OLPC in Ethiopia: The thin line between digital innovation, cargo cult and peoples on parade

It is quite remarkable that the article on One Laptop Per Child’s experiment in Ethiopia at MIT's Technology Review is framed in a very technological, maybe even ‘nerdy’ language around hardware and software, Android and hacking without very little social grounding:

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”
I am fully aware of the fact that this is a short article and far from a being comprehensive report with all the details, but still the article and project raised some eyebrows with anthropologically-minded people.
First of all, it is difficult not to analyse this through an anthropological lens, because the way the children are depicted rings uncomfortable bells with colonial anthropology, the type that put ‘Peoples on Parade’. Interestingly, a German tech site featured a more comprehensive analysis, asking the question whether the children were depicted as ‘little monkeys’ (my translation):

We are quite irritated, because he [OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte] is talking about human children, not monkeys. Was Mr Negroponte really expecting the children to play with the box like my cats would do at home? Didn’t he trust the children to open a cardboard box? And if so, why not? This remark is at least questionable. Because no human child aged six, regardless of how distant from education, would be unable and unwilling to open the box let alone just to play with it. The question we have is whether someone who implicitly denies children in Ethiopia basic intellectual abilities is the right man for leading OLPC
The article also questions the remoteness of the village and the set-up of the whole project/experiment including its isolation from (Western) civilisation; it also criticizes news media that have endorsed the article and project uncritically.

There is no way that you as a (development) anthropologist feel uneasy about this project, even if OLPC mentions the involvement of the Ministry of Education and elders of the village in the comment section. And the question remains whether OLPC’s technological enthusiasm may come off as (neo)colonial, patronising and probably not the best approach if (local) anthropologists, (local) childhood learning experts etc. are not involved and certainly are not featured in OLPC’s conference presentations.

Anthropology has a long history of engaging with the ‘cargo cult’ and I kept wondering whether there could be a digital equivalent if the technician or the OLPC fail to show up and bring their (digital) cargo to the community (The introduction to Holger Jebens' book Cargo, Cult, and Culture Critique provides a good overview over the debates).
A more critical engagement with the anthropological/sociological community is definitely necessary rather than looking for headline-making experiments that involve African children.
The biggest question I have is whether through ‘dropping off laptops’ children will really be learning skills that are valuable for their community, helping them making their community more resilient and also helping them to stay in the local area. It may sound like an ICT4D dream that an Ethiopian child learns English and other things with only a laptop and ends up in a (North American) Medical School or a similar place to document a 2.0 version of the infamous ‘American Dream’, but I'm not sure how this would help Ethiopia in the long run. My guess is that the transition from basic skills that may be taught through a laptop to secondary and tertiary education skills that will be needed to sustainable transformation are probably very difficult to learn.

But more importantly, OLPC should reach out to critical voices to discuss their engagement and communication strategy that could be misinterpreted as an emerging form of digital colonialism.


  1. I'm really happy. Please send Negroponte to all the schools that have desktops put together from donated equipment, which are set up, with electricity supply and a teacher to instruct students who, frustratingly, take a normal and predictable length of time to learn just how to switch on and off the computer and use a handful of basic applications. What are we doing wrong? Perhaps having a teacher is a mistake?

  2. I am still thinking about the "cargo cult" thing - isn't this rather a reverse form of cargo cult when Westerners seem so much obsessed with the tech stuff they develop and drop off whereas the children described seemed to be the rational actors, doing what common sense would have most of us do with the boxes (or rather, the tablets within the boxes)? My unfinished thought just after reading.
    I like your term "digital colonialism" because I feel that too little is discussed about the fact that it's not so much the technology but rather people's needs that should come first. Some people do bring this up, but in general, I feel this is not discussed very prominently.

  3. Neat phrase, "digital colonialism" coming from an anthropologist who ignores his/her own professional efforts (obligations) to pin a cultural wriggling on a wall. Please understand I have no dog in this fight, so I assume that any good is good, even if it fails to rise to our expectations. What's been lost? Not money. What harm did OLPC do? Is the laptop experience more dangerous than McLuhan's refrigerator? I suspect the opposite. Indeed, the laptop may be the refrigerator. How strange to criticize Negroponte's diction, his wow-moment. It's his schtick. We've been listening to his enthusiasms since he first appeared on 60 Minutes (and before). All he (this technologist) is saying is, Hey, this looks like we were right. What's wrong with that, even if he's wrong? Has some form of ethnographic political correctness been despoiled? Is there a point to suggesting that OLPC might leave Ethiopia in its own dust? Hardly. So OLPC regards the children as monkeys. Please. Have not German anthropologists yet learned they they are monkeys without tails?

  4. This has gone completely off on a tangent. Negroponte was describing the children's feat as an achievement, something very remarkable. We need to understand how the children could do this and try to replicate in other places, instead of arguing about misconceived intentions.

  5. Five years later... ¿we have "success"? ¿The ICT are now a development factor?


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