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  • Impending Revolutions

    Posted by Zenpundit on February 22nd, 2007 (All posts by )

    While I had heard of the Negroponte project for $ 100 laptops previously, it was not until today that a post at Dave Davison’s Thoughts Illustrated made me appreciate the true scale of the endeavor. Dave’s post led me to this article about Alan Kay, one of the fathers of the PC and of the very internet itself. Some key points from the Kay article:

    The Viewpoints Research Institute is actually involved in three new projects. One is the $100 laptop project that Nicholas Negroponte is doing. That is coming along very well. The first 1,000 factory-built machines were built in the last few weeks. The plan is to build 5 million to 8 million laptops this summer, and perhaps as many as 50 million in 2008. We’re very involved in that. The other thing is a recently funded NSF project that will take a couple of giant steps, we hope, toward reinventing programming. The plan is to take the entire personal-computing experience from the end user down to the silicon and make a system from scratch that recapitulates everything people are used to—desktop publishing, Internet experiences, etc.—in less than 20,000 lines of code. It would be kind of like a Moore’s Law step in software. It’s going to be quite difficult to do this work in five years, but it will be exciting.

    The third project we’re just getting started on and don’t have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself. This is an old idea that goes all the way back to the sixties. Many people have worked on it. It just has never gotten above threshold.”

    Kay makes very clear that the $100 laptop effort is aimed at the Gap where children are relatively uncorrupted by the pop culture techno expectations of America. A tabula rasa to re-start the information revolution. However the economic spillover effects of such an accomplishment cannot be contained. The entire computer market will be affected to broaden societal and global access to information.

    At a stroke, in American public schools, the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated, as would their use as a crutch by gen-ed majors and basketball coaches posing as teachers of core academic subjects. The poorest American school districts can afford $ 100 laptops even when new textbooks are beyond their budgetary reach. Kids in East St. Louis and Watts and the moonscape of inner city Detroit can enter the information age along with Bangladeshis and Burundians.

    Factor in the pirates who will produce copycat versions in places like China and we are talking about an increase in the online population of the world by several orders of magnitude with all that such connectivity entails.

    Cross-posted at Zenpundit


    22 Responses to “Impending Revolutions”

    1. david foster Says:

      “the rationale for spending billions on textbooks ( which run about $ 70 per copy on average and are exceedingly mediocre in quality) would be eliminated”…that’s not at all obvious. The owners of the intellectual property embedded in these textbooks will still expect to be paid. It’s true that many of these are of lamentable quality, but that’s an institutional problem that won’t be solved by a cheap laptop.

    2. John Says:

      “basketball coaches posing as teachers”

      I had more than my share of them. One was a World History teacher who spent quite a bit of time on the poltics of Renaissance Italy (because the textbook did) who had not read “The Prince”!

    3. John Says:

      David Foster – a few diagrams must be copied from published papers, and recreating art can be a bit expensive, but not $70 per copy expensive. I’m going to re-post my textbook rant with a lot of explanations.

    4. Anonymous Says:

      Another silver bullet for education. There are many districts that have ‘invested’ in high quality computers for the children and it hasn’t done anything to improve the quality of education. The US is 17/22, near the bottom, for level of education among the industrialized countries.

      The computers the students already have are used to teach word processing, run some trivial ‘computer aided learning’ app, or to surf the web. They aren’t used to teach anything significant about computing itself, like programming. This won’t change. We’ve had Logo and Smalltalk for decades, and they’ve gone nowhere because the education establishment isn’t interested in using them.

    5. John Jay Says:

      The texbook rant is reposted below this one on the main page.

      [JG: Textbook post is here.]

    6. david foster Says:

      Here are some relevant thoughts by Michael Schrage.

    7. Mrs. Davis Says:

      We’ve had Logo and Smalltalk for decades, and they’ve gone nowhere because the education establishment can’g fiure out how to use isn’t interested in using them.

