OLPC and Charges of Technological and Cultural Imperialism

Quim Gil asked a number of good questions about the One Laptop Per Child initiative. I will not answer all of his questions now and am not sure answers exist yet for every question. With that said, I will try to answer his final question with the traditional disclaimer that the thoughts expressed here are my own and may or may not be shared by others within the project are not the official position of OLPC.

Quim asked, "what measures will be taken to avoid or [inhibit] the spread of a (unconscious or well-intentioned?) cultural neocolonialism?" I have been asked this question many times. It is an issue that concerns me personally. As such, I’ll give you my personal feelings on the subject.

Discussion of cultural colonialism, Westernization, Americanization or techno-imperialism are hardly limited to OLPC. Sometimes it comes in the form of reactions against what is seen as the homogenizing or Americanizing effect of US-based multinationals (e.g., McDonald’s or Nike) or against the culturally oriented US-based motion picture or recording industries. In terms of technology, the debate is often framed in terms of Appropriate Technology.

There is an argument that modern information technology — designed and developed in highly industrialized countries to address their particular set of cultural contexts and needs — may be inappropriate and potentially dangerous in the developing world. This is a fair critique. But while there may be a danger, insisting that the technology be kept out is unrealistic and may miss the larger evil.

These discussions can not responsibly ignore the fact that, depending on whose numbers you trust, there are between and 1 and 2 billion mobile phones in the world today and that number will reach something like 2.6 billion operational units in 2009. That’s nearly half the world population and it’s not hard to find out where most of those phones are going:

All the growth in subscribers is coming from emerging markets," says David Taylor, Motorola’s director of strategy and operations for high-growth markets. Researchers predict that of the 1 billion cell phones expected to be sold in 2010, half will be in developing economies. (link)

Information and communication technology is, in one form or another, on a fast track into the developing world. That may very well be a problem but it’s not the biggest problem in this field. The bigger problem is the nature of the technology that is being imported.

People in the, rich and developed countries may have cellphones, but they frequently also have computers: full-fledged, reprogrammable, hackable computers; computers that they can use to write software, design hardware, install new OSes on, and even — if they are really adventurous — use to reprogram their mobile phone.

People in the developing world will have information technology (in the form of cellphones at least) but do not have the ability — no matter how interested, talented, or intelligent they are — to change the way they work. This is the greater danger.

The most powerful and empowering quality of information technology in the context of personal computers is that as communication is being mediated, facilitated, and defined through software on computers fully within users’ control, each user has the ability to determine the terms on which they communicate. In a world where people are communicating, trading, voting, learning, working, and organizing through digital channels, massive power lies in the hands of those who have the tools (e.g., computers and development platforms) and access and permission (e.g., Free and Open source software) necessary to make the necessary changes.

In three years, there will be a billion people in the developing world who are using information technology on the terms and at the whim of the today’s global elite and they will not be able transcend their role and consumers and subservients in this context. Their ability to transcend their depressed role in larger economic contexts will be highly influenced by this fact. The developing world’s "computers" will not be able to create or change the software that define them. The code that runs these devices will be proprietary and will remain immutable even in the context of additional hardware.

Unless we do something about it.

As far I’m concerned, that something is two steps:

  • We need to create and distribute — real computers that can be used as development platforms — at a price that can begin to compete with their alternatives (e.g., phones, thinclients, WebTVs, etc).
  • We need to make sure that these machines are hackable — totally hackable — on every level. That means open hardware. That means Free and Open Source software. That means open specifications, protocols, and data formats.

That is my personal goal in OLPC and it is one that has seemed to have been echoed by others involved in the project.

Of course, I have hardly washed myself or my project of the stigma of cultural imperialism yet. That said, while making a completely malleable machine allows every user to, if they choose to, transcend their role as a consumer of technology and technologically-defined culture, one side effect of this process is that it also allows them to do so on their own terms. Because the machine is completely free and open, users are free to use the machine in ways that not only have the originators not considered, but that they could not imagine. With time, the machine — and its software in particular — can be rewritten, reshaped, and eventually replaced with something of, by, and for its users.

Of course, this will not happen overnight. As the first step, OLPC will attempt to create something we think provides a compelling and flexible platform with which the world can learn and build. With this in hand, governments and ministries of education that purchase the machine will get to shape (or replace?) the platform in line with their own ideas and curricula. As the students and communities to which the machines are deployed learn and build with and upon the machine, another transformation will occur. As those communities grow in relation to their technology, this change will be sustained.

The potential for this dynamic and empowering relationship is the reason I’m here.