One Revolution Per Child
I wish that Nicolas Negroponte had never referred to it as the "one hundred dollar computer."
Yes, yes, it's an attention-grabbing name, but noting with a smirk that the first ones will actually cost $150 has become a game for reporters. I'm particularly aghast when technology journalists do it, because they of all people should know that information technology prices always fall -- the OLPC laptop won't remain $150 for long.
All of this comes to mind because of a new article from IEEE Spectrum magazine, "The Laptop Crusade." For the first time, I've become really excited about the potential this project holds, and not solely because of its leapfrogging possibilities.
(Some people I really respect, like Lee Felsenstein and my friend Ethan Zuckerman, show up in the article with some astute comments; I was interviewed for the piece, as well, with the usual result that a couple of my throwaway comments got used, and the main point I tried to make nowhere to be found. So it goes.)
I'm excited about the OLPC machine's potential because it's so clearly a revolutionary device, both in the sense of it having capabilities that nobody has ever before seen in a laptop, and in the sense it being a catalyst for out-of-control social transformation. The OLPC project will drop millions of powerful, deeply networked, information technology devices into the hands of precisely the population (children and teens) most likely to want to figure out the unanticipated uses.
From the startlingly long-range wifi mesh networking to the "Sugar" social interface, these devices were built to treat hierarchies as damage, and route around them.
Bletsas says his design will provide node-to-node connectivity over 600 meters. Over a flat area without buildings and with low radio noise, that connection can stretch to 1.2 km. Students can put their computers on the mesh network simply by flipping the antennas up. This turns on the Wi-Fi subsystem of the machine without waking the CPU, allowing the laptop to route packets while consuming just 350 milliwatts of power. [...]
The mesh network feature lets students in the same classroom share a virtual whiteboard with a teacher, chat (okay, gossip) during class, or collaborate on assignments. [...]
The OLPC team also constructed a completely new user environment, code-named Sugar, designed to break down the isolation that students might experience from staring at laptops all day. It introduces the concept of “presence”—the idea behind instant-messaging buddy lists. The user interface is aware of other students in the classroom, showing their pictures or icons on the screen, allowing students to chat or share work with others in the class.
The system shares with the other students new tasks, like a drawing or a document, by default, though students can choose to make them private. Sugar creates a “blog” for each child—a record of the activities they engaged in during the day—which lets them add public or private diary entries.
This is a participatory culture dream device. Using entirely open source software, the laptops are enormously friendly to "hacking" (in the exploration sense, not the criminal sense), yet can be returned to a safe configuration at the push of a button. Moreover, they're extraordinarily, wonderfully, energy-efficient: at normal use, a OLPC laptop draws 3 watts, compared to 30 watts for a typical lower-end conventional laptop; and a full charge lasts for over six hours at maximum power use, 25 hours in power conservation mode.
Felsenstein notes that teachers will (rightly) see these laptops as a direct assault on their authority, and many will be banned from classrooms, leaving the kids to use the machines unsupervised.
I sure hope so.
A generation growing up believing in their capability to hack the system, work collaboratively, and make information a tool is probably one of the best things that could happen to a developing nation. Possibly not in the short run -- backlash from fearful authorities will be nasty -- but certainly in the longer term, as the first wave of OLPC children reaches adulthood.
The revolution begins in 2008.