On Bit Rot

Mark Dery’s Bit Rot was one of my favorite pieces from Crypto Anarchy, Cyber States and Pirate Utopias in part because it was a much-deserved lighter read but also because it was a scathing and hilarious criticism of Nicholas Negroponte, who until now I had only known for the One Laptop Per Child project. Mr. Dery’s article was published in 1999, and the OLPC project wasn’t started until 2006. Most of the criticism is about the triviality of the MIT Media Lab’s consumer electronics inventions and Negroponte’s lack of any social consideration.

In Being Digital, a funny thing happens on the way to the Rapture. Five pages from the end, an unhappy little cloud briefly darkens Negroponte’s digital vision of blue skies. “Every technology or gift of science has a dark side,” he concedes, on page 227 (!) of a 231-page hymn to the deus ex machina. “As we move toward such a digital world, an entire sector of the population will be or feel disenfranchised. When a 50-year-old steelworker loses his job, unlike his 25-year-old son, he may have no digital resilience at all.”

And then this, which I could almost read forever:

But the everyday reality of the underclass has never much concerned the man who breezily redefined the “needy” and the “have-nots” in a New York Times editorial as the technologically illiterate, the “digitally homeless” - a phrase that wins the Newt Gingrich Let Them Eat Laptops Award for cloud-dwelling detachment from the lives of the little people.

If you’re not familiar with the OLPC the idea was to create a low cost (originally planned to be $100, although that jumped to twice as much during production) laptop1 designed for children around the world to become technologically literate. It was headed by many people, although Negroponte was the most visible marketer. The governments that were targeted generally balked at the price, and some critics compared the high price of a single laptop per child to the more economical cost of a library or school that could serve many children. After many years it’s mostly considered a failure (Have you heard of it? Recently?)

Bit Rot put the OLPC in a different context for me. Here is Negroponte’s single major technological contribution that could have a worldwide social impact, but it is the same story as any other invention that came from under his guidance. It turned out that airdropping computers to children in places where they don’t normally have them didn’t change how they are educated that much, and in fact can cause harm. It’s worth considering the poor long-term usage rates2 of the OLPC in Alabama, the largest American deployment, where there is such a huge interest in how to improve the primary and secondary education systems nationwide.

Would the OLPC project have fared better if children got Nexus tablets or the best iPads money can buy? Perhaps. Or perhaps it was an expensive way to realize that technology alone can not solve social issues, and that people and holistic solutions are often necessary.

  1. OLPC has now developed an Android tablet with specially designed software for kids and is selling it through various online retailers. The software has gotten much better reviews than their laptop, and the cost is lower as well ($149 vs ~$200). It’s definitely not being marketed for the same purpose as the laptop is, though, being aimed at more developed countries. 

  2. http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/warschauer_m/docs/Warschauer_bluelines.pdf This essay is only 19 pages long and it’s very well researched, I’d recommend reading it if this interests you.