In defence of a laptop travelogue

Lars Bo Andersen
Aarhus University
In defence of a laptop travelogue

So, what is it all about?

Well, in recent years, a range of initiatives have risen to develop and empower the world's poorest people and regions through information technologies.

National governments, development agencies, NGOs, the UN and a range of other actors see the transfer and redistribution of IT as a central element in turning socio-economic polarisation—sometimes presented as a growing digital divide—into socio-economic convergence.

The American One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative is a prominent example of these developmental technology transfers.

OLPC became famous by promoting a $100 laptop to be distributed in the millions to impoverished children around the world. The purpose being to solve the overall problem of poverty through IT-enabled learning and education.

The outset for this study is a wonder: does this really work, and if so, how does it work?

To satisfy this wonder, I have followed one such technology transfer, one of 100 laptops from OLPC going to a small school in Nigeria.

The first thing to note is that technology transfer is nothing new. The practice of relocating Western technology to non-Western countries is as old as development itself—which is around 64 years old.

There are many stories in the story, but an indicative trajectory is certainly how president Truman sought to replicate the success of the Marshall Plan by promoting the transfer of technology to all the newly independent countries in Africa and Asia.

Today development is a persistent state, something with which we are never done, but originatively it was supposed to have ended in the 1960s.

As it turned out, it is hard to get technology to work as expected when transferred.

Sometimes technologies simply stop working, at other times they work very well but for other ends than intended, and at yet other times they carry highly disruptive and unintended consequences.

But do these traits of relocating technology still apply today with tablets, smart-phones and internet? Is information technology fundamentally different in this regard?

These are questions which make relevant my thesis which is based on the following overall argument:

Information technologies cannot move without becoming different in consequence!

Or, at least, if they do move without becoming different, some hidden and interesting work can be assumed to have taken place.

Technology transfer is a process of becoming where the outcome is emergent and elusive.

We return to why in a moment.

The thesis is a travelogue

But what is this thesis besides an argument that the outcome of technology transfer is emergent and elusive.

Well, in the first instance, it is a travelogue, a multi-sited ethnographic study of 100 laptops from OLPC going to a small school in Nigeria alongside solar panels from China and consultants from Denmark.

I call this school Akila's school after one of the first students I interviewed in 2009, who—along with many others—were transferring to this school because of the laptops.

I use Akila in the genitive case throughout the thesis to emphasize that Akila and his new friends were positioned as the primary beneficiaries of the laptops.

In a more general sense, however, the travelogue is not only a case-study of Akila's school. It is also a way of investigating one of the more fundamental questions of technology and development:

What are we bringing and what are we doing when transferring technology in order to develop something which is not there already?

The metaphysical argument

Before I go into details with the actual travelogue I will first present the remaining arguments of the thesis.

For the first argument, we need another detour to the history of development.

Here we find two claims to the nature—one could also say metaphysics or ontology—of technology and development.

The first claim is Cartesian in that technology is kept separated from society, the object is kept clear of the subject, so as to allow laptops and other technologies to retain the same agency and identity in context A as they did in context B.

This claim has, for instance, underpinned various forms of technological determinism.

The second claim we can call Marxist or, perhaps, positivist in that development is made to rest on an universal foundation where a proposed intervention presents itself only in a fixed stated of objective authority.

Here development is made the progression of society through ever more rational stages of history – a progression which importantly can be accelerated and leap-frogged by transfer of technology.

This claim has, for instance, made development and technology transfer appear more as cure and treatment of irrational people and cultures than as normative intervention.

These claims are also present in OLPC – an initiative working to distribute millions of identical laptop-objects to immensely different children-subjects in order to bring about a similar form of development across countries and cultures and, eventually, pave the way for a singular and inclusive global information society.

Argument 1: need for a new metaphysics

So here is the first, and most fundamental, argument:

What we do and what we bring when transferring laptops to Akila's school can, and should be, metaphysically re-positioned somewhere that is neither Cartesian nor Marxist.

The argument being that theories are not what describe the world from a distance in an increasingly precise and objective manner. Rather, theory is an engagement with the world which is always both analytical and performative.

