Pre-class Discussion for Jan 18

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Zittrain, The Future of the Internet, Conclusion

I think the OLPC project tells us a lot about the problems facing generativity and the difficulties in setting out to foster it. Institutionalized generativity is always a compromised generativity. The OLPC might well be entering into spaces that could be defined as a backwaters in economic terms but it is born out of an MIT lab and into the full glare of a highly developed market. Issues that seemingly could not be ignored, such as potential viruses and theft, are present because the aim of the project is generativity through ubiquity. The project is marketed as one that relies on outstanding success and market penetration before generativity can give the big payoff. This is not the generativity of the early internet and pc revolutions.

This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that it appears to be a them and us project, one in which there is a technology for the developed world and another for the developing world. This inevitably makes states weary of purchasing and taking part in what could seem like an experiment at their expense. I can't help wondering why the OLPC project is not open to any educational institution who wishes to buy them. From personal experience I can say that the current state of PC use in primary school classrooms, at least in the UK, is mired in problems. It takes an exceptional teacher to make pc use a positive learning experience at the moment, with vast sums of money being spent on dodgy hardware and poor software. The PC lab as it stands in the modern classroom may well be pregnant with possibility but the reality is often a stiflingly un-educational experience. Let everyone get in on the OLPC project and it will start to look less like a technology project and more like an educational one. More adoption means more generativity means a better OLPC. Douglasmcmahon 11:05, 18 January 2008 (EST)

Just saw this: Gizmodo: Globalization and its malcontents, not a great piece but referenced Negroponte. Gizmodo have been generally very dismissive of the OLPC, it would seem largely because they judge it merely as a technological project. Douglasmcmahon 11:33, 18 January 2008 (EST)

  • I think what you've written hits on my biggest problem with the OLPC project. On the one hand, as JZ notes, a particular version of the program - say, the Classmate PC version running Windows XP - to me feels very much as though the industrialized world is saying, here, use these, you'll be doing work for us that requires knowledge of our modes and methods of communication anyway. On the other hand, and this holds true for all of the classroom laptop projects, is Doug's concern about us versus them technology. We want you to be part of our world the way we've designed it, and here is how we will introduce you to this world. Except, you're not ready for our world yet, so here's a piece of our world that we ourselves would never consider using on a regular basis - but it's certainly good enough for you. And by the way, if that's an XO PC you've got there, good luck getting anyone to help you maintain it. The industrialized world requires ingenuity and innovation, and self-help tech support is the beginning! Ok, hyperbolic, but you get my point (I hope). kim 11:34, 18 January 2008 (EST)
    • So maybe the biggest problem with the OLPC is that it lacks generativity in the social layer because its recipients see it as a fisher-price pc. They assume, somewhat mistakenly, that this is not what the developed world uses, and therefore it is not worth engaging on a generative level. WillM 12:12, 18 January 2008 (EST)
      • Possibly. But are we mistaking the nature of generativity - i.e., that it is possible to focus on generativity at all points along the industrialization spectrum, or is generativity something that's possible only with the resources and education available to more developed countries? I'm not trying to foster an us versus them dichotomy here intentionally - but if children in target primary schools are more concerned about basic provisions and be able to continue their education past whatever level, how much can they be expected to take part in the generative project? kim 12:42, 18 January 2008 (EST)
    • In response to Kim's point above, I think that the lack of official maintenance for the machines has at least the potential for being beneficial. If students do end up becoming proficient in maintaining their own machines, then they will be ahead of what the typical computer user in the developed world is capable of. They will also view their own role as a computer user and part of the “mesh network” in a different way than what we do; there will be a greater sense of personal responsibility for the way their machine runs and the way it interacts with the rest of the community. Of course asking them to fix their own machines and come up with their own applications for those that haven’t been installed is a serious burden, and somewhat of a trial by fire, but some good could still come out of it. Isn’t this feeling of responsibility and kinship with the XO community something we wish to foster rather than condemn, even if it is a consequence of (arguably) poor motives? Anna 13:13, 18 January 2008 (EST)
      • I think this is a really interesting angle, and one I agree with. Maybe a meta question is, to what extent should we be concerned about intentions and motives if the outcome is beneficial? Even with, say, a computer-proficient set of young students in the developed world, has the effect of the motive or intention harmed the benefit? I guess this is another philosophical debate. kim 13:47, 18 January 2008 (EST)

