The Cyborg and the Noble Savage

Ethics in the war on information poverty

by Martin Ryder

This is an early draft of a chapter in
Rocci Luppicini and Rebecca Adell (Eds)
Handbook of Research on Technoethics
Copyright 2008, IGI Global,
Posted by permission of the publisher.


This chapter provides a brief summary of the technical and social hurdles that define the so-called digital divide and it considers the celebrated One Laptop Per Child project as one response to the problem of digital poverty. The chapter reviews the design of the XO laptop with particular interest on the ethical territory that is traversed in the implementation of a low-cost computer intended for millions of children in underdeveloped nations. The article reviews how XO designers negotiated between ethics and feasibility as they confronted numerous problems including infrastructure, power consumption, hazardous materials, free vs proprietary software, security, and the cost of labor. Apart from technical considerations, this review of the XO evaluates the notion of cultural hegemony and how the imposition of such technology as an educational tool might be balanced by considerations of local control and user agency.


The digital divide is the white man's burden of the present era. As technically advanced people become enriched by the knowledge they create, there is a consciousness that millions of disconnected people lack the 'freedoms' associated with modern civilization. In this digital age, the billions who survive without computer technology are seen as languishing on a globe that can no longer sustain hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. The technical world of automation, manufacturing and mass consumption is increasingly hostile to the simple folk who live directly from the land. Modern humanity's ability to dominate nature has imposed serious consequences on pre-modern societies that depend completely upon nature for their sustenance.

Kipling's White Man's Burden captured the prevailing ethic of a colonialist society that justified conquest of non-Western cultures in the name of 'civilization'. It is a noble enterprise to lift savage populations from their 'simplicity' and hopeless poverty. This transformation starts with skills of reading and writing. Literacy came first in the form of religion, then it flourished under the tutelage of commercialism. Today, the medium of literacy has migrated from parchment to silicon and the electronic well of knowledge is deep and boundless. Those who draw from the well continue to enrich it as they are enriched by it. But most of the world's people remain disconnected from this knowledge source. They do not speak its language, they are unaware of its powers, and they are completely consumed by the more urgent necessities of daily living.

The focal point of this chapter is the celebrated OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project founded in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte and a core team of the M.I.T. Media Lab. OLPC is an aggressive project that addresses the core issues of information poverty head on. The stated goal of OLPC is "to develop a $100 laptop - a technology that could revolutionize the way we educate the world's children." In working toward this goal, the designers have grappled with problems of technical feasibility, organizational pragmatics, social and political considerations, and the overarching problem of cultural hegemony. Negroponte's non-profit team has wrestled between government ministries (as customers) and corporate interests (as suppliers) over questions of content, connectivity, power sources, the user interface, privacy, licensing, component sources, manufacturing, distribution and scores of related issues. What has emerged is a very novel technology at a very low cost with the potential for wide distribution in equally novel markets.

The ethical issues that we confront in this chapter are as numerous, complex, and varied as the science of ethics itself. They traverse several major traditions of ethical theory including natural law, utilitarian theory, and deontology and the applied fields of environmental ethics, engineering ethics and computer ethics. The very fact that we are addressing this issue - the digital divide - places us immediately into a state of anguish associated with Sartre's existential ethics. While embracing the new powers that we inherit from information technology, we accept responsibility for ourselves in the use of these powers. And yet, as a free people, we also accept responsibility for the impact of our choices upon those who do not possess such power. Can a moral person ignore the growing knowledge gulf between our present-day civilizations? Who of us is justified in raising the question of digital poverty? Can the Western mind presume to understand a life of survival without technology and then dare to suggest a technical solution? In advancing our technologies to the farthest reaches of humanity, what are the unintended consequences of our actions? Do we, as Albert Borgmann (1999) suggests, risk the possibility of forever losing touch with nature?

This chapter will address some of the salient ethical issues associated with the digital divide and the moral implications of one specific intervention: the OLPC project. We will briefly consider some of the engineering ethics associated with the design and world-wide distribution of a child's laptop computer. We will also consider the issue of cultural hegemony that is unavoidably associated with this project and observe the manner in which the designers have consciously addressed this concern.


The notion of a digital divide was coined during the second half of the Clinton Administration. The expression is a spin off of the "great divide theory" of Jack Goody (Goody and Watt, 1968) (Goody, 1977) (Goody, 1986). The Goody thesis portrays literacy as a necessary precondition for abstract thought and a fundamental component of modern human cognition. According to this theory, societies have a tremendous intellectual and cognitive advantage wherever they can leverage the rich interactions of literate individuals. Numerous theorists in the 60s 70s and 80s studied claims of how specific technologies such as writing or print could affect the nature of thinking and the formation of a modern worldview. (See for example McLuhan, 1962; Havelock, 1963; Finnegan, 1973; Eisenstein, 1979; Scribner and Cole, 1981; Ong, 1982.) A number of researchers have also focused on the close connection between literacy practices and power relationships. An ethical dimension to literacy is introduced in these models. Brian Street (1993) proposed an ideological model to the study of literacy (p.7) in which he identifies a tension between power and authority on one hand, and resistance and creativity on the other. Street suggests the conceptualization of literacy as ideological practice "opens up a potentially rich field of inquiry into the nature of culture and power, and the relationship of institutions and ideologies of communication." (p.12)

