Thursday, February 22, 2007

While I had heard of the Negroponte project for $ 100 laptops previously, it was not until today that a post at Dave Davison's Thoughts Illustrated made me appreciate the true scale of the endeavor. Dave's post led me to this article about Alan Kay, one of the fathers of the PC and of the very internet itself. Some key points from the Kay article:

"The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We're very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore's Law step in software. It's going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting.

The third project we're just getting started on and don't have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold."

Kay makes very clear that the $100 laptop effort is aimed at the Gap where children are relatively uncorrupted by the pop culture techno expectations of America. A tabula rasa to re-start the information revolution. However the economic spillover effects of such an accomplishment cannot be contained. The entire computer market will be affected to broaden societal and global access to information.

At a stroke, in American public schools, the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated, as would their use as a crutch by gen-ed majors and basketball coaches posing as teachers of core academic subjects. The poorest American school districts can afford $ 100 laptops even when new textbooks are beyond their budgetary reach. Kids in East St. Louis and Watts and the moonscape of inner city Detroit can enter the information age along with Bangladeshis and Burundians.

Factor in the pirates who will produce copycat versions in places like China and we are talking about an increase in the online population of the world by several orders of magnitude with all that such connectivity entails.

Cross-posted at Chicago Boyz

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The sociological implications of this will be highly interesting. People always call the internet an "information superhighway," but in a highway only people with cars can travel. With these kinds of programs, the internet is becoming even more of an egalitarian medium. Perhaps the technological and hierarchal decentralization we already see will be accelerated.
Hi A.E.

And there will be political implications too - even where censors rule with a suffocating hand. New information sparks ideas. Scientific thinking incites critical thought ( many a violent revolutionary had the benefit of technical training without the mellowing influence of the censored humanities)

Also, from a technical perspective, I don't see how even the powerful censorship engines installed by the Chinese will eventually win out over the internet boom. People are increasingly using things like TOR or proxy servers to get around it.
While you are focused on the benefits and the social implications, I am shocked by OLPC's $150 Billion start-up cost, and the $30 Billion yearly run rate. That's way more than the developing world can afford or that the World Bank can loan.

Makes you wonder who OLPC thinks will pay for this...
Hi wayan,

It makes me wonder if negroponte is proposing the figure on realistic estimates for the production and distribution of the laptop or on the needs of a much larger agenda. Or if the figure was simply pulled out of the air for "spash" purposes.

Anyone with business/financial/tech sector experience care to comment ?
To the extent that this program is designed to combat terrorism, I think it is misguided. It seems to me that "connectivity" yields a reactionary response to what they see/learn on behalf of many in the third world and their response is terrorism; most al Qaeda are educated and I think it is safe to say that Mohammad Atta knew how to use a laptop. Does simply owning a laptop increase ones ability to think critically? Does it facilitate self criticism? Most importantly does it offer economic opportunities? On this front, if the program is done in a vacuum, I think not.

Inventions like increasingly cheap and mobile computers, open source software, cheaper telecommunications, wikis (wikipedia, wikitextbooks, etc), and podcasts will make it very easy to learn if one wishes to, for the majority of the world's population.

Of course this will increase unrest and insurrection. Our goal should be to make sure this feedback goes to the local regimes, which needs it, and not to us.
Alan Kay has also done extensive work on teaching programming to kids

1. "The trick," Kay continues, "is that like Montessori we think of the main instincts of kids is to play. There just aren't any twentieth and twenty-first century toys to play with. Seymore Pappert's LOGO pioneered this and lead kids to real mathematical learning." Kay says, "once kids make stuff, you start to see real computer literacy."

2. For me, the key is education. And in my mind the patron saint of how to teach kids is Maria Montessori. A hundred years ago, Montessori understood that children always are trying to learn about their environment, and so the best way to help them was to give them carefully organized, rich environments, where the toys and the play have 20th-century side effects. In my opinion, this is one of the great ideas in the history of education. Even today, most of the best cognitive science about education harks back to Montessori's original insights.

Seymour Papert used to talk about the kid who has difficulty in mathematics. Typically, the teacher will say, "Well, this kid is not math-minded. Let's try the kid on something else." But if the kid were having difficulty in French, we couldn't say that that kid is not French-minded, because we know that had the kid been born in France he or she would have no trouble learning French. So Papert's idea was that there's something environmentally wrong about the way math is taught to kids. If the environment were right, they would learn. Well, the computer is a tool with which you can actually make rich environments, in which learning can have the character of play.

3. Q: Why hasn't educational computing lived up to the potential that you and Papert saw in the 1960s?
A: Don't even worry about computers yet. When did math and science actually start becoming important for everyone in our society to know? Probably 200 years ago. Now think about how poorly math and science are being taught in elementary school today. So don't even worry about computers; instead, worry about how long it takes for something that is known to be incredibly important to get into the elementary-school curriculum. That's the answer. Of course it's taking forever—because the adults are the intermediaries, and they don't like math and science.

So computers are actually irrelevant at this level of discussion—they are just musical instruments. The real question is this: What is the prospect of turning every elementary school teacher in America into a musician? That's what we're talking about here. Afterward we can worry about the instruments.
Kay makes very clear that the $100 laptop effort is aimed at the Gap where children are relatively uncorrupted by the pop culture techno expectations of America.

Where, precisely, is this? I suspect that they'll be disappointed.

At a stroke, in American public schools, the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated

$100 computers that have the key software components listed above are doable now. The problem is that they won't run Windows.

That means that, although they may be perfectly useful, in the United States at least these computers won't be substitutes for the ones that have put our school systems on the treadmill you've described.
The real benefit is not the $100 laptop. It's the $200 laptop that he's going to be selling alongside it to fund his $100 laptops.

At least 2/3rds of the world is in the Core, 1/3 at most is in the Gap. If you can sell enough $200 laptops, the $100 laptops will do fine. But nobody really looks at what the $200 laptops will do...

Imagine a much higher level of computerization to the point where we're talking ubiquity. Computers were revolutionary. Networking computers became another revolution. Ubiquitous presence of computers imparts a third. And most of us are blind to this coming future.
Hi TM,

Regarding ubiquity - what are your thoughts along the Kurweillian/Rheingold lines of merging computers with ourselves in the form of implants or at least near continuous sensory input ?
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