|Don’t know what to do with a computer that looks like this? Don’t worry — you’re not the target market.|
Lately I’ve been learning more about, and getting quite intrigued by, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. Yesterday I listened to an IT Conversations podcast talk by Michael Evans, VP of corporate development for Redhat, one of the leading producers of Linux and open-source technology. That really tied together for me why this project is so compelling.
Originally I’d thought this project was interesting but rather frivolous. I mean, when millions of kids are dying around the world every year from malnutrition, dirty water, preventable diseases, and toxic environments — let alone the lack of energy and communication infrastructure in many populous parts of the developing world — a laptop sounds a bit like like Disneyland.
But now I think I get it. Here’s what I find so compelling and significant about OLPC…
- It aims to give human minds a chance to grow and connect — especially in places where they’ve been actively thwarted from doing so, well, forever. Creating more smart, literate people who can talk and create together is the most fundamental step toward addressing killer thorny issues like food security, endemic violence, energy production and distribution, environmental degradation, public and personal health, and more. It also has the potential to topple oppressive power structures (social, economic, governmental, ethnic, religious, gender-based, etc.).
- It’s become a kind of high-tech Apollo project. Several major players in forward-thinking technology companies and from the education world have devoted some of their top minds to this nonprofit collaborative effort. Like the “man on the moon” effort of the 1960s, this can lead to many kinds of tech breakthroughs that have diverse applications.
- Shedding old tech baggage. The target market for this project are kids — even as young as four or five — who have never used a computer and therefore have no assumptions about how it should look or work. This allows freedom to completely rework basic ergonomic, networking, and user interface issues; which kinds of software and features to include; and generally how to make technology conform more to developing human minds (instead of the reverse, which is how we’ve ended up saddled with many of the more limiting aspects of current computers, like the desktop metaphor).
I’ll be following this project more closely — especially because I think some cutting edge minds from the media and journalism world could, and should, get involved.
This project could open the minds of an entire generation to a world of information. And they won’t be simple audiences, they will be content creators who will form collaborative communities. How are they going to perceive all that information, and what will they do with it? They’re going to need something that goes beyond “media literacy.” My colleague Justin Crawford suggested yesterday that they’ll really need “information literacy.” I think that’s a great idea, and I plan to explore it further.
Of course, altruism is combined with self-interest, or at least survival skills. Look at it this way: If this project (or something like it) takes off, it could represent a fundamental shift in what future markets for news and information (i.e., future generations) will be like, what they will want and expect, and the role media organizations and professionals can play in meeting those changing demands.
I suspect this shift will go far, far beyond trying to save print newspapers. It’ll probably be more about shifting from the publication concept to building new businesses around creating relevance, supporting discovery and collaboration, and enhancing public conversations. Just a guess.
…I’m not saying OLPC is a perfect project. It has its detractors, and its schisms. But it definitely seems, to me at least, to be less of a misbegotten boondoggle than “No Child Left Behind.” It’s worth a look, and media folks probably should be paying attention and getting more involved. We have a role to play here, too.
What do you think? Please comment below.