The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child
Drawing from her forthcoming book, Morgan G. Ames will chronicle the life and legacy of the One Laptop per Child project and explain why — despite its failures — the same utopian visions that inspired OLPC still motivate other projects trying to use technology to “disrupt” education and development.
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, Ames 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, this talk will offer a cautionary tale about the allure of technology hype and the problems that result when utopian dreams drive technology development.
Morgan G. Ames is a lecturer and postdoctoral scholar with the School of Information and the interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. Morgan studies the ways in which computers and computing worlds seek to shape the identities of learners — in and out of classrooms, locally and abroad — with a focus on those often left out of this identity-work. Her book, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child, is due out in 2019 from the MIT Press. Her next project is animated by a story she heard often in One Laptop per Child and beyond: that of the self-taught programmer. While reality is consistently more complicated than this story allows, she has become fascinated by the cultural work this story does — and the harm it could be doing to diversity and inclusion.