      Academics might want to take a look at how the pop music industry has dealt with the collision of low cost digitized information processors and intellectual property rights. The educators brought it on themselves using pirated software and illegally copied books for years. Even in Silicon Valley educators demonstrate no respect for IP rights. It’s going to bit them in the butt.

      But the good news for the employees of the public schools is that they are only ostensibly in the education business. Their actual function is child care and diversion of laborers who might force down wages.

    8. Not Gandhi Says:

      This effort completely misunderstands the role of true (opportunity cost). The problem is not that laptops are now >$100 and that textbooks are $70. It is that the teaching systems are badly run. If a well designed laptop could supplant the horrible textbooks and build knowledge in poor kids, then $1000 would be cheap for such a device. Indeed, the feds could easily subsidize schools to the tune of a $1000 per kid (they pay much more for crappy results). The problem is not the lack of a $100 laptop. The problem is that EVEN $1000 laptops for everybody would do very little to solve problems in basic literacy, math knowledge, motivation, and discipline/study habits that plague the worst kids in the worst schools in the US.

      Sadly, this project actually might have more of a chance mattering in really poor countries in developing nations. Although in the latter case, I am skeptical that a well-designed $100 laptop with $100 of software would be superior to just GIVING every poor kid in the 3rd world $200 for schooling.

    9. Shannon Love Says:

      The Negroponte project is one of those technological fixes that as a techno-geek I viscerally wish to succeed. However, I do not think it will.

      (1) Top Down Design: The system is being designed by elite members of developed world who are essentially guessing what impoverished children of the developing world really need. Historically, such top-down schemes haven’t worked well. Its basically the computer equivalent of the post-WWII idea that if we just built infrastructure like roads, damns and ports for the worlds poor then economic development would immediately follow. Technology, even small personal technology, does not exist in a vacuum. It must integrate with the cultural, political and economic environment. It is very difficult for anyone, especially an outsider, to create a product that can do that in one pass.

      (2) Computers are not good teaching tools: No evidence exist that computers help with education. Indeed, some evidence exist that they hinder it. If computers don’t make a big impact on education in the developed world why should we expect them to make a big difference in the developing?

      (3) The internet is not a good teaching tool: Contrary to the popular stereotype you can’t find everything on the internet. In fact, the internet specializes in trivial information. It’s like the Platt river, five miles wide and foot deep. You can find low grade information about almost anything but usually not detailed information.

      The problem with education in the 3rd world has less to do with an absence of physical resources and more to due with the low practical value that people struggling to survive place on education. We accomplished a near 100% literacy rate in the US in the early twentieth century using 1 room school houses and slate boards. People in the developing world do not need whizband technology, they need enough economic surplus to allow their children not to work and they need a cultural emphasis on real education.

    10. Anonymous Says:

      Robust skepticism is a tonic :o) My response:

      I agree that ” throw laptops at children and good things will happen” is not much of recipe for success but I don’t think that is Kay or Negroponte’s intent. At least not as I read the article.

      I’m not sure that the fundamental criticism that in many teachers will fail to maximize the utility of laptops would not apply equally well to something more mundane, say, a blackboard or a school library. Teacher quality is a very real problem but it is also a separate issue from tools; denying the good teachers and *all* students better tools until *all* the poor teachers are replaced is simply the perfect being the enemy of the good.

      While I am not any kind of programming geek, one expert who is, Gunnar Peterson, commented favorably on the capacity of Kay to develop( I presume proprietary but perhaps not) teaching applications. I see the laptop as an instant gateway to online books, periodicals, maps, reference science simulations etc. to which many schools in America, much less the third world would be hard pressed to afford otherwise. The Prince, to cite John’s basketball coach example, can be read online. So can a majority of the books that are most worth reading in life. All of us here can afford dead tree books; the target audience for these $ 100 laptops are not as fortunate.