So, for this travelogue I have chosen Actor-Network Theory (ANT) for such engagement.

Not only because ANT makes certain things visible, but also because it comes with an explicit and appealing metaphysical foundation.

The ANT metaphysics is one in which subjects and objects, technologies and societies, historical progression and objective authority are no longer the outset, but rather achievements made from another outset, one that is composed entirely of thoroughly heterogeneous and rhizomatic tangles, or apparatuses, which are called actor-networks.

There is no a priori difference between subject or object, developer and those to be developed, they are all hybrid actor-networks.

This, in consequence, makes the methodological rule of thumb one of symmetry across variations – to resist explaining the poor by their culture, the laptops by their design, the theories by their objectivity, but instead apply some shared vocabulary which reduce and/or promote them all to the same ontological status.

A symmetrical vocabulary highlights what you could call ontological politics; that is the process in which actor-networks of both people and particles are arranging themselves and each other in different, and sometimes frictional, versions of reality.

This process of arranging reality is called translation because when actor-networks enter into relation, they invest something of themselves in each other, they translate and transform the identity of one another.

If a scientist, for instance, discover a new microbe, he or she will formulate new directions of theory while, at the same time, the microbe will gain a form and function it did not have before.

This is why the outcome of technology transfers are elusive. Because new and surprising relations are forged between actor-networks which continuously translate each other.

Argument 2: One Laptop per Child is not One Laptop per Child

Now it is time for the second argument which has something to do with the described duality of theory as description and theory as practice.

Running through OLPC are two theories which have been subject to substantial criticism.

First that laptops are such a basic commodity for contemporary and, not the least, future society that they will work straight from the box, that they require no community building or adult support to empower children.

And secondly, that laptops offer a life-changing learning experience for impoverished children so that these will become both knowledgeable and self-determined, and thus capable of improving their condition in ways their parents could not.

I agree with the various criticisms made about these two theoretical assumptions but nonetheless argue that in the multi-linear tangle, the actor-networks, at Akila's school these assumptions are translated and intersected by a range of other things which dilute and displace their agency.

To put it simply, OLPC at Akila's school is not the same OLPC as the one in Peru, Uruguay, or any other place because the theories are put into practice as part of actor-networks with many other theories and other practices.

Argument 3: technology transfer is a multi-linear tangle

Argument number 3 follows from the first two.

The transfer of Akila's laptop from OLPC to Nigeria is a multi-linear tangle where several different actor-networks are acting upon each other, are becoming partially intertwined and are transforming and translating each other in a process the outcome of which is the identity and agency of all those involved.

Again, this is why technology transfer is a process of becoming.

Argument 4: laptop-ontology is multiple

Argument 4 turns on outcome.

The outcome of a transfer need not be singular. In fact, Akila's laptop ended up being, in the full sense of the word, several different things.

Importantly, these different things are just that, different things, or different actor-networks, and not different perspectives or social interpretations. They are different things because they are enacted, or performed, by particles and people alike.

The interrelation between these different laptop-things constitutes ontological politics. Not because one can freely choose or elect one of the different laptops, they are much to real for that, but because such interrelations are neither neutral nor inevitable.

Argument 5: limbo is also a mode of existence

The laptops from OLPC became something else at Akila's school because they became intertwined in different actor-networks engaged in doing different things.

Sadly, however, the laptops have not retained a strong existence in these practices and the project is currently caught in a form of impasse which I describe as limbo.

Limbo is the tragic situation which has caused Akila's parents, along with many others, to remove him from the school as their expectations were not met.

The final argument is that this limbo is not caused by people (Danes or Nigerians) messing up a good technology, and neither is it caused by technology (laptops) being inherently wrong or badly designed.

Limbo is a shared achievement across Danes, Nigerians, software, hardware, Akila, teachers, solar panels and many others.

So what happened

So now that you know the arguments let me tell you the story.

The chairman of One Laptop per Child is called Nicholas Negroponte.

Negroponte is a famous technology personality from MIT and around 2005 he travelled the world to ensure support for his initiative amongst major IT companies, national governments, development organisations, and so forth.