For years, literacy had been a common indicator of modern social capital (Bourdieu, 1983; Coleman, 1988). By the 1990s the propagation of knowledge by means of information computing technologies (ICTs) had significantly raised the bar that defines what it is to be modern . The cognitive divide between modern and pre-modern peoples is more pronounced than ever and the solutions required to close this gulf are more formidable. Where Goody's cognitive divide called for interventions of literacy and basic education, the interventions facing the global digital divide are more complex and daunting. They mandate infrastructure for electricity and communications (Kling, 1998), an army of highly skilled technicians (Korman, 2003; Barton, 2007), an enormous translation effort (Auh, 2001; Martindale, 2002), the dismantling of social barriers (Warschauer, 2003) and political barriers (Norris, 2001). The chances of closing this digital gap hinge on economics and the ability to deliver ICTs to populations in the most backward and depressed areas of the world.

The OLPC Project

Scores of projects have been spawned since the late 1990s to better understand the global digital divide and to respond to the challenges it poses. Among the most aggressive was unveiled at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of the MIT Media Lab. Stated simply, the goal of One Laptop Per Child is to give all children in the developing world laptop computers of their own.2 The hurdles for achieving this goal are daunting, but it is exactly the kind of challenge for which the Media Lab was created. According to Negroponte, the Media Lab's charter3 is to invent and creatively exploit new media for human well-being and individual satisfaction without regard for present-day constraints.

OLPC designers accepted the challenge to create a powerful lap-top computer that can operate reliably in regions that have no electricity, that can network with peers in regions without telephone cables or cellular hubs, that can endure rough handling in dusty or humid conditions, that can display information clearly in sunshine or in shade, that can capture and record photographs or moving pictures with sound, that offers tight security adjustable to the user's needs, that is rich with multi-media resources for communication and for learning, that is immediately adaptable to eight different languages with four different alphabets and that can do all of this for a price point of $100!

The name of the children's machine is "XO", christened for the childlike icon that is presented to the user interface. The computers themselves require no external power source. They are intended to communicate with each other in a wireless mesh network4 within a locality that ideally includes a central server5 at a local school or community house. What follows is a summary of the specifications for the XO. As you review these features, notice how each one addresses a specific technical hurdle that guards the digital frontier.

CPU: 433MHz AMD Geode LX07006. This processor consumes less than one watt, a minute percentage (2%) of the electrical energy consumed by a standard microprocessor in a typical desktop PC. A power management facility in this chip shuts down the CPU when active processing is not actually needed. This effectively keeps the processor in a passive, power-off mode 98 percent of the time.

Memory: 256 MB DRAM. Nothing unusual here. This is par with most current laptop systems, but it suggests that the XO is not a mere toy.

Storage: There is no hard drive on the XO-1. The idea is to preserve power and keep the cost low. Essential disk functions are handled by a 1GB flash memory7 and data compression, offering the equivalent of 2GB of local storage. Unused space on peer computers can be shared across the local mesh network. The child's own work can be uploaded and stored on a central server in the vicinity, and applications can be downloaded as needed from that local server.

Display: The graphics display poses the greatest challenge to the design of a low-cost, energy efficient computer. A typical laptop display costs around $120 and consumes more than a hundred watts of power. In her design of this innovative display, Mary Lou Jepsen8 manipulated the pixel layout using high resolution TFT LCD9 technology and she eliminated the use of costly color filters. Jepsen introduced a bright black and white mode for use in sunshine and a color mode for visibility in shade10. The chip that controls the display has its own memory. This allows information to remain live on the screen even when the processor is not active. The XO display uses one-seventh the typical power consumed by a traditional screen. With these innovations, Jepsen was still able to trim the cost of the XO display to one third of that for a standard display.

Network: The reliance on a wireless mesh network11 in lieu of a commercial copper or fibre infrastructure is another innovation of the OLPC project. The XO is equipped with an embedded wireless (802.1112) network chip and two small antennae that enable network communication for distances up to a kilometer. Each computer serves as a router13 for network traffic, passing data from one child's laptop to the next. In conventional PCs, the tcp/ip14 software that controls network communications is the part of the operating system. What is unique about the XO is the use of an embedded chip that runs wireless network communications independently of the operating system. On the XO computer, network communications is handled completely from an outboard chip 15 This allows a child's computer to continually forward network traffic for neighboring computers, even at times when the computer itself is in a suspended mode!

