Back in 2005, one of the biggest stories in tech was a project by a group of MIT professors to build a $100 laptop and give them to children in schools around the world.
At the time, a typical laptop cost well over $1,000. So when the founder of the MIT Media Lab, Nicholas Negroponte, announced that he was forming a nonprofit to build a $100 machine for kids, it was a feel-good story that was painted as beyond critique.
“The only criticism—and people really don’t want to criticize this because it is a humanitia effort, it is a nonprofit effort, and to criticize it is a little bit stupid, actually,” said Negroponte, in a TED talk delivered in 2006. “The one thing that people could criticize was, ‘Great idea, but these guys can’t do it.’”
His nonprofit, called One Laptop per Child (OLPC), did go on to create millions of devices, named XO computers, for a price closer to about $130 each. But things didn’t go as flawlessly as their creators promised.
The story of how these laptops grew into a cultural phenomenon, what their educational impact was and what happened to them after they faded from public discussion is the subject of a new book, “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child,” by Morgan Ames, interim associate director of research for UC Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society.
EdSurge recently connected with Ames to talk about the book and about her theory about the dangers of what she calls “charismatic technology.”
Listen to this week’s podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or in the player below. Or read a portion of the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: So take us back to 14 years ago, when this effort to create a $100 laptop seemed like it could spark a revolution in education. How was it pitched?
Morgan Ames: In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte started talking more publicly about this idea of the $100 laptop, as he called it then, as a way of getting computers into the hands of children all across the global south, or as he often said, the developing world.
It was all over the news. There was a huge “give one, get one” campaign in Christmas 2007 and again in Christmas 2008 where people could buy one of these laptops for themselves and pay twice as much for it, and one got sent overseas, many of them ended up in Haiti. So for a few years it was really the kind of a media darling of the tech world.
And then it kind of went dormant.
So one big question I had … is what happened with all these machines?
Millions of these were created, right?
Just shy of 3 million were [made] in the end. Negroponte, who also cofounded the MIT Media Lab, talked in the early days about making hundreds of millions of these machines, and I think he and many people on the project fully expected that they would get orders for hundreds of millions. That never quite came to fruition, but almost 3 million is still a lot of laptops out there. Most of them ended up in Latin America.
"In the ideal world, I would love for projects to be able to make realistic promises and still get funding—and get long-term funding."
There are two very big projects, one in Uruguay and one in Peru, which account for almost three- quarters of those laptops out there in the world. But there are a number of other projects that are small- to medium-sized that are scattered all around.
In your book, you say the project is an example of “charismatic technology.” What does that mean? What is charismatic technology?
I was just really fascinated at how alluring the laptop itself seemed to be in circles. I mean on one hand, Negroponte can be a very charismatic leader.
But I found that aside from Negroponte, people mentioning the OLPC laptop, the $100 laptop, they could just mention that and it would stand in for all sorts of big ideas in the world. And so I thought, Negroponte sure has charisma, but this laptop seems to also have charisma, in a way. And so I started thinking about it and fleshing out this idea, and it ended up being just the central point around which a lot of my analysis ended up hanging. I started seeing some common threads of the kinds of stories these charismatic projects tell.
What makes up a charismatic technology?
So a charismatic technology generally promises to do something really transformative in the world. It promises to make us all better people, to completely transform our lives. Ironically, though, it often makes those promises by referring to things that are already familiar to us. And this is something that charismatic leaders rely on, too. They echo our own values in some way. And so a charismatic technology similarly promises this quick fix transformation that it's very common in the tech world. And in doing so, it echoes some of our existing values—and sometimes some problematic values.
You call the book a cautionary tale about technology hype. So what are some downsides to relying on a charismatic technology?
So charisma on the one hand can be this wonderful force that brings people together and gives them a shared purpose, but it can really also lead to a lot of blind spots. People get so caught up in the vision of this project, including people who work on it. This isn't just a matter of them hoodwinking everybody else. Many of the people on this project honestly believed this laptop was going to go out there, kids were going to teach themselves to program with it, and it was going to transform the world. They get so caught up in that vision that they miss important markers that suggest that maybe that vision won't come true—that that vision is too utopian, that it's disconnected from reality. And I think that's some of the danger of charisma is just that disconnect from reality.