I wouldn't know what to bet on if there were a futures market in OLPC success. Here are my most optimistic and pessimistic takes on it:

Optimistic: There are so many problems with the program, but it also seems that the easiest, cheapest solution to these problems is the OLPC itself. For example, in an ideal world, It might be best to give out the OLPCs only once the children have learned the basics of math and literacy. But, given that math and literacy are a big enough challenge in education in the developing world, that is not a luxury we can afford. OLPC can become the carrot, enticing children to learn more, as well as the tool.

Pessimistic: People in developed countries underestimate the barriers to everyday functioning in developing countries. We assume that teachers and bureaucrats will use these tools appropriately. We are likely envisioning teachers much like our own, albeit with less formal education. This is likely not the reality in many places. This nytimes article from yesterday provides a good anecdote where a teacher refuses to allocate school meals of rice b/c they are not properly accounted for in the bureaucracy. The teacher is also mostly absent and teaching jobs are apparently assigned based on political favors. This might be cherry-picking by the author, looking for an extreme example of failure in developing countries' education systems, but it also might be close to reality many places (we really could use some social scientists and empirical research). Dropping a crate of OLPCs into the school described in the nytimes article seems like a losing proposition - maybe the students could at least play with them at night and their families could use them as a light at home, but it's hard to see the children really unlocking the generative potential in this environment. WillM 11:52, 18 January 2008 (EST)

As an aside, I find it intriguing that an education-based effort like OLPC is so focused on generativity and user-initiated learning that it provides next to nothing in the way of training and support. So is a generative education project one that provides no education? kim 12:26, 18 January 2008 (EST)

Frank Bajak, Laptop project enlivens Peruvian village

For those interested, I found a link on YouTube that shows the laptop and explains its use. OLPC One Laptop per Child KStanfield 20:24, 17 January 2008 (EST)

  • I had the opportunity to experiment with an XO during a class on Science, Technology and Public Policy last semester. Kenyan-born Calestous Juma, the Director of Science, Technology and Innovation at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center was a guest speaker and he brought in an XO laptop for everyone to try out. Prof. Juma has devoted his professional career to sustainable development in the 3rd world and is a member of the board developing the XO's software. If you're interested in learning more about this impressive man, see the rather chatty Guardian story about Prof. Juma For Juma's thoughts on the problems of marketing the XO in Africa see Business Daily Africa article --Tseiver 21:51, 17 January 2008 (EST)
  • Here's a video review of the XO from a NY Times Technology writer. It shows its capabilities in more detail - and better resolution - than the item cited above by KStanfield. See NY Times XO review Yet another clip has a developer talking about it at a tech conference. See XO at tech fair --Tseiver 22:15, 17 January 2008 (EST)
  • One last video reference. This one is the slickest, produced artfully by the Red Hat development team for the XO. Quite informative. See Red Hat on XO The clip even ends with a Creative Commons message. --Tseiver 22:30, 17 January 2008 (EST)
  • I have a concern related to the kill switch. See details on the wiki referenced in the JZ chapter. Even if thieves couldn't work around it, couldn't they just threaten the owner with violence if it is deactivated? I can imagine a sad child coming to school without their laptop - the teacher wants to report it as stolen so it can be deactivated if it is in range of a wireless access point, but the student is scared of reprisal. In other words, the thieves might not be able to break the technological layer of anti-theft, but they can substitute a social/physical technique. Anyone see a solution to this? I realize that it's not a critical problem with the program, rather something that should fall under the procrastination principle. WillM 23:22, 17 January 2008 (EST)
    • I guess one solution would be to make the laptop permanently keyed to the child (perhaps through a biometric like a fingerprint scanner) although this would make the computer significantly, if not prohibitively, expensive. The manufacturers did put in some level of theft-protection, at least from adults - the keys are so small that it would be difficult for anyone but a child to type on it. There may also be other enforcement mechanisms. The police might confiscate the laptop if they saw it in an adult's hands or social pressure from the community might be brought to bear on such an individual. Anna 01:16, 18 January 2008 (EST)
      • A better, cheaper solution would be to install a GPS system in each XO. That way, instead of deactivating the system when it is stolen, which allows the thief to know it has been reported and potentially retaliate, you allow the authorities to determine the location of a stolen XO and retrieve it. There are still problems attendant on this approach--for example, the authorities might not have the inclination to go after the thief, or the firepower to do it in certain areas of the globe, or they might be corrupt and ask for a bribe that the child can't afford--but with wide enough publicity, I think it could operate in a similar manner to robots.txt, deterring enough crime to make it largely unused.
      • Another, more generative workaround would be a password-protection program. Again, there's a problem of retaliation if the thief realizes that he needs a password to get into the XO, but perhaps the kids who are programming their computers could come up with a workaround: the password is only required once a week, so by the time the thief is asked for it, he's too far away to harm the child; combine that with a GPS, and if the thief throws away the XO when it becomes unusable, it can be easily retrieved. I think the potential for workarounds and the good that comes from the XO overrides this concern.
      • Finally, it might be possible to use the wireless connections in each laptop to triangulate the location of any stolen laptop. This would be shorter range than a GPS, but would again enable catching the thief. Eroggenkamp 10:33, 18 January 2008 (EST)