School Server: 16: The laptops themselves are generally self-sufficient, but they lack ample storage capabilities and they have no internet connection. These services can be provided by a more conventional computer situated in a school or community building with electricity and access to the internet. Where electricity is lacking, the school could be equipped with a photovoltaic solar panel and storage batteries to power the server day and night. The school server is a hub for the local mesh network and it serves as a network router bringing internet services to the local network. One important basic service of the school server is an online library of learning materials written in the language of the local community. In many countries, the cost of the computers will be justified on the basis of this material, eliminating the need for textbook distribution. Instructional materials developed by local teachers and students would be stored on the school server. The local server will retain registration data for each child's laptop in the local mesh network, providing basic security services for each node.

Power: The XO computer runs at about 12 watts of power when fully operational. This is less than one fifth the power rquired by a typical laptop PC. The designers chose a nickel metal hydride (NiMH17) battery in lieu of the conventional nickel cadmium ( NiCd18) for multiple reasons. NiMH can store three times the charge of an equivalent size NiCd battery. NiMH batteries are friendlier to the environment avoiding the toxic waste problems associated with cadmium19. And unlike NiCd, NiMN batteries don't suffer from the memory effect20 that requires full discharge and recharge cycles. The battery life is twelve hours between charges when running at full use and six days between charges when in suspended mode. In regions where electricity is not available, the battery can be recharged by a hand crank generator supplied with the machine. Human cranking time requires about six minutes for every hour of use at maximum CPU consumption.

Operating System: The Linux21 2.6 kernel22 and the GNU23 operating system comprise the software infrastructure for the XO. The designers were careful to select public domain software because of its zero cost and because of its freedom from license restrictions that would limit ongoing changes and deviations. The fact that the code is non-proprietary means that it can be changed by anyone anywhere, anytime. Free and open source software is a prudent choice for long term maintenance of the XO. A custom graphical user interface (GUI) called sugar24 was developed as a deliberate variation from the standard office/desktop paradigm that holds little meaning for children in remote villages. In contrast to files and folders, the icons on the XO signify people and objects. An icon of the child herself at the center of activity. It is the first complete re-design of a user interface since Apple launched the MacIntosh in 1984. Credit for the GUI design is attributed to Chris Blizzard25.

Security: The OLPC project presents some unusual security challenges. The XO computers are prime targets for malicious viruses and theft. The designers chose a security strategy called bitfrost26 developed by Ivan Krstic. This strategy places the laptop owner in complete control of the system. The system bonds to its owner from the moment of first boot. The initial security program asks the child for his or her name. The new laptop machine then takes a picture of its owner and generates a UUID28 that is unique to that child. Once the ownership is established, bitfrost registers the child's picture, the UUID, and the serial number of the machine with the local school server. Thereafter, each time the XO is powered on, it first checks in with the school server for permission to run. If a machine has been reported stolen, the school server will instruct the child's unit to deactivate. Bitfrost was designed for young children. With day-to-day operation, the system will ask the user her name, but it will not require a password. Security operation is based on a system of rights . Each time the user attempts an operation, whether to accesses the camera, microphone, internal memory, or the network, bitfrost will grant the right of access, but will deny any combination of rights that suggest malicious use. The laptop's owner, however, has authority to override certain levels of security. The educational goal is to give each child the ability to manipulate his or her own computer as the child continues to discover the computer's internal workings. For those so inclined, the designers expect some children to master complex technical skills. In the process, the designers anticipate inevitable mistakes that can incapacitate the machine. Full system restore29 functionality is provided from the school server, allowing fail-safe protection for the young experimenter.

Enclosure: The enclosure is made of ABS plastic30, chosen for its durability and shock absorbance. The design is light and colorful, intended to appeal to the aesthetic mood of a child. The case can be manipulated into the shape of a standard laptop, or it can fold into a tablet or e-book. The rounded edges of the XO are child-friendly and the enclosure provides a rounded handle for the 1.5kg computer.

Environmental impact: Even though this computer is targeted for regions outside the European Union, the XO designers have chosen to comply with the strict Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS31) directive of the EU. This directive requires circuit boards and electronic components in the unit to be free of heavy metals or other toxic materials that would otherwise pose environmental threats when the units are discarded by their owners.

The MIT Media Lab's charter to invent the future seems well represented in the XO-1. It will be no surprise to find these innovations creeping into mainstream designs for personal computing. The XO computers and the mesh network require no external communication or power infrastructure. Picture, sound, and text messages from the central server or from any laptop can reach the entire community by bouncing from one computer to the next. A security model requires no password for the owner. The child simply enters her name and she is in complete control of her own machine, but an alien user will have serious difficulty. As of this writing, the first so-called XO models have not achieved the $100 target. When early units were shipped in the Spring of 2007, the unit price was $176. But Negroponte is counting on sheer production volume to bring the price down.

The cost of labor

A dominant factor in the manufacture of any durable goods is the cost of labor. The XO developers have exploited automated manufacturing processes wherever possible and they have designed mechanical components for quick and easy manual assembly. Such technical solutions bypass32 a multitude of labor concerns and thereby avoid the ethical implications associated with cheap labor.

