to be integrated into the educational culture, which means building schools and educating teachers.

- There's also a more subtle arrogance, which comes from the designers assuming that they know what's best for the developing world, as opposed to involving them in the decision-making process. In my (admittedly limited) experience with this, students had seen Windows machines in local computer labs, knew about Youtube and MP3s, and wanted machines that had those capabilities. Schools had difficult budgetary constraints - $200 could either buy them a computer or pay a teacher for a semester, or pay for two kids to attend school. In those cases, the laptop seems like a luxury. A laptop could be given to one child, while a desktop in a lab could be shared by many.
posted by chbrooks at 8:33 AM on June 21, 2009 [6 favorites]

Yet it failed to anticipate the social and institutional problems that could arise in trying to diffuse that innovation in the developing-country context.

The failure to help the developing world was entirely predictable. And predicted, particularly by people alarmed at OLPC's techno-utopianism married with cuddling up to corporate sponsorship. And yet, the project has been a success in making computing cheaper, particularly here in the rich world for people that desperately needed a $100 laptop that cost $350 to operate as their third computer.

The cheap hardware was one innovation, that succeeded. The Linux based UI was another that seems to have failed. How has the ad hoc networking worked out? Has OLPC helped develop mesh networks of wireless devices? I haven't seen it, but then again in the US it's always easier to go to a centralized WiFi or 3G installation.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2009

that there is a vast population on-line;

You mean there isn't?

One billion (and that's the generous estimate) out of six and a half. And that one billion is heavily skewed towards the rich bit of the world, go figure.

Most of your criticisms of his criticisms are similar: they're "well, he's dead wrong if you talk about the First World!" But it's not the First World that has the problems in this regard.
posted by mightygodking at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2009

Stoll was talking about the First World, mightygodking.
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:40 AM on June 21, 2009

Most of your criticisms of his criticisms are similar: they're "well, he's dead wrong if you talk about the First World!"

I don't get what you're saying here: of course the technology hasn't been adopted in places where they can't afford it or the supporting infrastructure. But all of the things he dismisses as preposterous have occurred everywhere they can occur, and the anticipated trends in machine-facilitated activity that he disputes as fallacious have proven to be anything but. Where in your observation that much of the world still can't afford to implement these things do you find room to dispute this? As costs plummet and infrastructure build-out continues, these trends that, per him, weren't going to occur at all are following. China and India are massive players in this area now -- yes, yes, where they can afford it -- and while it hasn't happened everywhere, it IS happening everywhere that it can happen, and that area is only growing.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:47 AM on June 21, 2009

The real problem with the OLPC is the 100% useless UI.

Ding! We have a winner. The OLPC will go down in history as everything that wrong with trying to help developing countries. Its a program of elitists taking their dinosaur top-down approach (OSS crapware on a crapier UI) and forcing down the throats of international educational buyers. No on wanted it. Why would they?

If it sold with Windows or perhaps just Ubuntu they may have made a difference. Turns out that long discourses and geeky wankery about the best UI for kids, artificial openness, and other FSF talking points, has only produced the worst imaginable product for kids. Negorponte and his team chose ideology over results. Im not at all surprised by the real world outcome.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:52 AM on June 21, 2009

"OSS crapware?" Oh no. :(

*deletes Inkscape, GIMP, vim, Apache, PHP, Python...*
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:54 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Delete X11 while youre at it. On a windows machine you dont need to edit x11 config files to get it to work with a projector. Selling these kids a hobbyist's POS with an ever worse UI is just fail.

This might be good for you, but for a developing educational program? Yeah, the liberals arts teachers arent going to exactly be hacking config files for their students.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:57 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

To be honest, that's not one of the problems I see with the project, damn dirty ape. A cheap projector is $500; it's not bizarre or unacceptable to me that they didn't make it a priority when designing it. That said, the fact that they seem to have locked out the best feature of Linux and OSS—its patches, updates, and developers—is bizarre and unacceptable. The update process could be made transparent, I think.

I do dispute the idea that the free Unixes are "hobbyist POSes." Linux and the *BSDs are infinitely more robust as server or network-related boxes than Windows. Linux isn't as good as Windows on the desktop, but it's actually improving, and has been doing so, steadily, for ten years. I wouldn't feel bad giving my mom an Ubuntu laptop these days. GNOME is a reasonably attractive and very usable GUI.

The mistake the OLPC folks made is that they got away from things that were proven and polished in the open source arena and used really off-the-wall things instead. A UI and apps written in Python, for example.
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:16 AM on June 21, 2009

sonic meat machine is terrible at pronouns
posted by sonic meat machine at 11:19 AM on June 21, 2009

ford and the prefects: The OLPC comes preloaded with an offline copy of Wikipedia, if I recall. In regions that can't give kids the internet to look stuff up on, it's a reasonable substitute.

Oh, and there's the thing where computers are information processing machines and can do math and the like. That's pretty useful if you want to learn math or any of those other things you do with information.
posted by LogicalDash at 11:26 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

OLPC: great idea - terrible realisation. I gathered about as much when the g1g1 program got started, I tried to buy one, and got the answer that they didn't ship anywhere than in the US and Canada. WTF? They can't be arsed to take orders from Europe and they're supposed to be deploying in the jungle?!

And then there was the OSS fundamentalism: the whole point of the program should have been to help learning, not to spread Stallman's gospel.
posted by Skeptic at 11:31 AM on June 21, 2009

Sugar was a mistake, and it was a mistake that anyone could see coming. Why do you release a machine with a UI that doesn't even vaguely resemble anything used anywhere else in the world? Skills that users developed on other computers don't transfer over (a critical problem for developers and teachers) and skills that you develop on that system don't transfer over to anywhere. Plus, most other UIs have the benefit of having being used, tested, and improved for a substantial period of time. Sugar has none of these refinements.

I would have recommended a version of gnome or KDE cut down and simplified, and made to look as similar to other mainstream OSs as possible.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:35 AM on June 21, 2009

I just spent the last half hour playing with Sugar on a Stick, easy to get running as a guest OS under VirtualBox.

It's, um.. different. I found it a bit offputting in its alienness. But I think it reasonably solves the problem of simplifying Linux for an audience of children. There's easy access to a web browser, and a reasonable metaphor for switching between multitasked apps, and no setup or stuff. Also a terminal window if you want to get in and start hacking on a command line.

I don't know that I would have done any better designing a UI for kids. OTOH why design anything special at all? Stock Ubuntu, or Windows, or MacOS are all perfectly usable. The latter two less so on low-end hardware, maybe that's part of the problem.
posted by Nelson at 11:42 AM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

My impressions. I was at a rather luxurious dinner gathering at a particularly ineffective and condescending NGO and one of the "supporters" brought one in, as a showy novelty of course. OLPC is one thing that this particular NGO should be seriously investing in as it fits their mandate, and even I though the OLPC was a great idea until I sat down with it.

Naturally, explained how a disadvantaged kiddo in some third/fourth world country was having access to computers and the internet etc. It was passed around. I am a big fan of linux so I was eager to give it a test drive.

The interface is utter shit. It seemed completely useless and couldn't connect to the local wireless internet. I tried to find education games and toys and there didn't seem to be any, and no way to easily add programs. Much of it's functionality seemed to depend on it being networked to other like computers but yet I couldn't get it to actually get on a network. If I couldn't figure it out (I'm no genius but I made wireless internet work on my linux computer with a proprietary wireless chipset) then a third world kid or teacher isn't going to know what to do. I kept trying to find a way to get to the real operating system rather than the completely unwieldy front end. The whole system is just crippled.

My opinion is that this is designed to actually prevent third world children from using computers. Instead of a real computer they can be given these shit toys and then when a cheap useful computer actually comes around it can be argued that the children already have computer and don't even use them.

Right now, in our basement, there is pile of old 2000-era desktop boxes. They work perfectly well with a lightweight linux on them and they would only contribute to an electric landfill problem if they were thrown away. There are tons (probably tens of tons) of these computer all around NYC, and the United States. Wouldn't it be easier to collect, refurbish and ship a huge number of low-end desktops to other countries than to develop a whole new, shiny computer and OS? Why not? Because it's not flashy and attention getting enough.

The OLPC is just for show. It is a spectacle. Meanwhile, the children that these shit-toys are targeted to continue to be exploited even by the capitalists who developed this shit. OLPC also diverted funds and personnel away from actually effective projects.
posted by fuq at 12:06 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

fuq: Wouldn't it be easier to collect, refurbish and ship a huge number of low-end desktops to other countries than to develop a whole new, shiny computer and OS? Why not?

Actually, it might not be easier or cheaper. Consider:

Shipping a desktop is much harder than shipping a laptop, particularly if you ship a CRT out with it (and if not you have to make a bunch of LCD monitors, which isn't particularly cheap.) A lot of the places these things were supposed to go are extremely remote, making shipping very difficult already. You can probably ship 10 small laptops for the cost of shipping one desktop with CRT and probably 5 small laptops for the cost of shipping one desktop with LCD.

