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books/readings tech anguish

Book Report: The Charisma Machine

What kind of blog will this be? Idk yet; right now it’s just a thing I occasionally remember exists and I dump text into it now and again. One of my goals with this when I started it was to collect what I’m reading in a more tangible way somehow, and I don’t want to review books and I don’t want to deal with Goodreads or whatever, so I’m gonna do this instead: a book report. I will definitely evince an opinion about whether or not I like something, but no star ratings or any of that.

So, anyway, onto the book at hand: The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child by Morgan Ames. This was an incredible work that I think should be required reading for just about anyone in engineering, computer science, entrepreneurship, or any of the various allied disciplines and the overlapping stuff in between. It’s an in-depth exploration, articulated through hefty research, field work, and understanding of tech rhetoric and educational theory, of technological imperialism. It exposes the lies and gaps that the snake oil sages on stages never want to spend a minute of their TED talks on, revealing both the victims of their false promises and the hidden labor of the people who believe enough to try to make them come true.

One Laptop Per Child, or OLPC, still exists in some difficult-to-understand form today, but for folks unfamiliar, it was an MIT Media Lab spinoff project run by a group of…wait for it, privileged white American men with the intention of deploying millions of cheap laptops to young children in developing nations around the world. It was co-directed by Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab co-founder and guy who has seriously said things like the following: “We’ll take tablets and drop them out of helicopters into villages that have no electricity and school, then go back a year later and see if the kids can read.” Now, the Media Lab has been on an accelerated fall from grace in the back half of 2019, so it’s probably not especially surprising that Jeffrey Epstein pals like Marvin Minsky were in on some of the foundational thinking that led to this, but there’s still many lessons to be learned here.

The project was rife with problems from its start around 2005 with manufacturing costs being much higher than expected and the leaders’ fixation with what Ames calls “nostalgic design,” an obsession that resulted in machines with far less computing power and storage space than equivalent laptops of the time. Key features, like the hand crank that was initially dreamed up in hopes of powering computers in areas where there was no electricity available, proved impossible to build and never came to fruition. Even with a rugged exterior that Negroponte notoriously threw across the stage at some circle-jerk presentation or other, the machines still broke in large numbers, especially their screens and trackpads. It also was immediately clear to participating nations that the tablet-dropping helicopter wasn’t really a viable solution. In countries like Paraguay where Ames situated her fieldwork, massive infrastructural upgrades and assistance, including NGOs to do enormous amounts of work on integrating the laptops in school curricula, were necessary to do anything at all with these machines.

Ames describes what she is tactful enough to not call a total clusterfuck. In one class she visits, a teacher asks students to pull out their laptops and open a program so they can complete an assignment with the computer. A handful of students don’t have their laptops at all (they’ve broken irreparably or been lost), and at least half of the remaining group doesn’t have the program installed. Because the developers wanted children to “hack” their laptops and have the complete ownership over them they thought was part and parcel to their tech-utopian ideal, the kids often deleted boring programs like the one in question so they could make room for downloaded music and videos. The teachers, already overworked and underpaid with minimal resources, generally didn’t take to this new pedagogical model. As a result, the NGO supporting this rollout recruited trainers to support the use of the laptops in class and develop the pedagogy. But unless teachers had a natural proclivity for the machines or a special interest in them, this didn’t stick. Same went for the children, though for them the interest level definitely cleaved along class and gender divides, as well as the type of environments they had at home:

“[F]ully two-thirds of children hardly ever used their laptops. Some nonuse was due to breakage, which occurred along gendered and socioeconomic lines, complicating some of the benefits the project was supposed to provide… [Each] student [that used their laptops in the way OLPC intended] had a constellation of resources that encouraged them along this path: families that steered them toward creative and critical thinking, a focus on the importance of education, and in many cases another computer at home.”

I think what amazed me most about this story was the number of people who wanted it to be true and who put a ton of work into filling in the gaps and figuring out the Ames calls the “messy world” parts. It’s not surprising that Negroponte and his Media Lab bros would buy into their own rhetoric, but it bothers me deeply that their colleagues at MIT and the folks at the NGOs created to support OLPC seemed to eat it up, too. Maybe it was a product of its time; shortly before the dawn of social media/”Web 2.0,” there was an explosion of educational technology books, research, and prosthelytizing. Maybe the directors of the project were in such an echo chamber of other tech utopians and mystified journalists that they were never in a position of being called on the pretty boldfaced “imperialist notion that technology simply flows from the Global North to passive and graceful recipients in the Global South. Or maybe it was the power of charisma and the “social imaginaries” Ames teases apart in the book: the experiences, opinions, and ideas of OLPC’s developers became the only vision they could see, the glorious triumph of the “technically precocious boy” over his machine, leading to his discovery of identity, sense of belonging, and success in society. In other words, just because the Media Lab bros were empowered by their mastery of technology, little boys the world over could be, too.

“[C]harisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less charismatic.”

So, right now as we’re sitting here living through history, we need to stay on the lookout for the charismatic “solutions” that will surface in the hopes of quickly and painlessly getting us back to “normal.” They’re already coming in the form of health monitoring snake oil and educational disruption from everyone’s favorite surveillance capitalist, and there will be plenty more to come. The Charisma Machine shows what happens when folks that benefit from existing power relations try to impose their ideologies on people who don’t. There’s no innovation there, just a tool allegedly built for liberation that, once exposed to the messy world, instantly falls apart.