Interview with Morgan G. Ames on 'The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child' (Part III)


You note that many of the accounts that link the OLPC with cultural imperialism discount the cultural agency of the child users. What do these accounts miss? 

Other analyses of OLPC provide some really insightful critiques about the project's potential effects, but nearly all of them just don't have any on-the-ground experience with how OLPC's XO laptops were actually used. Without seeing what kids were doing with the laptops, I feel like they're missing half the story -- in particular, almost none of the kids cared at all about OLPC's vision or the constructionist software on the machine. If they used the laptop at all, they pursued their own interests with it.  

There were also some features of the laptop -- its mesh network, for instance -- that generated a lot of excitement early on, but really did not work in practice. The XO laptops were just too slow and their batteries drained too fast to make mesh networking possible; the capability was in fact removed from an update to the Sugar software. 

At the same time, I don't want to let OLPC off the hook when it comes to cultural imperialism. OLPC's leaders said all sorts of things about kids leapfrogging past all the adults in their lives, teaching themselves English and programming, and ultimately transforming their cultures. But what does it mean to frame kids as the primary agents of change? Negroponte often said just this in his talks: "We have to leverage kids as the agents of change." Not schools, not governments, not infrastructures, not even parents -- kids.  

One problem with this is that it assumes that kids are not really fully within their cultures. This fits with many of our social imaginaries of children as closer to nature and more noble for it -- they aren't mired in the petty concerns of adulthood yet. OLPC hoped to capture children's "natural" interests and steer them toward computing cultures and away from the cultures they were born into. In addition to being a sneakier form of cultural imperialism, this of course didn't work -- my results corroborated what researchers in education and social science know very well: that learning is socially-motivated and culturally-embedded.  

A second, and much more fundamental, problem comes from the model of cultural change this promotes, which centers on children. It means that these projects are under-resourced from the beginning, because they weren't really thinking about infrastructural or institutional change -- they were focused on individual change and just hoping that larger changes flow from that. And when that change fails to happen, it becomes the fault of those individuals. Failure becomes the fault of the children. 

This meant, for one, that when way more laptops were breaking than One Laptop per Child expected, it was at least at first seen as the responsibility of the kids to repair them. OLPC shipped an extra 1% of laptops, but just over a year after laptops had been handed out in Paraguay, 15% were inoperable, and at least another 15% had dead pixels, missing keys, and other hardware problems. This really blindsided Paraguay Educa -- OLPC leaders had told them that these laptops were so rugged they could withstand being tossed around. Negroponte loved to toss XOs across stages and then turn them on in his presentations. Moreover, OLPC leaders said that kids would be able to repair any issue that would come up. Papert himself had said, "An eight-year old is capable of doing 90% of tech support and a 12 year old 100%. And this is not exploiting the children: it is giving them a powerful learning experience."

Paraguay Educa soon realized, however, that this was not the kinds of breakage that kids could fix on their own. And, moreover, they needed way more spare parts than OLPC had provided. They found temporary workarounds, but once their funding started to run dry, the broken laptops started to really stack up. When I returned in 2013 for some follow-up fieldwork, one participant estimated that counted generously, only 40% of the project's laptops were usable at all, and most of those were rarely used. 

It's these kinds of details that one can only really get from spending some time on the ground. In the early days of the project, many were deeply worried about theft and a laptop black market -- but this problem was basically nonexistent. Breakage, however, was a major problem, and was not adequately anticipated.

Broken XO

Broken XO

You traced what happened to some of the “success stories’ from OLPC. What outcomes did you find? What factors shaped the long term impact of their engagement with computing and programming? 

I was really interested in finding any cases that OLPC would likely define as "success" -- and while I didn't find many, I did find a handful! A few were interested in Scratch or eToys, two of the constructionist programs on the machine. Others photoblogged or learned some basic technical skills. When I returned for follow-up fieldwork in 2013, some were part of a Saturday programming club run by Paraguay Educa. 

What was striking about these kids, though, was that all of them were encouraged by their caretakers -- generally mothers or aunts -- to take their laptop use beyond the media consumption of their peers. These kids' learning was clearly socially-motivated -- and they were, in essence, practicing the other half of connected learning that was missing for most kids. Many of them also already had a computer at home, which was rare in Paraguay more generally, at least in 2010. 

However, most of them ran into various structural limitations in this use. A big one was the English-centric nature of the Internet and of nearly all programming languages. Another involved the kinds of opportunities available in their provincial town. While I am generally very critical of "deficit" models of learning, I also can't ignore the ways that historical and present conditions at times actively marginalized those few interested children. In the end, I think their lives were enriched by the project, but they were not transformed.

Let me end by posing one of your own driving questions. What is the alternative to Charisma-driven models of technological and cultural change? 

In an ideal world, I'd love for projects to honestly assess the resources needed for even incremental change, and to engage in really culturally-embedded cooperatively-run projects led by local leaders, with long-term support for making incremental improvements. Because that's just what is actually realistic here. I'm deeply tired of the technologists on tech-centric projects like this one assuming they're the smartest people in the room and that they don't need to consult with anyone else -- we can clearly see the consequences on that not just with One Laptop per Child but, really, in the many moral crises across the technology industry as a whole.  

I recognize that this would be a pretty drastic transformation from how many tech-centered development and education projects tend to be run -- at least, those that tend to get the most attention and resources. So as a first step, I would ask that those involved in these projects at least recognize that the "moonshot" model of technology-driven social change -- where projects are encouraged to think big, to "disrupt" everything, to "fail fast and often" in hopes that one day they'll really transform the world -- is not only unrealistic, it has some real negative consequences. People involved in developing these technologies are often blinded themselves by their charisma -- they're part of that project because they've bought into the vision too. At the very least, I hope my account can help them stay a bit more grounded, keep their eyes and ears open, and keep their hearts just a little more humble.


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."