Amongst other, he made appearances at the World Economic Forum and at the World Summit on the Information Society.

What he did was to suggest a certain problematisation.

A problematisation is a claim to the nature of a problem which positions everything in such a way, that the proposer of the problematisation becomes central to the solution.

Negroponte's problematisation looked something like this:

Poverty is the world's principal problem – the principal solution to poverty is education – education can not be sufficiently dealt with by schools based on rote-learning – laptops are learning media which can circumvent the deficiencies of school – laptops are also a way of bridging the digital divide – OLPC has a way of providing one laptop per child at the cheapest possible price – you must collaborate with OLPC if you want to solve the principal problem of poverty.

This problematisation proved highly appealing to many different actors which associated themselves with OLPC.

The UN, Kofi Annan and various heads of government such as Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo rallied behind the vision of one laptop per child because it translated into their various schemes of bridging the digital divide, reducing poverty and, perhaps, winning elections.

Enticed by promises of millions of laptops going to new markets at the bottom of the pyramid so too did many large companies like Quanta, Chi Mei, Google and AMD sign on with OLPC.

And since OLPC is open source, non-profit and utilizes constructionist pedagogy, the initiative also attracted a large grassroots movement of volunteers and other advocates.

In 2005, OLPC was widely famous and negotiations were on the verge of sending millions of laptops to poor children all around the world.

This however, did not happen. For undisclosed reasons, the contracts fell apart, none of the laptops went anywhere, and OLPC came close to bankruptcy. The famous laptop was stuck at conference tables and in warehouses.

But here another actor-network enters the multi-linear tangle of actor-networks.

This one is not composed of major corporations or famous politicians, but of a Nigerian church out looking for 40 desktop computers to equip a computer lab at their privately operated primary school.

The church wanted better equipment to teach it-literacy which is a central qualifier of occupational worth on the local job market.

The practice of it-literacy is both knowing how to physically operate the computer, to move the mouse and type with more than two fingers, but it is also knowledge of Microsoft Office, of Google, of email, internet, and all other such business style use-cases for computers.

However, due to lack of resources, the school made do teaching it-literacy through paper drawings of popular soft- and hardware while looking for someone to patronise some real computers.

And here yet another actor-network of Danish missionaries, a businessman and some pedagogical researchers enter the picture.

The Danes suggested that the Nigerians translate their computer lab into 100 laptops from OLPC.

As it were, the Danish missionaries had long collaborated with the Nigerian church on building schools and training teachers. And while they did not agree with everything from OLPC, especially not the two problematic theories already mentioned, they thought the initiative a good facilitator of some pedagogical development.

In particular, the Danes wanted to replace the rote-learning and strict physical discipline at the school with a Scandinavian variant of the OLPC pedagogy – one that is more focused on teachers than laptops and one which is better suited to satisfy the rigid national curriculum in Nigeria.

So an agreement was made, laptops were procured, new teachers were hired, solar panels installed, Danes went to Nigeria, parents brought many new children and satellite internet was installed.

And because Nigerians taught it-literacy while Danes made pedagogical workshops, the laptops became multiple.

They become both a means of it-literacy and a means of pedagogical transformation.

And since this is a very religious school supported by religious missionaries, the laptop also became a relic of sorts, something used in the practice of studying the Bible, something to pray over and something through which to mission ones faith.

Now, Akila and his schoolmates are not allowed to bring the laptops home or use them unsupervised.

This is otherwise a fundamental principle of OLPC. But as we know, OLPC has been translated and is no longer the same OLPC.

School management, and to some extend also the Danes, fear that child ownership is too difficult to handle in a Nigerian setting and that all laptops would soon disappear or break down.

So there is only limited opportunity for students to bring their music, idols, dreams and games into the network of the laptop.

But when they do, the laptops are also, and most prominently, about playing games, looking at football players and movie-stars, listening to pop-music and painting pictures.

The students greatly enjoy these machines and are frustrated by their lack of access.

A frustration which is made worse by the current status of the project.