Desktops use a lot of power, especially if they use CRTs. A lot of the places you want to implement these machines don't have good power infrastruture, so electricity is undependable, dirty, and expensive. A laptop has a big advantage here, as it uses less power and the battery helps smooth out brownouts and temporary power interruptions.

Refurbishing a bunch of different computers isn't an automated task. Generally speaking, it needs to be done by a person of at least moderate technical competence. You're going to need a lot of volunteers or paid technicians to do this. Also, supporting a huge number of computers with minor hardware and technical differences is going to be much more difficult than supporting a bunch of dead identical machines, or a small number of model variations that you know all of the details of and were designed by you to be easy to support.

That being said, I don't think programs like you describe don't have a place, just that different tools need to be used for different jobs. Refurbished computers are better in places where the following is true:

A. Shipping is easy.
B. Power is not a major issue.
C. Local technical competence is available to help support.

So I'd do that kind of thing in poor urban regions of fairly built-up countries like Mexico, Thailand, China, etc. The OLPCs (if they were implemented halfway competently, which they aren't.) would be better in more remote areas like a lot of South American and Africa.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:32 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hindsight is for asses.
posted by srboisvert at 12:36 PM on June 21, 2009

LogicalDash: No, they've never shipped with an offline copy of Wikipedia — they shipped with only 512mb of flash, more than halfway full.

The flash is raw MTD, which is normally used in embedded devices where the only writes are to custom logs, and they save a few cents by not needing a standard flash controller. If you want to use this style for general-purpose storage, you have to do the wear-leveling in the filesystem, which is slower than the shittiest generic flash controller.

You see, the OLPC project didn't just fuck up wherever possible on the social issues — the technical side is full of ridiculous boondoggles as well!

That generic flash controller chip they saved a few cents by not using? Later on they ended up using a completely custom chip (called the CaFE) as a frontend to the raw flash, the SD card, and the camera. When he announced it, Negroponte made a ton of noise about how this would be the first truly open-source SD card implementation.

That turned out to be a total fabrication on his part — Marvell Semiconductor ended up designing the chip themselves in-house, with no help or funding from OLPC. The 'open-source' thing was never mentioned again, the only thing published was a crappy PDF that lists the registers but not what they're for. The chip also turned out to be a POS: the camera controller can't really deal with video, and the SD implementation has a ridiculous number of bugs. The worst basically prevented you from sleeping and using the SD card at the same time — and the only productive fix I found (after spending months in low-level kernel debugging) was to delay wake by 500ms when a card is inserted.

This totally kills any possibility of doing eager power-management — if the sleep/wake cycle is ~100ms, you could get away with doing it between screen updates. This sleep idiom was promised but never delivered, and not just due to the SD crap. Hell, it took them a year after release to ship a software update that had any power-management enabled at all!

There's also the dual-mode touchpad — the idea was that the center would be a normal capacitive touchpad, but an area extending out along the palmrest would also be resistive for use with a fingernail or plain stylus. Negroponte made great boasts about how they'd use it for handwriting input in native scripts. The hardware was developed pro-bono by ALPS, but OLPC made no attempt to use it before it was finalized, and there ended up being too many hardware bugs to even bother trying to use it.

The mesh networking was incredibly ambitious — the hardware was most unusual but fairly solid, a partially software-based 2.4ghz radio with it's own little ARM cpu and embedded OS. It was originally custom developed by Marvell for the Xbox 360, where it was used for talking to the controllers in a way that Microsoft could lock out unauthorized third-parties. The OLPC project planned to use it independently, so that the WiFi could be on and listening while the rest of the computer sleeps. Marvell even went to a bunch of effort implementing the 802.11s mesh networking in their firmware — but therein lies a huge problem! Most of the OLPC developers were major freetards, and Marvell's firmware is decidedly closed-source. Instead of working on the functionality, almost all of the community effort was expended getting a 'thin firmware' working that ignores all the special features of the hardware, and does everything on the host CPU. Mesh networking itself is hard enough when you're not spending all your time painting the bike shed a more ideologically pleasing color.

Of all the custom hardware stuff they did, the only non-failures were the transreflective screen (which should be commercialized any day now) and the use Lithium-Ferrous-Phosphate batteries. Both the CaFE chip and touchpad are gone in the upcoming XO 1.5 revision.

I've only described the low-level hardware retardation on the XO — there's also the bootloader issues, the keyboard, the ridiculous 'School Server' effort, and the poor use of Fedora — much less the accursed Sugar.
posted by blasdelf at 1:02 PM on June 21, 2009 [9 favorites]

Shipping old desktops might be expensive. And the problem with old laptops is their lack of batteries. It's a nice idea but think about how much time it would take you to configure and get an old machine working with Linux. An hour maybe? Then keep in mind you can't create a single disk image because all the machines are different.

