[Air-l] air-l Digest, Vol 23, Issue 6: OLPC discussion

Jeremy Hunsinger jhuns at vt.edu
Wed Jun 7 14:41:52 PDT 2006

On Jun 7, 2006, at 5:15 PM, Andre Brock wrote:

> pragmatics and common sense are not applicable outside of your own
> frame of reference.  My family always references the difference
> between 'street knowledge' and 'book knowledge' - lack of one will get
> you killed, lack of the latter  will get you fired.

human capacity and creativity of use, ie pragmatics is generalizable  
in many ways.  my transposition of technical capacity amongst objects  
is not different in this case.

> the assumption that Africans will use a laptop for a shovel is not
> like you using a dutch oven to move snow.  i wasn't picking on you;
> it's just that your comment was the most blatant of a number of
> comments that on the surface address the 'practicalities' of bringing
> techonlogy to Africa but underneath are filled with assumptions about
> the capacities of Africans who are not users of IT in the ways that
> the Western world respects.

Kindly note, that i never raised the question of race or nationality  
in any of my posts.  In fact, i don't actually differentiate the  
categories of race and nationality in my work (Personally, i think  
those categories perpetuate racism and nationalism and I prefer to  
promote a practice of equality and cosmopolitan identity).  So when  
you say x is racist, my response is 'i was not talking about race',  
you should know i wasn't talking about Africa either, i think that  
you'll find that neither is the MIT project.  The first project that  
MIT did that launched this was in Vietnam and Cambodia, where they  
took in IBM thinkpads and the project failed for a variety of reasons  
due to the problems that I've been talking about, education and  

> your comments about exporting ideology
> and knowledge sound more like an assumption that Africans don't
> already have the knowledge or networks  necessary to 'properly' employ
> these laptops.  why is that?

In my mind, looking at this particular laptop design and knowing how  
hard it is to teach someone the ins and outs of using a linux system,  
i don't think that you could put this laptop very many places in the  
world and have the understandings or infrastructure necessary to have  
a successful user base.  the fundamental assumption is not about  
Africans or anyone else, it is about this laptop and its design being  
flawed and premised on the assumption, in my opinion, that technology  
will solve the problems, or that technology will bring about a  
change.  I think it is predicated on a form of technological  
determinism in other words, and I don't think that development works  
like that.

> Despite the PR pictures i've seen (as you may have) of malnourished
> Africans crowded around a laptop like Negroponte's OLPC, there are
> more than a few places in Africa with thriving ISPs, corporate offices
> on the Internet, and cybercafes.

Actually I've never seen those pictures.  The pictures and objects  
that I've seen were at WSIS and the recent picture of the bunny ear'd  
cute, twistable, multiple moving parts laptop that they just released.

> i'm painfully aware, as a digital
> divide researcher and a minority, of the deficit assumptions that
> power DD discourse.    there are literally millions of africans (and
> african americans, for that matter) who can and would use these
> laptops not only for their intended purposes, but probably hack them
> for purposes of their own.
I don't doubt that there are millions of people in the world that  
will find these to be highly valued commodities.   That also brings  
up the question... will it be better to sell your free laptop or keep  
it?  How are they going to enforce that?  if at all.

> The point where i do agree with you (strangely enough) is about
> knowledge.  but that knowledge should be user created content about
> the world that they live in, not random abstract knowledge about
> things in the Western world that don't matter a damn to someone in
> Burkina Faso.
> will their usage live up to our expectations?  probably not.  but the
> best resources about ICT usage indicate that the best way to learn
> about computers is to to let people play with them without fear of
> reprisal (have you read Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age?  that's a good
> illustration of what i'm talking about).  let's put them out there and
> see what happens.

or, perhaps, we could take the 500 million that might be spent on  
this project worldwide and build information kiosks as Sara's posts  
suggests are effective....  or perhaps, we should build commercial  
infrastructure with that 500million....   as i said in my blog, i  
could see taking the Fablab http://cba.mit.edu/projects/fablab/ model  
and doing that and letting people develop their own novel technics  
based on an open infrastructure, perhaps they'd build a laptop, but i  
can't see the predetermined laptop model being highly successful.    
Perhaps I will be proven wrong.

> andre
> On 6/7/06, Jeremy Hunsinger <jhuns at vt.edu> wrote:
>> Look, i've used pots and pans for shovels before to dig my way out of
>> snow drifts before i could afford a shovel. I've also used my old
>> computer as a stepping stool.   if there is a practical use for
>> something that goes above and beyond its immediate projected
>> usefulness, you can believe that people will be smart enough to use
>> it that way.  It is pragmatics and common sense.  If the use value of
>> an object is higher in another mode of use for whatever reason in a
>> particular situation, then it will likely be used that way.  if the
>> use value of information technology is less than that of using it for
>> a another need, people will tend to use it for the other need.   it
>> is not 'racist' to admit that.   I've lived in rural areas in the
>> u.s. and urban areas and let me tell you, people do not always use
>> things in ways that I would use them and I don't expect that of
>> anyone else.    Do you?
>> The laptop... has built into it a certain ideology and set of western
>> norms.   There is a huge mental and knowledge infrastructure that
>> goes into giving laptops the 'aura' that they have in our everyday
>> lives.   there is a ton of evidence that has shown that just giving
>> countries computing infrastructure is not enough to transform them
>> into learning or knowledge societies, there has to be an education
>> program to parallel that infrastructure and then there has to be a
>> plan for sustainability of the infrastructure also.   In short, we
>> have to export the ideology, norms, and knowledges to make things
>> work the way we think they should work.  However, it should be
>> granted that not everyone thinks that we should pursue the
>> normalization in parallel to the distribution of technology...
>> However, then why are we designing the infrastructure according to
>> our norms.
>> my point is that this program has no educational or sustainability
>> program iin place and thus what will happen to it?   what would you
>> do with the computer when the computer no longer works? or you can't
>> figure out how to work it for some reason.
>> as far as i can tell this whole $100 laptop program is predicated on
>> the idea that technology can solve problems.   Technology is just a
>> tool, humans solve problems.  If you don't give the humans the
>> knowledge they need to build and sustain their own technological
>> infrastructure, then in my opinion, you are just creating a larger
>> digital divide, you have created a divide based on dependency.   That
>> will tend to develop into class divides much as happened in
>> colonialism, is this project different than a digital colonization?
>> I'm not sure.
>> The project that I really liked in this field was the simputer, it
>> had a plan for education and sustainability, but costs got out of
>> hand,  much like the costs of the $100 laptop have.
> -- 
> Andre Brock
> PhD Candidate - Library and Information Studies
> Project Athena Fellow
> POSSE Mentor - UIUC Posse 2 (217.333.4693)
> University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign

jeremy hunsinger
jhuns at vt.edu

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