While genesis was well under way and laptops seemed to be in for a good, multiple existence at the school, some translations started to become strained and unravel.

Laptops were good for teaching it-literacy but demanded a lot of extra work in normal school subjects such as English and Home Economics so most teachers became frustrated and stopped using them, and since children need teachers to access laptops, they got even less time with the machines.

Similarly, the Danish missionaries became frustrated that teachers cared more about it-literacy than they did about the pedagogical transformation, and started to background the laptops in their educational activities.

And furthermore, perhaps frustrated by lack of maintenance, some of the batteries in the solar installation gave up and crippled the power supply, the internet became too expensive for unused laptops and the linux server also started to misbehave.

So the existence of laptops became vague and the project fell into a state of limbo.

What is limbo?

Limbo is many things.

One of them is a place on the outskirts of hell for those who have committed no sin, but are condemned anyway, by circumstance, for the virtuous pagans and the un-baptized.

Similarly, laptops did not cause their own limbo, they were pushed into it by the network of relations running through them.

Limbo is a shared achievement of Negroponte, Danes, Nigerians, solar panels, satellites, and so forth.

Limbo is also a dance symbolising a contorted body being forced below deck on a slave ship until the body rise again as a new person in celebratory defiance.

This limbo adds dimensions of possible violence but also of hope, of recurring metamorphosis and new horizons.

Limbo is also a liminal position.

What is in limbo is at the margin of existence and may return only upon transformation. In liminal rituals, for instance, the boy must return a warrior, the dead a spirit, individuals as husband and wife and so forth.

Akila's laptop is stuck in limbo, it must clear the passage and return transformed in order to resume full existence.

There are lines of flight from limbo, trajectories along which escape may be possible.

For instance, at the school a new building may come to host a commercial cybercafe for adults where a portion of the laptops may be used more freely by students after they finish their normal lessons.

The new building also features a large generator to supplement the solar panels and extra-curricular lessons called computer practice are planned to ensure that laptops regain some function at the school.

There are, however, not always lines of flight to be taken. And even if there are, there is no necessity forcing a situation down their path.

Limbo offers neither such clarity nor such power, it is a vague and nebulous situation leaking more or less visible alternatives.

Concluding remarks

This was a very condensed version of the travelogue. Now for some concluding remarks.

If laptops owe their existence to dispersed and heterogeneous actor-networks—to American processors as much as Danish missionaries, orbiting satellites as much as theories of future information societies—it takes dispersed and heterogeneous actor-networks to make them different.

There is no position of control from where people and particles can be forced to align.

A potential danger with highlighting ontological multiplicity—such as the multiple versions of Akila's laptop—is exactly this idea that one can freely choose between different versions of reality as easily as one can change social perspective.

With metaphysics such as that of ANT we gain the crucial advantage that things could always be different, that order is an outcome, not an outset, although we just as importantly loose any strong, universal foundation for making them so.

But from where, then, should such developmental ends as democracy, capitalist markets, agricultural equipment, laptops and constructionist pedagogy derive their being and validity? Can they simply be dismissed by reference to relativism or nihilism?

Put differently. Should we blame Nigerian teachers for not accepting the Danish pedagogy, or should we blame the Danes for trying to promote it?

I suggest that we should consider the Danish pedagogy superior to the Nigerian only to the extend that we can argue our case through criteria immanent to the encounter at Akila's school.

And in such engagement, it must be expected that what is proposed will be translated and transformed in rather surprising ways - as was the case at Akila's school where an open-open pedagogy arose from the encounter between Danish and Nigerian pedagogy.

If this sounds strange we should consider that this is already how physicist are debating physics, pedagogues are debating pedagogy, economists are debating economy, and so forth.

It is only at a distance, when confronting those who are other, that arguments become sealed with non-translatable objectivity and the economist refer the pedagogue to simply respect the evidence made valid by his or her position.

This is not a call to stop normative engagements. To the contrary, it is a call to step up engagements, to keep searching for fidelity in a world acting back with different and alternative translations, but to do so on grounds that are immanent to the situation and not based on forms of transcendental authority which always-already hold the privileged perspective.