      No the internet is not a good teaching tool – it’s a vast library where content selection should be directed by a competent adult with a coherent purpose in mind. Nor,in my experience, is the cultural emphasis on learning lacking abroad, though that is a critricism I could easily level at fellow Americans. Indeed, great sacrifices are being made by the poorest people in countries like India to improve the education of their children.

      I enjoyed Jay’s textbook rant. Even a good textbook is but a starting point or a reference tool for a good instructor. If the textbook is the course, there’s a problem with the teacher.

      “I am skeptical that a well-designed $100 laptop with $100 of software would be superior to just GIVING every poor kid in the 3rd world $200 for schooling.”

      A solid point. That would have a significant impact, in my view.

      “I had more than my share of them. One was a World History teacher who spent quite a bit of time on the poltics of Renaissance Italy (because the textbook did) who had not read “The Prince”! ”

      All too common. Drives me nuts.

      “The educators brought it on themselves using pirated software and illegally copied books for years. Even in Silicon Valley educators demonstrate no respect for IP rights. It’s going to bit them in the butt.”

      Most school districts these days,in my experience, have fairly strict policies against individual teachers downloading even legitimately purchased software of their own accord, much less pirated material, though this was a common abuse in the mid 1990’s. IP in the classroom is governed by “fair use” laws and court decisions on which Richard Posner, to cite one example, has opined at length. All use of IP material is not “forbidden” but it is governed by rules designed to respect the rights of the copyright holder.

    11. zenpundit Says:

      LOL. Sorry, that was me above. Forgot to enter my data.

    12. Typewriter King Says:

      The comment section here is disappointing. I see several comments talking about intellectual property payments as if the open source/copyleft revolution never took off, with no one showing up to dispute it. I’m wondering how that orthodoxy is standing while people are commenting on a free informational posting (with links to
      more free information) on the free software platform WordPress.

      Shannon Love isn’t correct about learning material on the internet. There’s plenty of fine material on the web, Google just ranks the popular material to the top. One can get a first-rate classical education just by using free sources on the web. Most of the so-called Western Canon is free at Project Gutenberg, as are all the essays worth reading. Just viewing the $100 laptop as
      an e-book library justifies the cost. MIT has over 1500 web pages worth of lesson material for free. All the American founding documents are available.

      Some things online are more relevant to a young African boy, like the manual for an ak47, or the blueprints for a claymore mine, or basic medical knowledge.

      If the software can help teach basic literacy, and I don’t see great difficulty in doing that if a competent educated adult is with the child in a safe environment, there are really more than enough textbooks. The official language in Sierra Leone is English, so I’d think that nation has an advantage in finding free material, and several other nations would be far behind.

      Education through computing isn’t just about mathematical flash cards and high-pitched voices saying “very good!” every time one enters the right integer. It’s about cutting down the overhead cost of all the media traditionally used into one free zip folder, and that’s before considering VRI’s work. (Yeah, I actually read the post and the linked material, then wrote a post with enough evidence to prove it)

      I have a substantial gripe about Alan Kay and VRI’s software even before downloading Squeak. I only see Windows and Mac support. Even if that sacrifices Gates Foundation support, it seems strange to overlook compatibility with Linux, especially since I thought these laptops were going to include Linspire (an OS based on the Linux kernal, forgot where I heard that). I also can’t find documentation, even though they bill this as “free and open source” software. Then when I clicked that giant Microsoft button with the thumb tack on it, the thing froze up my browser, as if to punish me for inquiring over the Windows connection…

      Gunnar Peterson’s comment over on your native blog would have helped generate more and better discussion over here. If I ran the Chicago Boyz site, I’d kindly ask you to close the comment section on your post when crossposting here. Of course, I’m assuming they have the leverage to make the request, an assumption I don’t have the information to be sure of. ^_^

    13. Typewriter King Says:

      Well crap, my points were already made before I hit (submit comment)

      “I see the laptop as an instant gateway to online books, periodicals, maps, reference science simulations etc. to which many schools in America, much less the third world would be hard pressed to afford otherwise. The Prince, to cite John’s basketball coach example, can be read online. So can a majority of the books that are most worth reading in life.”