Stecklow & Bandler, A Little Laptop With Big Ambitions

Link to the 60 minutes piece referenced in the article. WillM 23:56, 17 January 2008 (EST)

Palfrey & Gasser, Born Digital (Optional)

While it's probably an unqualified good that young digital natives are getting involved in politics and other causes, I worry that digital politics are particularly shallow. To be sure, many of the top-tier participants take on substantive tasks and advance the discourse (e.g., Zephyr from the article). Maybe it's b/c I'm naturally skeptical of politics, but the rank and file of online participation, including the networks of political blogs, seemed to be just a proliferation of mini Glenn Becks, Bill O'Reilys, and Al Frankens. Each campaign becomes an echo chamber really quickly. Exposure to other ideas often takes place via youtube clips and reading similarly myopic blog posts from opposition supporters. So, the question becomes, does cyberspace foster true civic virtue, or just a series of cabals? (In all fairness to cyberspace, the real world has this problem too, but maybe not quite as acutely) WillM 11:09, 18 January 2008 (EST)

    • I think that the Internet has the potential to foster civic virtue, but only where it is linked to real-world action. Otherwise, the power of anonymity online encourages the formation of cabals and mobs with the same or similar viewpoints shouting past each other. All you need to do to see this phenomenon in action is read the comments on any political website during the primary season; they quickly degenerate into partisan sniping, interspersed with repetitive posts linking to the same articles or policy statements and saying 'read this and it will change your mind!' and countered with 'I've read it and I still hate [candidate X]!' I'm a member of Daily Kos, one of the most popular political blogs in the country, and most of the user contributions have become unreadable because of the level of vitriol in the dialogue. For examples, skim the comments in the diaries here and here. Notice that aside from appeals to make a contribution online or put a bumper sticker on your car, there is very little translation into real-world support. Eroggenkamp 11:20, 18 January 2008 (EST)