Maybe if you spent a ton of time developing a version of Linux that could detect and self-install on first boot up of any crazy, old hardware you might have something. Mass produce an PATA SSD that could be plugged into the motherboard and go. But that too would take a lot of work. And even then, you'd have a lot of duds.

For any kind of mass deployment, you want standardized hardware. That way you only have to configure it once.

On the other hand, simply sending old PCs over there might be good, in that it will be fodder for the geeks out there. When I was in HS I had a reasonable PC but me and my friends would go pick up old hardware from the university surplus sale and dink around with it. We never really did anything very useful with it, except I build at 386 PC with a gigantic 50 megabyte MFM hard drive that took up two 5'1/2" drive bays and needed a full length ISA interface card. The main computer was in the family room so I had this beast in my bedroom and used it to do writing in MS-DOS edit. It was fun. And I'm sure that while that's not something most kids would want to do do, I'm sure there are some kids over there who would.

But the vast majority of people are not going to enjoy that. And a standardized system is really the best way to go. I think in the next few years these machines will get cheaper and cheaper.

You really think in a country where the average person makes less than a dollar a day, there's no one who'd steal a laptop from a child to make a quick hundred bucks?

Obviously a few people might steal them, just like laptops are stolen and pawed on Ebay here in the U.S. That hasn't stopped laptops from being used in schools. Yes "people" steal stuff, but the idea that theft is so much more endemic there is an example of the condescending attitude people have toward the developing world.
posted by delmoi at 1:25 PM on June 21, 2009

Another tidbit: around 18 months ago every technical staff member of any consequence at OLPC was forced out or quit.

Negroponte didn't change his act one bit — just a few months later he started showing off a bunch of concept renders for a dual-screen multi-touch device as if it were on the verge of production. It's not just that it didn't exist, he'd lost any capability to develop it!

It's a shame that Nicolas Negroponte's ego has salted the field so thoroughly for any future hardware or software projects of this scope. Alan Kay's current epic project (NSF proposal PDF) is going to have difficulty escaping OLPC's orbit of failure, and that's really depressing.
posted by blasdelf at 1:40 PM on June 21, 2009

delmoi: Yes "people" steal stuff, but the idea that theft is so much more endemic there is an example of the condescending attitude people have toward the developing world.

I don't know, it seems like these laptops would have theft problems for some very simple reasons:

A. Desperate people are more likely to steal.
B. The developing world has more desperate people in it than the first world.

Aside from that, there's always the danger of the kid's parents selling the thing off when money gets tight. It's not really a moral failing to sell educational materials when the alternative is not to have survival needs such as food or a place to live, but it would still interfere with the program in a dramatic fashion.
posted by Mitrovarr at 2:07 PM on June 21, 2009

In a thread that mentions both TED Talks and Clifford Stoll we should at least mention Clifford Stoll's TED Talk: 18 minutes of unabashed eccentricity, genius, and, at the very end, poignancy.
posted by /\/\/\/ at 2:17 PM on June 21, 2009

my consistent, longstanding belief about OLPC is that it's a great example of why technology is always going to be 15 years behind in classrooms: teachers always stand in the way like big ol' sticks-in-the-mud.

he was right in trying to get it in the hands of the kids themselves. he was wrong in thinking that classrooms and teachers were ever going to be able to change fast enough for it to work out.
posted by RedEmma at 2:33 PM on June 21, 2009

Stupid stick-in-the-mud teachers and their stupid not-listening-to-their-technological-betters.
posted by migurski at 2:57 PM on June 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've used an OLPC for the last 7 months or so, to check email at home (and to read metafilter!).

I'm not a linux-geek so it took me a while to get comfortable with it. Sugar is not very easy to use, but I was ok with it after a few weeks. I found it to be quite stable and the only problems I've encountered are that it doesn't appear to like pdfs. However I did muddle my way through to get a developer key and removed almost everything aside from the web browser. The screen is extremely nice and easy to look at, and the front-lighting functionality is great, in addition to being able to rotate the screen and click it in. I find that I need to be quite patient when I use it which is part of the reason I kept it, as it reduces aimless surfing on the web.

I wish they had shipped it with ubuntu, as it would have been so much easier to figure out how to solve problems. Whenever I have ubuntu issues, I google the problem for five minutes and can usually solve it. With the olpc the user base is so small, that you are pretty much reliant on their fairly sparse wiki. I'm very surprised that such smart folks didn't realize that using an obscure OS would lead to such diffusion problems, and alienate such a large amount of the linux community. In general though, I've never experienced any glitches with the hardware. I ordered mine in the first week they were available on the G1G1 deal, and although it did arrive a few months later (I wasn't in a huge rush to get it) it did seem like their logistical end was floundering.