I think at one point Nicholas Negroponte literally said drop tablets from helicopters, and the kids will teach themselves to read with them. So I think that that kind of quick-fix mentality, the disruptive fixation, as a colleague of mine Christo Sims puts it, is an important part of that charisma.
So what happened? This effort had all this backing, all this public momentum. Why wasn't it enough for this to grow more than it did?
Well, there are a lot of pieces to this. So some pin One Laptop per Child's eventual failure on its technical shortcomings, and it was in a lot of cases a frustrating-to-use machine. These were slow machines. They were built with, in many cases, older technology, technology that was typical maybe five or 10 or even longer years before these were manufactured. And a lot of kids found them pretty frustrating to use. They also broke more easily than One Laptop per Child had originally advertised and that many of the projects on the ground, the local projects, expected and anticipated.
But I think even beyond the physical limitations, there was an impossibility in the promises made with a project like this. And this is true for many of these kinds of “moonshot” projects. They promise so big that even if they had the perfect machine and they had no issues with it, that machine would not have been able to fulfill those promises.
Certainly something good must've come of all this. Do you have any sense of what the best thing that did come of having all these almost 3 million laptops put in places that didn't have this type of technology?
I can speak most concretely about Paraguay. That's where I did my field work. That's where I've spent the most time and I followed it most closely. And what I saw there was there was certainly a lot of excitement being part of this project with this kind of international exposure. A lot of people who were involved, the kids and the teachers and the parents were honored to be recipients of these laptops.
And so I think that the benefits that that enabled are not to be downplayed. I think that they might have come about in the next few years anyway though in 2009 when, in Paraguay at least, when the One Laptop per Child laptops were given out, the first round of them, less than 10 percent of the Paraguayan population had computers. There was very little saturation of computers. Most of the population did have TVs and radios. So it's not that they were really disconnected, and they would hear about the internet and computers via those sources, but they didn't have much direct experience. So this laptop gave especially the kids a little bit more direct experience with that.
What kind of unintended negative consequences do you think came out of this program?
One thing I was very critical of with the project was the way that quite a few advertisers hopped on and started making content specifically for the XO. Quite a few big companies. Nestle was one, they contracted with a Uruguayan game company to make Nestle-themed mini games that were specifically installable on the XO. Nickelodeon hosted a big competition for XOs and had tons and tons of advertising. There are also local Paraguayan companies who sponsored various XO events and advertised a lot across them.
Today there are a whole bunch of teachers out there using Chromebooks, and you'll see these maybe even in some universities too, which are these very low-end devices. And some claim that the One Laptop per Child, these $100 laptops, showed the way for a low-end device to be powerful as a school consumer device. Do you think there's something to that theory?
Negroponte does love to claim that. It's hard to say because certainly low-power devices existed before the XO. That said, they were not popular, and they were not seen as a great tool in education. I do think though that there was also a lot of infrastructure that had been built up that enabled Chromebooks. So if we didn't have cloud computing, Chromebooks still wouldn't be very useful. They really rely on having an internet connection and being able to store a lot of the things remotely. And this was something even OLPC didn't do very well.
That said, I think that certainly the idea of using computers in education, the one-to-one model, it had been around for a while, but OLPC probably did help popularize it much more than it was before.
What would you say is your biggest takeaway or what's the lesson from this example of what you called charismatic technology?
In the ideal world, I would love for projects to be able to make realistic promises and still get funding—and get long-term funding. So if I were able to snap my fingers and change the world, change the edtech world especially, that would be something I would love. Given that that's probably not going to happen, I think one thing that I hope this book can accomplish is to make people more aware of the kinds of stories that get told about edtech projects and about technology projects more generally and how we get taken in by those stories because they resonate with who we see ourselves as and the group we see ourselves belonging to. And when we are taken in, we can be blinded to what might actually be going on.