      Said perfectly without the offputting angst I used! ^_^

    14. zenpundit Says:

      Why thank you o’ Typewriter King ! I’m glad you mentioned open source which has bearing here.

      Your suggestion about Gunnar Peterson is well taken. For those interested, Gunnar, who blogs at 1Raindrop wrote the following in my comment section:

      “Alan Kay has also done extensive work on teaching programming to kids

      1. “The trick,” Kay continues, “is that like Montessori we think of the main instincts of kids is to play. There just aren’t any twentieth and twenty-first century toys to play with. Seymore Pappert’s LOGO pioneered this and lead kids to real mathematical learning.” Kay says, “once kids make stuff, you start to see real computer literacy.”

      2. For me, the key is education. And in my mind the patron saint of how to teach kids is Maria Montessori. A hundred years ago, Montessori understood that children always are trying to learn about their environment, and so the best way to help them was to give them carefully organized, rich environments, where the toys and the play have 20th-century side effects. In my opinion, this is one of the great ideas in the history of education. Even today, most of the best cognitive science about education harks back to Montessori’s original insights.

      Seymour Papert used to talk about the kid who has difficulty in mathematics. Typically, the teacher will say, “Well, this kid is not math-minded. Let’s try the kid on something else.” But if the kid were having difficulty in French, we couldn’t say that that kid is not French-minded, because we know that had the kid been born in France he or she would have no trouble learning French. So Papert’s idea was that there’s something environmentally wrong about the way math is taught to kids. If the environment were right, they would learn. Well, the computer is a tool with which you can actually make rich environments, in which learning can have the character of play.

      3. Q: Why hasn’t educational computing lived up to the potential that you and Papert saw in the 1960s?
      A: Don’t even worry about computers yet. When did math and science actually start becoming important for everyone in our society to know? Probably 200 years ago. Now think about how poorly math and science are being taught in elementary school today. So don’t even worry about computers; instead, worry about how long it takes for something that is known to be incredibly important to get into the elementary-school curriculum. That’s the answer. Of course it’s taking forever—because the adults are the intermediaries, and they don’t like math and science.

      So computers are actually irrelevant at this level of discussion—they are just musical instruments. The real question is this: What is the prospect of turning every elementary school teacher in America into a musician? That’s what we’re talking about here. Afterward we can worry about the instruments.

    15. david foster Says:

      “intellectual property payments as if the open source/copyleft revolution never took off”…the computer-based content used for instruction in public k-12 schools would be selected (in the US) by state & local school boards, just as textbooks are. I see little reason to believe that these institutions will go seek out open-source content to provide better instruction or even to save money…if they wanted to do that, they could do it right now, and merely reproduce the content by printing rather than distribution via laptops.

    16. Shannon Love Says:

      Typewriter King,

      I see several comments talking about intellectual property payments as if the open source/copyleft revolution never took off, with no one showing up to dispute it

      Sadly, the open source movement never did “take off” and I suspect it never will. Open source only works when it can economically parasitize another profitable activity. That severely limits its ability to spread beyond a few niche applications. We tend to concentrate so much on profits as a means of motivating human behavior that we forget that economic exchange also provides access to the actual resources required to create things whether any particular human are motivated or not. Open source/copyleft projects simply aren’t allocated the resources they need to succeed beyond certain niches.

      Shannon Love isn’t correct about learning material on the internet.

      The best you can say is that the material is hit or miss. You might find the detailed information you are looking for but chances are you will not. MIT’s courseware project is a perfect example. Some of the material is very detailed but most of it is nothing but course syllabuses.

      I recently went looking for a basic immunology resource on line and really couldn’t find any suitable. I found a great deal of fragmentary information but nothing detailed and nothing an individual could really use to self-teach themselves in any systematic manner. A major resource missing from online is self-test which are absolutely required if one is to have any hope of truly mastering difficult material.