In selecting the company that will manufacture these machines, Negroponte and his team negotiated the fine ethical line between low-cost units for impoverished children and minimal living wages for XO assembly workers. The manufacturing contract for XO-1 was awarded to Quanta, a Taiwan based corporation, the largest outsource manufacturer of laptop computers in the world. Quanta set up an assembly plant for XO manufacturing in Jiangsu province on China's mainland. This move was strategic. China's urban unemployment rests at 4.6%33 The pool of surplus labor34 on the Mainland attracted Quanta to set up a plant in the city of Changshu, enabling the company to lower manufacturing costs by 20%35. The minimum wage in Jiangsu ranges from $60 to $88 per month36. Recent labor abuses by other manufacturers37 prompted the Chinese government to institute overtime laws38 requiring time-and-a-half pay for work beyond forty hours. While the workers who assemble the XO make only pennies per unit, their employer, Quanta, seems to have no difficulty operating within the local parameters of fair labor practices. In an unlikely partnership, the Taiwanese company became China's second largest exporter of goods39 by value. Quanta promoted China's status to the world's largest base for laptop production40. This rising star of computer production can rightly boast of its contribution to boost employment in Changshu. While remaining insensitive to the real lives of the workers and their families, Quanta prefers to emphasize their contribution toward elevating the skills and knowledge of the province's factory workers. And the OLPC project can do little but rationalize the necessity of cheap labor in their grand philanthropic scheme.

Free and open source software

The use of free and open source software in the XO was a firm decision of the OLPC development team. Free software was chosen for philosophical reasons as much as it was to lower costs. "Our commitment to software freedom gives children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms."41 While it is unlikely that the vast majority of children will find themselves changing the computer code, it is a safe bet that a significant minority of children will exercise some degree of technical curiosity with their laptop, and the OLPC designers insist on the educational value of such pursuits. For this reason, the goal of the developers is to use free and open software exclusively on the XO.

The Free Software movement began in the 1970s as an informal community of programmers who were drawn together to share ideas, strategies and computer code in the context of solving real problems. These software enthusiasts became formalized by the mid-1980s, primarily through the efforts of Richard Stallman (1985) who founded the Free Software Foundation42. The FSF provided a formal face for a broad community of programmers who shared an ethic of collaboration and participatory development. The spontaneous collaborative organization of programmers and independent technical experts arose in response to a predictable corporate trend toward copyright protections and restricted access to code. Proponents of copyright insist that protections are needed as a means to preserve profits - the driving force behind innovation. By contrast, Stallman's copyleft movement has advocated the preservation of free and open source code as the long-term guarantee toward continual improvement and evolution of software.

We can hear the classical voices of Rousseau and Locke in these contemporary debates. From a Lockean view, the value derived from labor is the laborer's exclusive property (Locke, 1690, book-2, Ch-5, sec-27). Government has no other end but the preservation of property (Ch-7). Contemporary interpretations of Locke's theory extend the definition of property to include productions of the mind: intellectual labor. In recent years, multinational arrangements43 have emerged to ensure that intellectual property rights will survive beyond national boundaries (Correa, 2007). John Locke's social order is alive and well in the age of global trade and economics.

By contrast, the philosophical descendents of Rousseau recognize the social nature of knowledge and society's increasing dependence on intellectual artifacts. Human knowledge, they argue, is an immense ocean of collective interaction. No single idea can be conceived in isolation of a larger scheme of social cognition. To lay exclusive claim to any portion of the commons and to expel others from that territory is tantamount to robbery ( Rousseau, 1762, Book-1, ch-9). Software is very much a social artifact and few, if any, so-called original algorithms are entirely original. As technical mediations seep into every crevice of modern life, mastery of the machine becomes a principle source of power (Feenberg, 2002, p65). The role of software is looming toward a controlling factor behind daily human existence. Keenly aware of this trend, the copyleft movement promotes a 'software commons' that will ensure the advance of technology in the interest of the public good. The quest of the Free Software Foundation is to create a vast, open library where programmers can draw from public-domain source code and add to this library with each new development effort. To lose control of software and to become dependent on the private property of others bears the risk of relationships that are antagonistic to the common good. In 1762 Rousseau warned that, "nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs." (Book III, ch 4). Stallman's (2001) refrain declares "the biggest political issue in the world today is resisting the tendency to give business the power of the public and of governments." From this perspective, the free software movement is seen as an expression of political resistance (Maxwell, p 281).

What does free and open source software mean for the OLPC project? It insures the possibility that the computer's life span can extend far beyond the designer's vision. Maintenance of the XO will fall in the hands of the open source community. The ranks of that community will be augmented, no doubt, by technically motivated children around the world who discover novel uses for their own XO and who learn how to develop authentic applications that are adapted to their own situation. If, in this analysis, we employ Heidegger's phenomenology of action (Wakefield and Dreyfus, 1991), we can view the XO from the standpoint of its implementer, the young child who possesses few artifacts in addition to this magical machine. As long as the XO continues to function, the child will be motivated to keep it and use it. The instrument in the hands of a motivated child will enjoy a life span that is much longer than typical PCs in the West. Even though this computer was shaped by an alien rationality, it will not be long before the young noble savage will learn to reshape the instrument for his or her own purposes. Brent Jesiek (2003) argues that open source software extends a degree of control to the actors (in this case, the children and their local technical mentors). While it is unlikely that a typical child will become adept at changing or rewriting the software, it is very likely that a small minority of children will learn the intricacies of the machine and will develop their own rationality for the instrument. It is no stretch to assume that the laptop users will create implementations that the designers have never envisioned. Free and open source software enables this possibility.

A learning machine

The XO computer is intended as a learning instrument. It is designed for use by children in rural regions of developing countries where access to school is limited. But what model of education should be implemented in the XO? What philosophy of learning should be applied?

Modern education, or schooling, follows two traditions with two distinct learning paradigms, each with its own history and each with its own conception of knowledge. The dominant tradition has its roots in medieval Europe when books were rare and expensive, and texts were highly revered. In university settings of the Fifteenth Century, holding a lecture meant reading a book, sentence by sentence, interjecting occasional commentary as pupils transcribed the information. The reading was central. The pupil's role was to capture the textual content and never interrupt the delivery. In grammar schools, students were taught by rote from Latin texts, mostly scripture. The young pupils were not allowed to interrupt, and those who did were beaten with a birch rod. Whether in grammar school or the university, knowledge was an entity that existed apart from the learner and detached from the present context. The medieval approach that places content at the center of learning has survived Western education to the present day.

Jean Jacques Rousseau was the first modern philosopher to criticize this model of education. In a fictional account, Emile (1762), Rousseau seized the opportunity to describe what education might be like if emphasis were to shift away from instructional content and steer instead toward the learner's own experience. By allowing young Emile to learn what he wanted to learn, Rousseau envisioned a system of education in which intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic coercion could direct a much more rewarding learning experience.

It wasn't until the Twentieth Century that student-centered alternatives to medieval education were actually introduced in public education. John Dewey formalized an educational model based on direct experience (Dewey, 1938). Experiential education places the learner in an active role to investigate the issue under study, to draw upon available tools, to seek out relevant information and collaborative assistance, to resolve any problems that get in the way, and to reflect on the overall experience.

In considering the computer as a learning technology, it is possible to implement both of these educational traditions. The XO is an e-book that can deliver scores of texts written in the local language. Where local schools insist on a prescribed curriculum and didactic content, the XO can faithfully transfer teacher-prepared instructional content from the school server to a child's laptop as the curriculum demands. Where educators are available to develop content in the local language, ample support is offered by the OLPC project with a rich set of development tools. But the XO can also respond to child-initiated learning activities. It provides tools and an infrastructure that allow a young learner to initiate interactions directly with the machine, with peers, with a teacher, or with the Internet as the child is motivated from genuine curiosity.

Each laptop is equipped with wiki44 software, downloadable from the school server. This tool enables children to create their own content with ease and make it accessible to all others from a web browser. OLPC content president Walter Bender explains, "the wiki really is a way of taking the knowledge that exists in the world and putting it in a form that makes it transformed and realizable by the children in a very different way. In a wiki, every page also has a commentary, a discussion. The idea is, whatever the children are reading, they ll be able to write margin notes into that, and share those margin notes with other people; engage in discussion about the content" (Bender, 2006).

The programming language logo45 is part of the XO educational package. Logo is an easy-to-learn language intended for young children to discover the elements of computer logic and basic algebraic and geometric principals in an engaging, entertaining, and non-intimidating fashion (Papert, 1980). Logo was an outgrowth of Papert's constructionist philosophy46. For Papert, constructionism is the idea that children develop their own sophisticated knowledge structures as they engage in the activity of constructing a public entity, whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe (Papert and Harel, 1991). An object-oriented47 variant of logo called, etoys48, is also available on the XO-1. This is a media-rich language that extends logo's constructionist possibilities by allowing children to manipulate complex objects, generate multi-colored patterns, or create music (Kay, 2007).

The question of hegemony

The thought of distributing millions of Western-designed computers to children in remote villages, in barrios and ghettos across the world suggests the possibility of hegemonic concerns. Hegemony is a form of cultural domination imposed by one segment of society over another. Forms of hegemony can so permeate social life that they seem entirely natural to those who are dominated. One oft-cited example is in feudal society where peasant revolts were conducted in the name of the king. It was well understood that the chain of power descended from God through the king. So when peasants revolted against their noble oppressors, they did so in the name of the king.