John Perry Barlow A Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace

  • Apparently Barlow has tempered his optimism regarding cyberspace becoming a sort of left-libertarian utopia. See towards the bottom of this 2004 interview in Reason here. Saying of his earlier writing on cyberspace and presumably this declaration in particular, "We all get older and smarter." WillM 13:48, 17 January 2008 (EST)
    • This is interesting. My very first reaction to reading this piece was "oh how juvenile!", as if Barlow had declared the exclusivity of his treehouse fort with a giant handpainted "NO GOVERNMENTS ALLOWED" sign (surely with a backwards S). kim 11:17, 18 January 2008 (EST)
  • I think it would be a mistake to take this declaration too literally, much like Barlow's earlier appearance in the material related to copyright (i.e., bands should all tour for their revenue and not worry about piracy). Nonetheless, I'll take the argument seriously:
    • Barlow consents to government control over our bodies in the physical world, but not in cyberspace, "Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live." Is this a good justification for cyberspace being entirely free from real-world governments? Cyberspace might not be a place where bodies live, but what goes on there (e.g., child pornography) can have very real effects IRL. So then it becomes a sort of jurisdiction question: should real-world institutions ever have jurisdiction over a cyber-event? Barlow says no, but I would argue the answer is yes when the actions in cyberspace have directed effects at that other jurisdiction, the real world. WillM 22:38, 17 January 2008 (EST)
    • Barlow really misses the point in this declaration. Even though it seems like Cyberspace exists outside the physical world, it is really just a flow of electrons through physical wires, computer chips, servers, etc. The physical world and the governments that regulate it can still control the places those electrons have to go in order to control Cyberspace--witness the restrictions that Sealand has to impose upon itself to get connectivity with the rest of the globe, and the filtering that China, Iran, Burma, and other countries are able to impose upon Cyberspace. He reminds me of the citizens of the State of Jefferson--long on rhetoric and short on reality. Eroggenkamp 10:23, 18 January 2008 (EST)
      • I felt that the tone of this piece was less of a declaration and more of a call to arms. It didn't seem like he was saying that this had already occurred or that this was inevitable, but rather that this was a possibility and the one that he wanted to encourage others to fight for. Anna 01:25, 18 January 2008 (EST)
        • Also, does Godwin's law have a corollary for child pornography? Anna 01:26, 18 January 2008 (EST)
        • Godwin, Jr.'s law. Eroggenkamp 10:23, 18 January 2008 (EST)
        • It probably should have variants encompassing terrorism and fascism as well. There's probably a whole universe of underserved forum participants who long for defenses against these blunt analogies. WillM 10:38, 18 January 2008 (EST)
  • So long as we're taking Barlow seriously, two thoughts:
    • Barlow is completely ignorant of political theory and the origins of government authority. Well, not completely ignorant - he latches onto the social contract, probably the most contrived and strictly limited political theory out there today, and certainly one limited to mostly American and European states (and I'd argue mostly just Anglo-American versions of those). But Barlow misses the point of social contract theory - philosophical fiction to find some justification for governmental authority. The social contract was neither social in the sense of being collectively argued and agreed upon, nor was it a contract in the sense of an agreement between those under the rule of the government, and those running the government - and certainly did not occur prior to the implementation of any state authority. Further, Barlow should look into systems of surveillance and discipline (of course I'm thinking Foucault here, but the idea stems from Marx's break from capitalist democracy and Nietzsche's break from, well, everything), anthropological theory on the development of states and civilizations, etc and so on. All of these are, of course, arguments from my own philosophical angle, but nevertheless simply opening the issue for debate calls the whole Declaration into question.
      • Agreed, I generally think of efforts to justify or reject a particular political movement in light of Locke, Hobbes, etc. as a fool's errand. Here, Barlow throws around ideas which were meant to be justifications in the abstract and uses them literally to say those abstract conditions haven't been met here. I think a better attempt would be to invoke Nozick or some other more advanced libertarian philosopher for a justification based more on consent. WillM 12:09, 18 January 2008 (EST)
    • Further, and not really related to the above - Barlow declares numerous times in numerous forms that the world of cyberspace is purely virtual, nonexistent in traditional space. But none of it would be possible - or even exist at all - if it weren't for those in traditional space, composed of matter, physically inhabiting a body that creates virtual existence. To separate the two seems to be, to me, an artificial cleave. Sure, there are the multitude of AI arguments, but how does the virtual, cyberspace world continue to exist without the input, direction and maintenance from the physical world? It's as if Barlow is declaring his primary residence as "Internet". kim 11:58, 18 January 2008 (EST)
    • Bands do make most of their money from touring at many levels of the music industry. Even those bands lucky enough to sign with a major label are usually given contracts that give most of the profits from album sales to the record label for at least their first album or two, while giving most of the touring profits to the band. The majority of bands don't have more than one or two hit albums, so piracy that reduced CD sales hits the record labels a lot harder than it hits the vast majority of musicians. Eroggenkamp 10:37, 18 January 2008 (EST)