Cargo Cult, Part I

In my last post I argued that good tech integration might require a “light touch”. However, I’ve recently read an article which makes me consider the risks and limitations that would await anyone taking this approach to an extreme.

In this article (here as well) from just a few days ago, there’s a very striking example of a recent “light touch” success story, as told by the founder of One Laptop Per Child at MIT Technology Review’s recent EmTech conference.


It seems that OLPC went to rural Ethiopia and set out – like the coyote setting out birdseed for the Road Runner, or (provocative allusion alert) the Starchild from 2001 placing a monolith for apes to find – some enticingly sealed boxes containing around a thousand solar-powered Motorola Xoom tablets.

We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up.”

What a delightful shiver of pleasure goes through the first-world reader at this amazing story of learning in action! A human being – one who knows how to survive in one of Earth’s most complex and difficult environments, who probably knows how to butcher a goat, start a fire, build a house – found a Motorola tablet’s on switch! What an unexpected result! I was so startled and bemused that I sat up in my lounge chair, spilled caviar on my smoking jacket, and almost lost my monocle!

“That was my third monocle this week!” source:

The astonishing results continue:

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

The apparent aim of this project, aside from illustrating every possible meaning of the word “patronizing”? To get illiterate Ethiopian children to play with apps, in order to teach them English. Never mind that they would then be the only people for miles around to speak English. Never mind that the only things for miles around for them to read English on would be these tablets. Never mind that once the tablets break down, the majority of these children will have gained absolutely nothing except for the fading memory of playing some sing-along alphabet apps. The important thing is… something something English!


The bold little rascals not only used a lot of apps but they “hacked Android” as OLPC’s founder puts it (or, in slightly more realistic terms, changed their desktop wallpaper)!

 “…the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. ‘The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different.  We had installed software to prevent them from doing that…’”

Learning in action!

If I seem a bit skeptical of this experiment, it’s because I am. Not of its results, but of its aims and methods. Of course students can learn on their own. Of course if you air-drop interesting tools or games into a remote area, people will find uses for them. Of course students don’t need teachers guiding them at every turn. Of course kids will sing the alphabet along with a tablet app. Everyone knows how kids work. They play with things, and learn.

But – and maybe this is simply the fault of the way these articles were written – what’s the long-term plan here?

  • Will there really be no support or service at all for these devices, aside from monitoring the kids’ use like lab rats?
  • Did anyone ask the adults in this village if they wanted their kids to waste time learning to use touch-screen technology that they might never see again in their lives once this experiment is over?
  • Did anyone ask the kids if they wanted to be lured into learning English through colorful educational apps?
  • Did anyone at any stage question the apparent assumption that learning English is such an important goal that some Ethiopian village children should be tricked into it at tremendous expense?
  • Wouldn’t hiring an English tutor to come out to the village a few times a week be orders of magnitude cheaper than 1,000 Xoom tablets?
  • Did anyone, at any stage in this, say “Wait a minute, these kids aren’t lab rats, and we aren’t gods?”
"This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No... words...!"
“This Motorola Xoom has opened a whole new world for my backward people! No… words…!” source:

Seriously, what’s the endgame here? After they learn English, will somebody help these kids use it somehow? Or will they just record their use of the tablets until they break or OLPC loses interest, and then leave the kids to their own devices (no pun intended)? Are we hoping that the children start a religion based on Motorola? Do the pre-loaded apps on these tablets include plans for a giant catapult to launch one brave Ethioponaut back to the One Laptop Per Child headquarters…?

to be continued in Part 2

2 thoughts on “Cargo Cult, Part I

  1. Thanks for the revealing posts on OLPC. You have put several important points up for discussion and it should take time to work through them all. I appreciated your comments about who was consulted and their needs, the motives of the organizers, and the underlying assumptions.

    You brought up a good point about durability and what children will have when these machines eventually breakdown. Jane Chen’s incubator project was designed to meet a need identified at the local level and provide a solution that meshed with local conditions. Design That Matters developed the NeoNuture with similar goals. Were rural Ethiopians asking for tablets? Based on the photo and my limited understanding of local conditions, I would guess that shelter, clean water, and public safety are higher priorities.

    However, is it possible that, that OLPC might do some good despite that many real flaws that you highlighted? For example, clean water is an ongoing issue in many parts of the world. If an online game like Phylo were created to work out a solution, is it possible that something simple and effective could be developed within a short time? What if thousands of potential problem solvers in developing nations were able to participate with laptops like the Xos and a satellite connection? In return, the additional gamers might speed solutions to other difficult issues, including cancer research. You might call this suggestion utopian. I would agree that it is.

    Since the program is underway and is unlikely to be derailed by outside factors, I would wait to see how individuals hack the Xos and other tablets to meet their own needs. Libyan rebels mounted anti-aircraft guns on Toyota pickup trucks and brought down an oppressive regime.Could Xo users think of ways to use or modify the tablets to address their own needs?

    Garry Leroy Baker

    1. Thanks for the excellent, thought-provoking comment. My only regret is that it so clearly displays more thought than went into the original post! I wouldn’t call your speculations utopian – just a bit less pessimistic than my own. And thanks for mentioning Jane Chen’s Incubator and Design that Matters, neither of which I was that familiar with before.

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