Andrew Feenberg explains that today's chain of power descends through technocratic rationalization and the key to cultural power rests in the design of technology (Feenberg, 1999, p86). He adds that modern forms of hegemony are based on the technical mediation of a variety of social activities (including education) and that democratization of society must include democratic control of the technical sector. Hegemony is never completely solid, but porous. Within any society under cultural domination there is always room for agency and resistance (Kincheleloe and McLaren, 2000). Feenberg describes how new forms of resistance inevitabley emerge through new technologies in what he calls a "subversive rationalization". This concept describes the manner that technological innovations are followed by novel implementations in the hands of agentive users, and these uses spawn new opportunities for the transformation of technologies toward democratic ends (Feenberg, 1998).

The Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, is particularly noted for his views of power, hegemony and domination in the educational space. But it is doubtful that Freire would find displeasure in the OLPC project since the open communication and collaborative technologies on the XO appear to be aligned with Friere's own constructivist philosophy of education. According to Freire, the ethical response to hegemony in education is a learner-centered pedagogy that introduces possibilities for active and honest inquiry. Inquiry starts from the learner's own experience in confronting an authentic problem. "Problem-posing education" (Freire, 1970, p 60) brings teacher and student into a collaborative relationship as peers. The teacher is no longer an authoritarian oppressor, but she partners with the student in genuine conversation (see Pask, 1975 and Bakhtin, 1935).

M. Scott Ruse (2005) raises the issue of unavoidable dependencies on allied technologies leading to hegemonic control. A certain technology itself may not pose a threat, but it may draw upon other technologies that do. Ruse argues that technologies form a web of dependencies, bringing with them a complex set of political, social, and economic relations. For instance, telephones depend upon parts made by both the metal industry and the plastics industry. The building of communication networks depends upon the transportation system, which itself depends upon the petrol-chemical industry, etc. The knowledge that the XO provides its own electrical and communications infrastructure might ease Ruse's mind. By the same token, the XO mesh network can provide a needed infrastructure upon which other applications could likely attach dependencies. Where no other form of telecommunications exists in a certain region, the XO mesh network will undoubtedly serve for multiple uses beyond children's education. This type of dependency describes the actor-network49 phenomenon of translation and enrollment (defined by Michael Callon, 1986), but it does not appear to be the hegemonic threat suggested by Ruse.

The OLPC project is a Western solution to a problem defined from a Western perspective. Martin Heidegger in his (1977) essay, "The Question Concerning Technology", points out that problems typically show up as already requiring technical solutions. To a carpenter with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the finest minds at MIT, there is a digital solution to the problems of illiteracy. And in the design of the particular solution, certain cultural interests are included and others are excluded. If we are to evaluate the ethics of this technological manner of being, we must look for arguments that justify a particular balance of values or rights over and against other possibilities (Introna, 2005).

Future Trends

Whether OLPC succeeds or fails on the grand scale that is planned or whether it has any hope of significantly narrowing the digital divide, this aggressive project has set new directions that will benefit the developed world in two fundamental domains: computer architecture and educational technology.

From the standpoint of computer architecture, energy conservation is the primary innovation of the XO. Typically the three greatest power consumers in a personal computer are the disk drive, the display, and the CPU. The XO computer confronted all of these hurdles head-on. It replaced the disk drive with flash memory and shifted the role of mass storage to a central server in the mesh network. This provides the XO with all of the computing resources that are associated with any well-equipped PC, but access to these resources comes by means of the mesh network, not from a local disk drive. In the display, the traditional cold cathode fluorescent lamp is replaced by low power LEDs to provide efficient back lighting for indoor viewing of the color display. Traditional color filters50 that subtract from the light source are replaced by a low-cost plastic diffraction grating51 to provide ample color saturation with 85% less power. And no attempt is made to project a bright color display in full sunlight. Instead, a reflective black and white imaging strategy provides high resolution images with virtually no energy consumption in sunlight. Finally, CPU power is the remaining target for energy savings. Realizing that computer CPUs remain idle most of the time, the XO designers and their AMD supplier explored possibilities of eliminating idle-time power consumption. This innovation reduced overall CPU power consumption by more than 90%.

All of these energy-saving innovations have already taken root in next-generation designs for mainstream computer products. The current trend in business and industry is to deliver essential computing resources from a single, well-equipped central server. In contemporary office environments, we see power-hungry desktop PCs being replaced by thin-client52 terminals that include a simple keyboard, monitor, and mouse remotely connected to a central server delivering all of the resources required for data storage and heavy processing activities. With thin-client technology in a high-speed network, a single fully-equipped server can extend abundant computing resources to multiple users at a fraction of the cost for equipment, software, and energy. And personal computers themselves are undergoing significant design changes to save energy. The idle-and-sleep power saving mode of the AMD Geode and the 'deep power down technology' of Intel's new generation Penryn CPU53 promise low power consumption with the next generation of computing products. In a similar vein, designers are implementing methods to adjust CPU clock speed to match an application's needs as a further effort to save energy54. At a time when three million new users join the global network each week55, energy conservation becomes an ethical imperative in computer design.

