I was a technically precocious boy.
At least, some might imagine I was. While I was assigned male at birth, I wasn’t really a boy. I was actually a girl just using computers to escape the inescapable reality of male puberty. I also didn’t really understand the culture of technically precocious boys. I spent many mornings in the computer lab near four technically precocious boys in high school, but I wasn’t with them. I didn’t like skipping class to stay in the computer lab. I didn’t like soldering things. I didn’t like configuring MUDs, tinkering with Linux, or demonstrating my superiority through obscure technical knowledge. I knew I didn’t belong with them and they knew it too, so much that they claimed one side of our high school computer lab, and I claimed the other. Our distance was literal and figurative.
What I did like was creating art with computers. I liked procedurally generating fractals by writing mathematical formulas that described shapes, I liked rendering 3D worlds, I liked writing procedural stories, I liked creating computer graphics with organic shapes like ellipses. I liked making tools for my friends who were into illustration and sound to make their art. I liked expressing myself, showing people what I had made, and seeing the joy they experienced when I showed them something they’d never seen before on a computer. Computers and the puzzles they posed weren’t my object of fascination; my obsession was what I created with them and what my creations meant in my social world.
Morgan Ames’ The Charisma Machine: The Charisma Machine
The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child is about what happens when one group of people try to recreate their love of computing in others. In a way, it’s as if those boys in my high school computer lab grew up, decided that their love of computers was a love I should have, and tried to foist that love upon me, despite my radically different needs, interests, and motivations. But instead, those boys were powerful, connected, influential MIT faculty and students, and in my place were tens of thousands of youth in the global south. Not surprisingly, their experiences didn’t translate, just like they didn’t for me.
Ames’ work, part ethnographic methods and part argumentation, begins by defining the idea of charismatic technologies. Technologies are charismatic when they are more than just functionality, but carry with them a captivating vision for the world. Ames’ subject, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, is just one of these charismatic technologies. Other examples might include Tesla, with its utopian vision of green, clean, electric transportation, virtual reality, with its promise of erasing difference, or the numerous efforts to create intelligent humanoid robots to free us from labor. These visions captivate people and spur them to action, even when the technical reality underlying them might be much more incremental and mundane, and the social reality problematic.
Ames’ conceptualizes charismatic technologies as fundamentally deceptive:
…charismatic technologies are deceptive: they make both technological adoption and social change appear straightforward instead of as a difficult process fraught with choices and politics.
Ames’ admits that charismatic visions are sometimes necessary to attract resources to pursue a vision. In this sense, they are not inherently problematic. But they become problematic when their proponents ignore the complexity of the real world:
The trouble comes when these charismatic visions become too removed from the complications of daily life and the arc of history. This happens when we hold a charismatic technology at arm’s length, rather than designing it to cohabit the messy world with us and then inhabiting all of its consequences — when we believe that a charismatic technology somehow transcends both historical precedent and everyday life.
Ames characterizes the OLPC project as one of these charismatic visions that ignored the complex reality of the developing world. The founders, mostly whom Ames describes as technically precocious boys, who were playful, rebellious, and independent hackers had childhoods full of joy and wonder with programming computers. In a benevolent but paternalistic way, they wanted to spread that joy, under the assumption that every child was capable of having the same experiences that they did, and that everyone would want them. Ames described this approach as nostalgic design, in contrast to more human-centered approaches to design, that attempt to design for people as they are.
What Ames’ found in her field work, of course, is that very few children, especially in countries with high poverty, can have those experiences. She studied the deployment of OLPC XO laptops in Paraguay in particular. There, the vision of computers giving children agency hit the complex reality of brittle infrastructure. Electricity was unreliable. The XO laptop screens broke. The usability of the its software was terrible, leading to constant software frustrations. The technical support imposed by the machine’s limited battery and storage was overwhelming for teachers and schools. But even more than these infrastructure and hardware limitations, most children, when given the choice of being playful, independent, technically precocious boys or being themselves, chose to be themselves. Rather than independently learn to code, they consumed music, they watched videos, they viewed porn, they played games together. And they learned to do these things not in some autodidactic constructionist manner, but through peers, motivated teachers, and OLPC trainers who shared tips.
What few examples Ames could find of youth engaging with programming via eToys and Scratch were heavily directed by teachers and dependent on formal learning settings. Some of these teachers were in after school coding workshops. Some of these teachers were parents who happened to be strong proponents of the OLPC project. Some were older siblings playing the role of teacher. There were few instances of miraculous, independent learning without the support of a teacher in some form advocated by constructionist visions of learning. And even when youth had immense support from parents and teachers, their interest in programming often faded, as the lack of a robust community of mentors and learning pathways in their community left them no way to deepen their interests in a way that was legitimate and valued in their world.
Of course, because the vision of OLPC was fundamentally constructionist, support for classroom teachers was minimal. Teacher trainings were short and there was no curriculum or materials. It was up to teachers to envision their own uses of the brittle platform and its software, working around the fact that typically only half of the students in a class had functioning laptops with the right software. Most teachers viewed the XOs as unreliable, unserious, distracting toys, far less valuable than a pencil and a notebook, which never ran out of power or had a broken screen.
Reading about the extent to which OLPC tried to replicate the culture of the technically precocious boy reminded me of the boys in my computer lab in high school. I felt so separate from their world. What if they had grown up and tried to force their view of computing upon my childhood (or child)? What if they had raised millions to recreate their experiences across the global south? What arrogance to think that their relationship to computing was the only valid one, and at all relevant to the experiences of all youth. It was so clear to me as a teen that what I was doing with computers was not something the boys in my lab wanted to do, and that using computers for fun was not something the majority of students in our school wanted to do. What made the OLPC founders think that what they did with computers in their youth and at MIT was any more universal?
Ames ended with a discussion of some of the charismatic technologies in computing education that followed OLPC: Scratch, MOOCs, maker spaces, and the CS for All movement. Are these efforts really all about that same vision, of supporting technically precocious boys? I think there’s a strong risk of it, and Ames does too. That said, Scratch is full of counter examples to this narrow vision, and has worked hard to support a diversity of experiences. MOOCs found a market, but primarily an over educated one. It turns out that maker spaces require a lot of training to maintain and for the public to utilize. And CS for All, for all its focus on broadening participation in computing, is at real risk of only serving the same technically precocious boys that most of these efforts are serving without a relentless focus on underrepresentation.
Sometimes I wonder whether I would have been captivated by code had I grown up in this decade. I had no internet, no YouTube, no global media network, no money for games or software. All I had was my friends, a computer, and a monthly issue of 3-2-1 Contact magazine, which gave me a simple BASIC program to enter and tinker with on my PC. Programming was not my fascination, but creating art and simple games was, and programming was the only way to do that for free. But now that creating art and games without programming is so easy, would I have ever learned to code? Probably not. I would have been just like the kids in Paraguay, following the path of least resistance to my interests. I think Ames is right that the that the fundamental flaw in the OLPC founders’ imagined future was that they could recreate the past. Nostalgia might have worked for some had the world not changed. But it has changed: there are so many things that youth can do with computers now that involves no programming at all, the motivation to independently learn to code have all but disappeared.
CS for All, therefore, is less a nostalgic vision, but one that accepts the messy reality of schools. It acknowledges the need for teachers and schools to create contexts for learning. By accepting the decentralized nature of publication in the U.S., it doesn’t advocate a particular culture of computing, but rather the need for formal learning infrastructure that can be responsive to local culture and values. After all, I do believe that Papert was right about one thing: computers are the Proteus of machines in that they can be almost anything to anyone. They just can’t be those things without a lot of careful design that is attentive to who is being served and why.