goodbye learning, hello workforce training

Some sad news regarding the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project:

Microsoft has joined forces with the developers of the “$100 laptop” to make Windows available on the machines.

According to Wired, Microsoft has had their sights on emerging markets in developing countries for a while now and have viewed low-cost children’s laptops as ideal vehicles for distribution. Until recently OLPC has resisted integrating Windows into their XO Children’s Machine, insisting that free and open-source software was central to their constructionist learning philosophy and necessary to give “children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms” (for more background see here, here and here). Sugar, the Linux based operating system designed for the XO Children’s Machine, has been described by OLPC as the “core” of their laptop’s interface and to the sharing and learning affordances of the machine.

olpc's blue screen of death

Yet, according to OLPC, it now appears that Windows XP will be bundled with the XO. This decision has apparently been motivated by countries, such as Egypt and Columbia, demanding that the computers carry Windows before they agree to buy in to the program. Their reasoning seems to be that they aren’t interested in machines for learning and sharing, they want machines that will train a generation of children for a future tech-based workforce. Not learning how to think — learning how to USE Excel, PowerPoint, Word, etc…

Nicholas Negroponte (founder and chairman of OLPC) claims that a dual-boot option, similar to Apple’s, which allows the child to choose between Windows and Sugar is in the works — yet Ivan Krstić, the former top security architect for OLPC argues otherwise:

The whole “we’re investing into Sugar, it’ll just run on Windows” gambit is sheer nonsense. Nicholas knows quite well that Sugar won’t magically become better simply by virtue of running on Windows rather than Linux. In reality, Nicholas wants to ship plain XP desktops. He’s told me so. That he might possibly fund a Sugar effort to the side and pay lip service to the notion of its “availability” as an option to purchasing countries is at best a tepid effort to avert a PR disaster.

Krstić goes on to write that this realization that learning was never part of the OLPC mission (i.e. the mission is about laptop distribution) is precisely what lead him to resign from the project. Krstić concludes his post, in part, by stating:

OLPC can’t claim to be preoccupied with learning and not with training children to be office computer drones, while at the same time being coerced by hollow office drone rhetoric to deploy the computers with office drone software.

Although disagreeing with a number of key points made in a recent post by Richard Stallman (founder of the free software movement), Krstić and Stallman appear to agree on what is at stake here. As Stallman puts it, this is about “whether the XO is an influence for freedom or an influence for subjection.” Indeed, close attention to the built pedagogy of the XO Children’s Machine is needed. As the XO shifts from an entirely free and open-source machine (with the exception of a proprietary firmware program for wifi access) designed for the promotion of open learning and sharing in the social and structural environments of developing countries — to one that increasingly adopts proprietary software for the vocational training of a future workforce — the lessons being taught are of great importance. Lets be clear, its not a mistake that the mesh networking capability of the XO, which allows the computers to talk to one another and share data, is not currently supported by Windows XP. And I don’t expect that problem will be “fixed” anytime soon. If it is ever “fixed,” the sharing component will be tightly controlled and heavily regulated.

In a previous post about the XO, I praised its mesh networking capability as a way to generate autonomous communication networks which might help afford a new media space for citizen power. Of course, such autonomous digital communication poses a threat to intellectual property enforcement and thus a threat to Microsoft’s entire business model. If information and communication flows freely in developing countries (aka “new markets”) it makes it more difficult to start charging one day. Immersing children, early on, in proprietary environments where information circulation is tightly controlled and intellectual property rights are strictly enforced, helps to socialize a generation that will continue to play by the old rules rather than one that will challenge them by imagining new rules. In fact, “play” is exactly what is being co-opted here. Children’s play in technological environments (in this case, the XO) is being shaped to socially reproduce certain behaviors for future work in an informational economy. Of course children are not passive recipients, they are actors in this equation. What they do in these proprietary environments and how they may (or may not) reclaim play for creative and innovative purposes is worth watching.

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