OLPC Review 11.01.08

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There’s something troubling about reviewing Nicholas Negroponte’s XO – the so-called “$100 dollar laptop” – for a design magazine. And that I’m writing the piece on my gas-guzzling SUV of a MacBook Pro can only compound the horror.

The XO has been in the news for a while, but icon is the first magazine to actually get hold of one. The thing is, this is not a machine designed to be evaluated by people like me. In all the ways that matter, it’s not a consumer artefact. It’s not trying to wheedle itself into your living room. It has more in common with a clean water pump than it does with an iPod. It’s a sincere but radical political act.

The result of a two-year project, “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), the XO aims to introduce primary school children in the developing world to the educational possibilities of technology and the network. With a tough, textured plastic body about the same size as a Speak & Spell, the laptop is built to withstand extreme conditions. Its frugal use of electricity allows it to function in areas where power is sparse, or even non-existent: a hand-powered recharger is available. The screen switches into an energy-efficient black-and-white mode that is also readable in direct – even aggressive – sunlight. The rubberised keyboard seals the device against dust and water. Even the friendly green “ears” of the device serve a triple function – acting as latches, protective shields for USB ports and wi-fi antennae.

This is a device for the young. The keyboard immediately reveals the clumsiness of fully-grown fingers. Each key is springy and responsive – fun to touch and explore – but they’re packed tightly together to help small hands roam effectively. In every dimension, the XO is child-shaped. The grasp of the handle, the heft of it in your hands, the way it swings when you walk – it’s enough to make any adult feel like a freakishly large mutant. And it’s not only toy-like, it’s child-resistant – it feels resilient, solid, indestructible – as if it could be used as a tennis racket without sustaining any real damage.

Yet what’s truly extraordinary about the XO is the bets it places on our collective political and creative future. Geek utopianists have infused it with their own profoundly aspirational, positive and humanist political ideology. The XO is their lever to effect change at a global scale.

Every aspect of the device works on the principle that nodes on the network can achieve more together than they can apart. All the programs work in a social context – you can show off your work, share your web browsing or advertise a discussion. Some applications – including a version of Connect 4 – are only functional at all if you have other people to play with.

The collaborative, communal experience is tied together by the “zoom interface” – the XO’s version of the Finder or File Manager. It allows a user at any time to zoom back from one particular application to their desktop, then to their community of friends and then still further to see everyone on the network.

While zoomed out, you can see clusters of people collaborating and playing, always connected and part of their community. The XO is not a device for loners. It is a device that believes aggressively in society and aims to support it.

There are also challenges to our understanding of intellectual property. The communities in the developing world that cannot afford life-saving drugs similarly cannot afford textbooks – and often for similar reasons. But the XO’s screen can be twisted to turn it into an e-book reader, and e-books can be consumed in groups and copied from one machine to another. The device is designed for the distribution  of free knowledge. Information, as the technologists’ mantra goes, wants to be free – and the XO is there to help that happen.

You can see similar principles at work in the pervasive use of open-source applications and software for the device, such as the Firefox browser or Linux. This software is free to use, and – more importantly – offers its very code up to exploration and change.

The XO revels in this opportunity, making it easy for children to access and edit the software of their machine. There are no finished creative works here, but simply sites for continual exploration and learning.

In every area, this object is an attempt to refashion the world in the image of the dreams of its creators – noble, vigorous, creative and expressively utopian dreams. As a project and as a device, it’s beautiful and revolutionary.

If the XO succeeds in its mission, these dreams of sociality, play, creation and freedom will inspire generations of children in the developing world. And this new generation – growing up able to access and manipulate knowledge, technology, literature, music and code – will bring to the networked world their new perspectives, voices and needs.

It’s a project to transform the world: it’s not a laptop, it’s a movement. And it deserves our full support.



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