Ivan Krstic wrote an interesting piece when he resigned from the project some while back. I can't find the original long article but this is a briefer version he wrote.

Personally I believe that technological innovation for the developing world is beneficial, when it can fit into the current market structure. In retrospect, I think this fails to achieve that and they probably would have been better making smart-phones with wikipedia installed on them, or some equivalent low-cost tool, with money-earning potential.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 3:59 PM on June 21, 2009

I don't have an OLPC, but is it true that it comes with SimCity and lets you script it in python? My inner nerd says this is more important than offline Wikipedia, mesh networking, or even having a web browser.
posted by bertrandom at 8:04 PM on June 21, 2009

I don't have an OLPC, but is it true that it comes with SimCity and lets you script it in python?

Micropolis is available for modding on Windows as well, with a possible porting to XNA (and hence Xbox). Although, me really prefers EA would somehow open up SimCity 3000 for the iphone up for modders. That'll be schweet. :-)
posted by the cydonian at 8:51 PM on June 21, 2009

the cydonian,

That' great that i can mod it on Windows as well, but my point is that when I was a kid, my computing choices were moving a turtle in LOGO, writing:

20 GOTO 10

Shooting deer in Oregon Trail, and inflating prices of my lemonade stand. Now I don't have high hopes, but let's say of these 600,000 computers, on one of them, in a small remote village, some kid is going to learn python from SimCity.
posted by bertrandom at 10:16 PM on June 21, 2009

Except that it doesn't ship with SimCity, nor a way to easily install it.
posted by blasdelf at 11:35 PM on June 21, 2009

This project's failure seems to recall William Easterly's idea of Planners vs Seekers in foreign aid. The OLPC is a typical Planner initiative, a top-down parachute drop "solution" with little connection (strong feedback loops) to the end user. But perhaps it's even worse, perhaps it's just Cargo Cult Aid: "Rich Western societies use computers. I know, let's give poor Third world countries computer. Poverty solved!"
posted by storybored at 6:20 AM on June 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

here's this underlying idea that you can give a kid a computer and let them explore and they'll teach themselves whatever they need. This is certainly true for a subset, and probably for most of the engineers who worked on the OLPC. (I learned BASIC that way back in grade school.) However, most kids aren't going to learn this way
In my experience, many people involved in OLPC and OLPC-like projects were focused specifically on how they could cater to the needs of the particular subset of people who could teach themselves whatever they needed and wanted to learn if given the tools and opportunity. Most of these researchers do realize that this only applies to a subset of students, but those are the ones they're most interested in and excited about appealing to and figure that there are other initiatives more qualified to cater to everyone else. There is, however, a particularly narrow-minded group that is convinced that everyone will respond to constructivist learning environments if only given the chance. These people are both annoying and destructive.
posted by deanc at 3:24 PM on June 22, 2009

It seems that if you judge OLPC on its stated goals, it's a failure.

But I doubt (though of course, can't prove) that the netbook revolution (and I really think we'll end up seeing it as that) would have happened without OLPC as the spur.

Cheap netbooks will be incredibly important in the developing world. (And no, that's not an argument against the primacy of cell phones as a development catalyst. The thing that they lead to will be a hybrid of the two.) It seems likely to me that they exist because hardware vendors were afraid of someone sucking up all the market space before they could get into it.
posted by lodurr at 4:50 PM on June 22, 2009

[the thread has been tweeted]
posted by infini at 2:43 AM on June 23, 2009

blasdelf : It seems you haven't followed the project closely since the first developer machines shipped (they were the last ones with a half-gig of disk). Please check your facts.

OLPCs shipped with 1M of disk space, less than half full. They generally do ship with Wikipedia - countries customize the set of activities that ship with their machines, but most include an English or Spanish Wikipedia snapshot.

SimCity shipped with the machines that G1G1 donors received. Country images can include this (an open source snapshot with the EA logo) or Micropolis (the fork being developed, now in Python instead of TCL).

The dual-mode touchpad was used and tested before it was finalized. It should probably have been used more, but hard-to-reproduce bugs in final testing led to it being turned off. I remember a project last summer that worked on handwriting rec using it.

As for the keyboard... I love it, but realize I'm in the distinct minority. (I need silent keyboards for conference transcription.)
posted by metasj at 10:36 PM on June 24, 2009

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