      I really, really, really, really, really sincerely hope that the project works and that my assessment is badly flawed. Given my personal prejudices there is nothing I love so much a transformative technological solution to a stubborn problem.

      But given the history of such projects I wouldn’t bet on it.

    17. Phil Fraering Says:

      When I first heard about the “hundred dollar laptop” I thought it was an interesting idea, but that they were possibly trying to make the machine do too much.

      (For replacing textbooks, maybe something more along the lines of Apple’s “emate,” if mass produced, might be better than what they’re trying to make.)

      Then I recently read that they’re planning to institute some rather draconian security measures in the devices themselves, supposedly to prevent pilferage.

      Never mind that the major reason there’s pilferage in the first place is usually because the societies in question, STARTING WITH THEIR GOVERNMENTS, INCLUDING THE AGENCIES THAT WOULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TROJAN PROGRAM THEY’RE INSTALLING IN THE THING, are a) low-trust environments, and b), the last people I’d want to trust with running such a thing, because they’re more concerned with their own power than the good of their people.

      They have carefully and exquisitely crippled any chance the device would have had to get secondary markets that would have let them expand production and subsidize the cost of providing it to their primary market. And they’re oblivious to the fact that they’ve done so at the instigation of the governments of those countries.

    18. Jonathan Says:

      Typewriter King wrote:
      If I ran the Chicago Boyz site, I’d kindly ask you to close the comment section on your post when crossposting here.

      How Zenpundit handles comments on his posts here and on his own blog is his affair. However, I think it may be helpful to explain why I don’t think it’s a good idea to close comments anywhere. The rationale for cross-posting is based on the assumption, which I think is reasonable in this case, that there is less-than-complete overlap between the audiences of Blog A and Blog B. So if you post something on Blog A, you can get more exposure for it, with almost no incremental effort on your part, by cross-posting it on Blog B. And by so doing you also help Blog B by providing new content.

      The downside, as you point out, is that there may be a disconnect between the comment threads on the respective blogs. However, if you shut down one of the comment threads you risk losing comments from readers of the one blog who are not willing to comment on the other. So I think the best solution is to muddle through, by allowing comments on both blogs, and by linking one comment thread to another as necessary, as Zen has done above.

    19. Ginny Says:

      Sure there are trade offs. But the “muddle through” Anglosphere works. True to his vision, Jonathan offers the openest of markets.

    20. Bonzo Says:

      I love books, I really like books. I like how I can dofg-ear pages and make check marks. I really, really like books.

      I like laptops. With that said the WWW has a way of redirecting time.

      Books and good videos are cheap (and can be accessed from laptops).

      Many complain about public education. We should. My experience has shown me that most people believe someone elses school is messed up. Why are not more people fleeing to private schools?

      Could private schools be more messed up than public schools in some ways? I know the answer is yes.

      Public schools should be available but not ‘free’. Vouchers are a bad idea because they create a new entitlement.

      Dysfunctional communities create dysfunctional kids and thus schools that are messed up are made worse.

      Lastly, and it needs to be asked loudly, why are Colleges/Universities so expensive? They choose who to let in, they choose who to kick out, they do not need to deal with the BS which free American schools put up with. Think about it most four year programs are way more expensive than public schools. Before I paid for daycare I never saw that simple truism.


    21. ElGaboGringo Says:

      What needs to be found is a successful way to break the monopoly that the public school system has on primary and especially secondary education. I’m not sure how a $100 laptop does this unless the idea is that there will be free soft-content can now be distributed at near zero cost in soft copy form, allowing schools to bypass the NEA and their textbooks.

      What is more likely, however, is that, rather than free content, schools will use NEA endorsed software/content (likely a resource hog) and we’ll be right where we were before, except that every year we’d hear a clamor from schools that students PC’s weren’t fast enough and they needed more funding for CPU and RAM upgrades.

      Sometimes a technological development lets the free-market flourish, but isn’t that usually in areas where the biggest barrier was technology? The biggest barrier to the free-market in education is government regulation/involvement and unions. Until that changes not even nano-tubes are gonna change things, at least IMHO.

    22. A. Scott Crawford Says:

      The $100 dollar laptop scam, eh?

      I wrote an email to Negroponte, as I know his brother from my documentary days, offering to demonstrate the field level problems with this high-concept idea ON MY DIME. He declined my offer.

      Here’s the bottom line.

      a) In a third world slum, $100 is worth cutting a throat over. In South Asia, that sum represents a months salary for most adults. In Latin American slums that sum represents 1/4 of a months salary for a young lawyer. The idea that a bunch of gormless American technotards are going to be able to hand out goods with a very high resale value to poor powerless people is dangerous and silly unless there is some plan for providing ongoing security for this infamous cheap computers.

      2. I know the former “President” of Rosina, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere, and he assured me that the problem wasn’t access to machines, but rather people willing to acutally GO TO THE SLUMS to take the time to train the kids how to use the machines they already have…

      3. This brings up the question of just whom the MIT brainiacs behind this PR gimmick imagine is going to benefit from them handing out these machines… obviously THEY ARE, as the press will cover ONLY their charity and none of the fallout or harm done to the poor people after the MIT bunch AND the press have long gone. Probably the local racketeers will benefit, as they’ll just steal the machines and resell them for a tidy profit. Obviously the local politicians and big shots… the people RESPONSIBLE for the slum conditions in the first place.. will benefit, as they’ll share in the PR goodwill and look like they actually care, while no one thinks to ask WHY conditions are as they are in the first place and just WHO is responsible.

      Who will suffer? The kids who are told that there’s such a thing as charity without justice ensuring that said charity will be implemented as intended. Tiny Tim ONLY gets to eat the Scrooges christmas goose because the thugs that would normally steal everything Tiny Tim has are afraid of the heat Scrooge would bring if they showed their hands with him present… but the MOMENT scrooge leaves, Tiny Tim looses that goose. If the poor kid is lucky, he escapes a beating in the process; but if some moron of an American Intellectual has convinced Tiny Tim that he has some Universal Right to keep his Goose/computer, then it’s likely innocent Tiny Tim is going to object to having it stolen, and thus receive a beating to remind him that he doesn’t live in a place with much in the way of Law beyond Lex Talonis.

      So… Now that you all know that Negroponte and others involved with this $100 laptop high concept are WELL aware that there are field level problems that make it likely that their Tiny Tim’s in Calcutta and Rio aren’t going to benefit as much as is claimed; and now that you all know that despite an offer by someone who ACTUALLY knows field conditions and offered to SHOW the Americans responsible… do you all still think the Americans behind this gimmick are as honorable as their PR suggests?

      I don’t. I’ve been through these types of issues with any number of international would-be do gooders, who upon discovering that their “good intentions” have gotten some kid they’re using in their promo video’s throat slit, decide that they themselves, the originators of the conflict, aren’t responsible. It doesn’t matter that many knew ahead of time that there was a risk of their poor beneficiaries coming to harm, but did it anyway.

      So who exactly is the villain. The third world crook who’s merely playing by the rules of HIS culture and society? The third world politician, who likely has admitted in private, when pressed by someone like me, that there’s a danger of a bad outcome? Not in my opinion.

      In my opinion, the real villians are the stupid Americans and Europeans who are TOLD that they might do harm with their good intentions, and decide that the risk is worth the imagined benefit (which almost NEVER occurs as planned). What happens is that these “do-gooders”, when things go wrong, run away or cover their mistakes up. This is a part of my associates and my jobs, we pick up the pieces after we’ve advised correctly and were ignored. But we do it for the people that were harmed and NOT to protect the reputations or egos of the jerks who benefited.

      “Give them $100 laptops is like the Queen of France telling her ministers to let the Poor Eat Cake” And you can quote me on that.