Earlier this year, I met Morgan G. Ames, who has recently published The Charisma Machine, which deals with the MIT Media Lab and the one-laptop-per-child initiative, which was perhaps the iconic project at the lab during the time I was at MIT. Our brief conversation brought back a flood of memories of my interactions with faculty and students there and of some of the intellectual debates I was having at the time these projects were unfolding. Reading her book brought back an even more intense flood of memories. So, I approached her about doing this interview months ago.
Her writing is fair-minded and generous but also critical of the project and how it worked on the ground in Latin America. She digs deep into the thinking behind the project, its links to a particular way of thinking about computing, its demonstration of the limits of a certain top-down mindset that is common to many U.S. based technology--based learning initiatives, and the gap between the Global North and South in terms of the realities of what happens inside and outside schools. The questions here are important ones that need to be considered both within the Media Lab and far beyond it.
I've hesitated about sharing this interview right now given the current turmoil the Lab is undergoing in the wake of the news of its affiliations with Jeffrey Epstein. I don't want this discussion, which has nothing to do with that one, to be understood as piling on. I admire the courage of Ethan Zuckerman and others at the lab who have publicly protested the choices made by the Lab and MIT leadership in this case. I celebrate the women who have stepped up to confront the misogyny that permeates many aspects of MIT culture. Yet, I also maintain fondness for old friends who have found themselves caught up in this mess and who have in some cases made some really bad decisions. This interview focuses on a different moment in the Lab's history and reflects a conversation being held before this scandal erupted.
Explain the book’s title. In what sense was the One Laptop Per Child “a Charisma Machine”? What are the implications of applying a term like Charisma, which has historically been so closely associated with the qualities of human leaders, to talk about technologies?
When I first started following the One Laptop per Child project way back in 2008, I was fascinated by how alluring the project's "XO" laptop seemed to be for many contributors and others across the tech industry. OLPC had very ambitious ideas for how its laptop should be used by children across the Global South, and what the results would be -- and I found that the laptop itself came to stand for those ideas for many people. I started thinking about how the laptop began to have its own kind of authority in these circles: even mentioning it came to stand in for a particular kind of joyful, technically deep experience they wanted more children to have with computers.
I turned to sociological theory to help make sense of this, going all the way back to one of the founders of modern sociology -- Max Weber -- who outlined and described different kinds of authority. Charismatic authority is something that religious or cult leaders may have -- they may not have the weight of an institution like the government behind them, or the weight of tradition to lean on, yet they still seem to command a following.
On the one hand, some of OLPC's leaders were certainly charismatic -- Nicholas Negroponte in particular has been the public face of the project, and his charisma was important for promoting it, just as his charisma helped build the MIT Media Lab in its first two decades. But in many of the places OLPC was taken up, Negroponte wasn't necessarily well-known or, in some cases, really known at all. In these cases, OLPC's "XO" laptop itself came to stand for OLPC's ideas.
When I think about how "charisma" might apply to machines, I think about how science and technology studies (or STS) has shown that machines can have agency: they can take on meanings and act on the world beyond the intentions of their designers. I also think about how STS, and the social sciences more broadly, discuss authority not as some kind of divine or "natural" thing, but something that is produced by a whole set of social choices and technical constraints that already exist. So when I call OLPC's laptop "charismatic," it's not in a hero-worship kind of sense -- it's a first step in calling attention to the ways that many have taken its allure for granted, and how that allure was created.
You note that African countries were resistant from the start to the OLPC project and that 80 percent of the laptops produced were deployed to Latin American countries. Why were Latin American countries more receptive than African countries, given Negroponte’s project to transform the Global South?
At the flashy debut of what was then the "hundred dollar laptop" at 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, the African delegation immediately voiced concerns about the environmental impacts of these machines and their very real potential to further the ongoing imperialism of the Global North across Africa. Moreover, the governments of many African countries OLPC approached in the years following just didn't have the budget to put toward this project -- and that's even just buying the laptops, not the significant infrastructural and maintenance costs that were required to sustain it. (Though Negroponte repeatedly said that governments could "give out laptops and walk away," most clearly knew that that wasn't realistic.) The one non-pilot project in Africa was in Rwanda, which did eventually buy some 250,000 of OLPC's "XO" laptops. But that's a far cry from the hundreds of millions of laptops that OLPC had initially aimed for.
In Latin America, however, OLPC's mission fit very well with a longstanding interest in open-source software, and most Latin American countries are at least "middle-income" by World Bank measures. So while OLPC's early promotional photos often featured smiling African children, it was mostly Latin American countries with the resources and interest to take it up. And even within Latin America, it's really two countries -- Uruguay and Peru -- that together purchased nearly three quarters of the XO's in the world, around one million laptops each. Other projects -- including Paraguay's, where I spent by far the most time doing fieldwork -- were much smaller, generally on the order of tens of thousands of laptops.
The MIT Media Lab has long been celebrated for its roles in “inventing the future,” yet your analysis focuses a lot on the nostalgic dimensions of the devices it created. In what senses was OLPC nostalgic? What was it nostalgic for? How do we reconcile the competing pulls towards futurism and nostalgia?
This was one of the great ironies of this project, and of many charismatic technology projects, especially in education. These charismatic projects may paint visions of a utopian future, but in order to be charismatic they have to appeal to parts of the world that are familiar to those they want to reach.
For OLPC, that was the childhood experiences with computers that many techies, especially those who consider themselves part of the "hacker" community, fondly recount from their own childhoods. In the early years of OLPC, I read through dozens, even hundreds of discussions about OLPC among project contributors and across the web that directly compared OLPC's XO laptop to Commodores, Amigas, Apple IIs, and other early computing systems that many of them had used decades before.
The specifications of these older systems were even used, in part, to justify making the XO laptop really underpowered. Reducing the laptop's energy usage was a driving goal, but the justification I heard was that these old systems didn't need fancy graphics or lots of memory to be captivating, so why does the XO need them? This ended up creating huge problems in use, though -- most kids today don't really care about those older systems, after all. They want a computer that could take advantage of the media-rich web, and the XO just couldn't deliver there.
In this way, as I argue throughout the book, charisma is ultimately "conservative" -- it may promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, but it is appealing because it just amplifies existing values and ideologies. In OLPC's case, it promoted a vision of the world where children across the Global South would have the opportunity to have the same kinds of formative experiences with a computer that these adults remembered having.
Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project -- and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies."