Author Conversation on “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child”
Morgan Ames’s new book The Charisma Machine chronicles the life and legacy of the One Laptop per Child project and explains why — despite its failures — the same utopian visions that inspired OLPC still motivate other projects trying to use technology to “disrupt” education and development. In this conversation between the author and LA Review of Books editor Michele Pridmore-Brown, we will explore why the project remained charismatic to many, even with (and even because of) its fundamentally flawed vision of who the computer was made for and what role technology should play in learning.
Announced in 2005 by MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte, One Laptop per Child promised to transform the lives of children across the Global South with a small, sturdy, and cheap laptop computer, powered by a hand crank. In reality, the project fell short in many ways, starting with the hand crank, which never materialized. Yet the project remained charismatic to many who were enchanted by its claims of access to educational opportunities previously out of reach. Behind its promises, OLPC, like many technology projects that make similarly grand claims, had a fundamentally flawed vision of who the computer was made for and what role technology should play in learning.
Drawing on a seven-month study of a model OLPC project in Paraguay, this book reveals that the laptops were not only frustrating to use, easy to break, and hard to repair, they were designed for “technically precocious boys” — idealized younger versions of the developers themselves — rather than the diverse range of children who might actually use them. Reaching fifty years into the past and across the globe, The Charisma Machine offers a cautionary tale about the allure of technology hype and the problems that result when utopian dreams drive technology development.
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. She is also affiliated with the Algorithmic Fairness and Opacity Working Group, the Center for Science, Technology, Society and Policy, and the Berkeley Institute of Data Science.
Her Ph.D. is in communication (with a minor in anthropology) from Stanford, where her dissertation won the Nathan Maccoby Outstanding Dissertation Award. She has a B.A. in computer science and master’s in information management & systems, both from the University of California, Berkeley, and has worked as a researcher at Google, Yahoo!, Nokia, and Intel.
Michele Pridmore-Brown is the science editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature with an emphasis on the history of science. She has written and taught on subjects like Virginia Woolf and radio technology, gender and science, designer babies and the history and future of reproductive technologies. Her work appears in scholarly and popular venues. She is a research fellow with CSTMS.