In the domain of educational technology, the OLPC's orientation toward constructivist learning suggests a shift away from traditional schooling and didactic instruction toward self-directed and peer-collaborative learning. According to Walter Bender, the OLPC educational package is designed with the assumption that children are social and expressive beings, and they can act in roles as teachers as well as learners. "In practice this means wikis rather than just document viewers, music composition tools rather than just MP3 players." (Quoted in Rowell, 2007). This 21st Century educational package seems to conform to the model that social critic, Ivan Illich, advocated in 1972:

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.. (Illich, 1972, p75).

The basis for such a system is found today within a local network of learners armed with collaborative information technologies, enhanced by a free and open Internet.

In educational theory, we see a trend away from the individual view of .learning. toward a holistic view of development and change. Science educator, Jay Lemke, asserts that learning is not a cognitive process, but an .ecosocial. phenomenon:

Learning is not an internal process. People participate in larger systems and those larger systems undergo developmental processes; in interaction with their own relevant environments, they create the conditions for their own further change along evolved, type-specific and individuating trajectories. Some things change inside the people as they participate in these processes, and other, internal developmental processes of the same kind are going on within us among our own subsystems, coupled to our participation in these larger processes. What fundamentally changes, what we call learning, is how people interact with and participate in the larger ecosocial systems that sustain them.. (Lemke, 1993).

For Lemke, the learner, the learning community, the artifacts that interconnect the community, and the environment are all interdependent. Lemke sees a network of human-machine organisms (cyborgs) in which humans are shaped by their interaction with machines and machines are shaped by the manner which they are adopted into this sociotechnical network. A change in any human or machine component will impact all other components. Just as the free software movement encourages each programmer to continually adapt and improve the software that we use in the public domain, the constructivist approach to education encourages each learner to actively shape and refine our common base of knowledge.

Summary and Conclusion

In the opening lines of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observed that "Every techne and every inquiry, and similarly every praxis and pursuit, is believed to aim at some good." Ethical considerations of modern technology look at the physical objects in contexts of health, safety, and ecological concerns. They evaluate technology's ability to free rather than to constrain human creativity. And they raise questions about the effects of technology on human identity and on the environment. Ethical inquiry becomes a complicated matter by the diversity of ways technology can be applied and understood (Mitcham, Briggle, and Ryder, 2005).

The success or failure of Negroponte's MIT project has yet to be determined. As of this writing, the XO is not yet for sale in developed countries and is available only at cost to requesting governments for educational purposes. Government ministries currently hold the decision making power over the future of this project. Some of these decision makers are elected, others appointed, and some are self-appointed. They all understand that new technologies bring with them unpredictable effects. They are keenly aware of the power of information technology to effect social change. Some will consider their decision purely on the basis of partisan bias and whose interests will be served. Others must evaluate the ethical choice of purchasing laptop computers in areas where children lack basic aliment, clean water, and health services. And some will view this opportunity as a means to advance the youngest among their populations on a trajectory of knowledge and learning to the benefit of the larger society. What good or ill might emerge out of this effort cannot be framed in reference to a child, or a school, or a nation, or the developing world, or the developed world, or even humanity, but the good of the whole (Lemke, 1993). Humanity must evolve toward a general consciousness that it lives and dies along with other species in a fragile ecosystem. The key question is whether technology is an indispensable component toward the establishment of this collective consciousness.

Martin Ryder, M.A, is a development engineer for Sun Microsystems. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at the University of Colorado at Denver, teaching research methods in Information and Learning Technologies.



2 MIT Technology Review, Nov. 13, 2006 HYPERLINK

3 MIT The Tech, 110:40, October 5, 1990.

4 A mesh network is a self-sufficient network that requires no interconnecting infrastructure. See Wikipedia: mesh networking

5 The school server is a conventional computer with ample disk storage and Internet access. See school server

6 The Geode series from AMD is a very low power, high performance microprocessor. See Advance Micro Devices: Geode

7 Flash memory is read/write memory that retains its data even while powered off. See wikipedia: flash memory

8 Mary Lou Jepsen is Chief Technology Officer of OLPC See IEEE Spectrum: Mary Lou Jepsen

9 Thin Film Transistor-Liquid Crystal Display See wikipedia: TFT LCD Display

10 See OLPC News: dual-mode display

11 See mesh network

12 IEEE standard for wireless network communications. See wikipedia: 802.11

13 A network switching device that determines the proper path for data packets. See wikipedia: router

14 The standard protocol for network communications. See wikipedia: internet protocol suite

15 See Jan 10, 2005 World's First 802.11a/g Single Chip Solution Embedding TCP/IP

16 See XS School Server Specifications

17 A non-toxic rechargeable battery using a hydrogen metal alloy anode. See wikipedia: NiMH

18 A traditional rechargeable battery whose anode is made of cadmium. See wikipedia: NiCd

19 See US Dept of Labor - OSHA: Cadmium

20 This type of battery must be fully discharged before recharging. See Battery Bank: memory effect

21 An open source operating system kernal developed by Linus Torvald See wikipedia: Linux

22 The kernel is that part of an operating system that manages memory, i/o and other system hardware. See wikipedia: kernel

