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Tuesday, July 05, 2022

Little laptops that couldn’t

We need to stop fetishising the machine,and ask exactly what it achieves

Written by Amulya Gopalakrishnan |
February 2, 2009 1:30:56 am

All our stuff is made of dreams,and all technological accomplishments rest on an initial imaginative leap. So tomorrow,in Tirupati,land of miracles,India will unveil a ten-dollar laptop. Developed jointly by Vellore Institute of Technology,the Indian Institute of Science and IIT Chennai,supported by companies like Semiconductor Complex,the laptop has reportedly been fitted out with 2GB of memory,wi-fi,ethernet,and expandable memory.

If that sounds fabulous,it probably is. Even with a huge government subsidy,it is unclear how ten dollars can get you much more than a souped-up calculator. It supposedly costs twenty dollars to manufacture,but India’s massive economies of scale should drive costs down to ten dollars — roughly five hundred rupees. According to a report,“It uses a cheap microprocessor (not Intel or AMD’s standard PC chips) and removes the hard disk,CD/ DVD drive and other costly and problem-prone components,leaving the keyboard,screen and USB port.” But even the most rudimentary netbooks cost more than ten times as much,and it is uncertain how this laptop will manage to display most internet content or really,even cover the cost of its material components. Atanu Dey,economist and tech commentator,has been scathing in his attack on the credulous press that bought the ten-dollar boast. Most tech blogs have tagged the news in the “yeah right” category.

The ten-dollar laptop was based on a dare. When MIT Media Lab founder and Old Testament-style prophet of the new media universe,Nicholas Negroponte,started his One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project promising 100-dollar laptops to children in the developing world,the HRD ministry flung the offer right back,claiming that India could produce its own cheap and best laptop. It rightly claimed that funds would be better used ramping up secondary education; and then,ludicrously added that OLPC seemed “pedagogically suspect”,and that rural children were probably not up to the “physical and psychological” effects of personalised computer use.

To be fair,Negroponte’s scheme was based on his conviction that affordable computing for children could help developing countries “leapfrog” into the future and indeed,that this was a burning necessity given that children in the developed world are now “digital natives”,having grown up in a wired world.

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The OLPC laptop (closer to 200 dollars now,as some expected large contracts failed to materialise) is a small marvel of design and durability,built for rugged use and child’s play. With a screen that can hold up even in direct sunlight,wireless mesh networking,and its own Linux-based Sugar platform,its green,Wall-E-like adorability is hard to resist. But the project has had a twisted trajectory,and has failed to sell in the millions Negroponte expected. It has teamed up with Microsoft for a controversial dual-boot version,and is now launching a dramatic open-source engineered XO-2 ebook for 75 dollars. OLPC has also made its way back into India through a partnership with Reliance ADAG,and runs a pilot scheme in Khairat,Maharashtra. Meanwhile,Intel,which famously broke with OLPC,provides a similar Classmates PC. And now,whatever India produces for ten dollars,it will only add to the options in educational computing.

But the entire flap over laptops is another instance of our inability to critically evaluate technology — we either fall into techno-mysticism of the Negroponte variety (“Give a laptop. Change the world” is OLPC’s cheery motto) or a generalised hostility to such technology as a frippery we can’t afford,instead of a substantive reflection on the ways in which computers open valuable new avenues for learning and play. For instance,it is possible to ask whether computers are really an invitation to limitless experiment,given the fact that all possibilities are inscribed into the tool itself,as opposed to the free-form creativity of a sketchboard and crayons. Or that the multiple tracks of attention demanded by digital interaction cannot replace the deep reading and deep thinking that a book encourages. The holes in traditional schooling can’t be fixed with a shiny green laptop. This is not to second the HRD ministry’s dark suspicions about OLPC,but a reminder that a laptop is empty and unproductive by itself,and the adoption of a technology must depend on the particular ends being aimed at,in each situation. For instance,who will maintain and support these laptops in rough conditions? Might cellphones be a more malleable tool for certain contexts? The digital divide is an important issue,but there are more painful deprivations in India and this kind of techno-euphoria is downright dangerous when it displaces public attention away from the gross inadequacies of education delivery.

But we tend to imbue digital technology with a patina of virtue (or the other way round,we impute all kinds of cultural decline to the rise of the PC). As media scholar David J. Bolter has written,if the spindle and the potter’s wheel were the defining technologies to the ancient Greeks,Renaissance Europe was suffused with clockwork imagery,whether in the work of Descartes,Leibniz or Newton,and the 19th century explained itself through the steam engine — our particular moment is dominated by converging screens. But fetishising the computer ignores the social and institutional context in which it is placed. For example,if a political figure happens to wield a laptop,that is not a totem of progress,it is purely a matter of personal convenience. Positive change depends on what s/he does with it. The internet is of course,like magic potion for organisational efforts,as Barack Obama (and Howard Dean before that) demonstrated in phenomenally efficient campaigns. But the mere fact that Obama is familiar with Facebook and knows his way around a Blackberry does not automatically make his a “2.0” presidency,with all the surrounding associations of transparency,openness,and bottom-up connection.

As the Zen koan has it,mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself is a common human failing.

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