Stories, making things, education, hopes 💻

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture engineering. ⏰ 3 minutes.

The song for this post is La Vida Es Un Carnaval, by Celia Cruz.

The Verge has a great rundown of the One Laptop Per Child initiative that got a lot of press in the mid-late aughts, with what worked (not much) and what failed.

“We really believe we can make literally hundreds of millions of these machines available to children around the world,” Negroponte promised. “And it’s not just $100. It’s going to go lower.” He hinted that big manufacturing and purchasing partners were on the horizon, and demonstrated the laptop’s versatile hardware, which could be folded into a chunky e-reader, a simple gaming console, or a tiny television.


Then, Negroponte and Annan rose for a photo-op with two OLPC laptops, and reporters urged them to demonstrate the machines’ distinctive cranks. Annan’s crank handle fell off almost immediately. As he quietly reattached it, Negroponte managed half a turn before hitting the flat surface of the table. He awkwardly raised the laptop a few inches, trying to make space for a full rotation. “Maybe afterwards…” he trailed off, before sitting back down to field questions from the crowd.


The moment was brief, but it perfectly foreshadowed how critics would see One Laptop Per Child a few years later: as a flashy, clever, and idealistic project that shattered at its first brush with reality.

Working in industry for a decade, I wish I were more surprised: making shit well, at scale, is hard. I've never worked at a company where the sales pitch reflected the uncertainty of what lay beneath the product within an order of magnitude (though this may be a consequence of being an engineer with a bias for reality, working for sales-ey folks who have both indifference to technical matters and a vested interest in not seeing failure modes).

One red flag from the OLPC story is that it promised to do too many things at once: mesh networks, crank-powered, custom OS, cheap hardware, the infrastructure for distribution + delivery, and somehow the context so children could meaningfully build on these things. You only have a limited number of innovation tokens, at least at launch.1

There are a few other things that make the OLPC story so compelling to me. One, I love the idea of building devices to encourage production instead of consumption. Our operating systems and devices used to be more hackable: you could open them up with standard screwdrivers, you could replace parts, they came with interpreters. The trend has moved to locking you into an ecosystem while simultaneously keeping you out of your device's guts. Someone once described owning a computer and not learning to program it like having a fully stocked kitchen but only eating pre-made microwave meals; the market's response is to sell people kitchens with amazing microwaves but to hide all the other kitchen equipment. I don't like a future where it's so hard to build things.2

The other main thing is that on a purely technical level, OLPC was cashing in on a kind of utopianism I'd love to see flourish. I don't mean the "fancy tech will solve our social problems" utopianism! That's a bunch of horseshit and I hope we've all learned our lesson. I mean the "we can build Dream Machines combining 4-5 ambitious technologies for good ends."

Like I mentioned in "my dream setup", meaningfully better tech requires us to invest in changing our building blocks: why can't we collectively invest in a Free Software phone OS that's pleasant to use? Why can't we have better development tools? I highly recommend A Whole New World by Gary Bernhardt (22:10 video) and Inventing on Principle by Bret Victor (~54:00 video) for painfully inspiring variations of these themes. We should be allowed to want nice things!

I'd love a durable, creator-centric, mesh network, Free Software, works-for-children, low-cost computing device. While it's obvious OLPC was misguided in a number of ways, I'd love to still see us build something like it.

On the theme of "that shit's hard," I went to a talk by my old Programming Languages professor on engineering a CS curriculum for children. I found it inspirational, and gives me the most confidence of anything I've seen for a vision for computing education. Jane Street put up a recording:

Utopianism is nice, but solving real problems probably doesn't involve fantastical gadgets you can just plop in front of someone to fix it as its centerpiece. Education is an established field, and if you're not engaging with the folks already tackling it there's a good chance you're wasting your time.

1. ^ There are a few big exceptions here, so few they might be the exceptions that prove the rule. Main one is the iPhone, but folks like to put on rose-colored glasses and forget how few features the first version had compared to what modern smartphones look like, and how many corners they cut.

2. ^ Let's make this about Apple again! I can spend ~$700 on an iPhone, but if I want to run my own code on it I have to pay Apple $99 a year. That's fucked up.

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