23 A broad set of open-source operating system utilities. See wikipedia: GNU

24 See wikipedia: OLPC sugar

25 See wikipedia: Christopher Blizzard

26 See OLPC Development Site: Bitfrost;a=blob;hb=HEAD;f=bitfrost.txt

27 See bitfrost

28 Universally unique identifier See wikipedia: UUID

29 See OLPC human interface guidelines: restore

30 Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene plastic See wikipedia: ABS

31 See wikipedia: RoHS

32 The problem of labor is not really solved by this approach, merely bypassed. See Norbert Wiener s (1950) The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

33 People s Daily, Oct 25, 2005

34 See wikipedia: surplus labor

35 DigiTimes, Aug 23, 2006

36 China Labor Watch, Jul 24, 2006

37 The Inquirer, Jun 26, 2006

38 China CSR Nov 13, 2006

39 Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2005

40 People s Daily, Jan 8, 2004

41 OLPC Web

42 See Free Software Foundation

43 Wikipedia: Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights

44 See What is wiki

45 See Wikipedia: Logo (programming language)

46 See Papert and Harel (1991): Situating Constructionism

47 See Wikipedia: Object-oriented programming

48 Laptop Wiki: Etoys

49 An approach to social research that considers both human and non-human agency in shaping human activity. See Wikipedia: Actor-network Theory

50 The Washington Post June 11, 2007

51 The Register April 19, 2007

52 CNN Money April 27, 2007


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Key Terms

A compound word formed from the words: .cybernetic organism.. The term was coined by two medical researchers (Clynes and Kline, 1960) to describe a cybernetic augmentation of machines with the human body toward the goal of achieving super-human capabilities of survival. The term has been adopted in popular literature to describe a synthesis of organic and synthetic parts, and is widely used to convey the melding of the human mind with computer technology to achieve super-human cognitive powers. Dona Haraway frames the expression in context of techno-political supremacy as .the awful apocalyptic telos of the West.s dominations,. (1991, p. 150).

Digital Divide
This expression arose in the digital age to describe the information gulf that exists between peoples and societies. The perceived gulf is the result of the dramatic rise of information technologies that evolved exponentially in the developed countries during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. The expression connotes the idea that information is a potent source of power, and those who enjoy access to information technologies have the potential to wield significant power over those who have no such access.

Hegemony describes the political, economic, and cultural domination of one class of people over other classes. Hegemony comes about, not by means of forceful repression over those who might resist domination, but through the passive consent of subordinate classes who eventually accept the social order as a natural state of affairs as it is manifested in virtually every social institution. Hegemony is most pronounced in societies where the dominant class controls the information sector including mass media, education, and the market supply chain.

Subversive Rationalization
Coined by Andrew Feenberg (1992), subversive rationalization describes the constructivist nature of technology. In particular, it denotes the manner that technologies undergo a metamorphosis through the process of adoption and use over time. While such changes may undermine a designer.s intentions, the transformations result in a democratizing trend that may convert a given technology from an instrument of social control to one that is guided by democratic social forces and human values. The final shape of an instrument is determined, not by the designer, but by the cultural logic of the human actors who adopt and use the technology.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)
This is software that is available to the general public not only to be used, but to be changed and adapted as local usage patterns may dictate. Sometimes referred to as .freeware., the design documentation and human-readable source code are openly published and not constrained by intellectual property restrictions that would limit how and where the software will be used or how it might be improved or adapted to a particular need. Recognizing the social nature of knowledge and the constructivist nature of technology, participants in the free and open software movement routinely collaborate and share information with peers and they assert no exclusive claims to the software designs and code implementations that result from this wide collaborative praxis.

Constructivism is a philosophical position that views knowledge as the outcome of experience mediated by one's own prior knowledge and the experience of others. In contrast to objectivism (e.g. Ayn Rand, 1957) which embraces a static reality that is independent of human cognition, constructivism (e.g. Immanuel Kant, 1781/1787) holds that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought. Each new conception of the world is mediated by prior-constructed realities that we take for granted. Human cognitive development is a continually adaptive process of assimilation, accommodation, and correction (Piaget, 1968). Social constructivists (e.g. Berger and Luckmann, 1966) suggest that it is through the social process that reality takes on meaning and that our lives are formed and reformed through the dialectical process of socialization. A similar dialectical relationship informs our understanding of science (e.g. Bloor, 1976), and it shapes the technical artifacts that we invent and continually adapt to our changing realities (e.g. Bijker, 1995). Humans are shaped by their interactions with machines just as machines evolve and change in response to their use by humans. (Lemke, 1993).

Martin Ryder