Monday, November 3, 2008

Bibles or computers -- it's the same thing

This subject was on my list to blog eventually; but this clipping from the weekly OLPC mailing made it relevant:
Antonio Battro presented Pope Benedict XVI with an XO on Friday at the Vatican. The occasion was a papal audience for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which Antonio is a member. They spoke about OLPC's philosophy and objectives in the developing world. Benedict seemed deeply pleased by our work.
I'm not surprised that the pope is pleased by the OLPC program. The mentality from which it springs is the same mentality which in past centuries created the missionary programs. The idea is that we, the west, know what's good for the rest of the world, and that we therefore must push our ideas onto the "third world" by means of the most advanced technology available. In past centuries, that was arguably the printing press, so we sent missionaries armed with stacks of bibles. These days, we have computers, so we send modern missionaries (of our western lifestyle, including consumerism, global warming, and credit default swaps) armed with computers.

It's the same thing, really.


9000 said...

No doubt, it's the same thing.

I prefer this thing to indoctrination through military invasion any day, though.

With regard to global warming, I doubt that it's so much human-induced; why Mars is experiencing a warming, too? And isn't premature listing ourselves as planetary factor a sin of hubris? :)

With regard to fraudulent financial practices and other numerous lies the Western world lives submerged into, it's inevitable. Humans are not angels, they're not perfect (yet). They — that is, we — can try to export something a bit better than our own everyday life, but only a little bit better.

Ted Pollari said...

I think that two very different ideas can appear (and potentially even function) very similarly... there's the propagation of information with good intentions and then there's propagation as a means for subjugation. While even good intentions can (and often do) lead to negative outcomes, I think there needs to be a distinction between the two.

And I thought, at one point, the OLPC project was very well-intended and as such tried to allow for as much self-determination and direction on the parts of the people/localities who were receiving the laptops. That differs greatly with the general spread of Christianity -- while yes, you can say that many missionaries and evangelists had good intentions, they were spreading normative ideas rather than tools like laptops can easily be viewed.

So, while I see some validity in your comparison, I do think there's a bit of a difference, but then again, that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Ian Bicking said...

Missionaries have shown interest in OLPC from the very beginning. I think in part from a desire to use the laptop as a way of distributing the Bible and other material, but probably also thinking about maintaining direct connections with communities without the difficulty of actually having a missionary living there -- a church could initially set a group up with laptops, and then maintain a relationship between the congregation and that group over time.

And it's hard to blame them... if you believe you are going to hell if you aren't part of the right religion, isn't there an obligation to try to save people? And a lot of missionaries try to do general charity at the same time. There are some serious logical problems with this line of thought, but it's not disingenuous, and it's easy to see why it's morally compelling.

As to OLPC directly, I think there are parallels, and I think open source and constructivist principles are meant to counter some of these problems. The laptop project should not dictate the form of education, the specific priorities, or a specific cultural system. It also shouldn't delegate these abilities to the respective governments -- ideally it would not be a coercive force for anyone, not for the developed nations or the developing nations. Achieving this, of course, is difficult... but I think compared to the status quo I think the laptop project is clearly less coercive than the educational systems they are being introduced into.

Guido van Rossum said...

Great discussion! Personally I see OLPC's constructionist educational agenda as one of its problems -- it is sufficiently unproven that it qualifies as religion to me (and the zeal of its proponents reinforces this feeling).

Also, OLPC deals almost exclusively with governments, because they have to sell large enough quantities of XOs to keep the price down.

Eric the Half-a-Bee said...

So, if freely offering a tool is an arrogant attempt at control and conversion, what was the white-man's-burden logic behind distributing Python?

Chris Ryland said...

Except that Benedict (as his predecessors) has been a constant, quite vocal critic of the consumerist mentality, so the analogy doesn't really work.

Ted Pollari said...

"Personally I see OLPC's constructionist educational agenda as one of its problems -- it is sufficiently unproven that it qualifies as religion to me"

Perhaps -- but it's hardly the dominant one in the western nations and so the original analogy you presented falls apart a bit more there, doesn't it?

If anything, based on your most recent quote, it may be more apt to compare it to early Christianity which was a zealous upstart group within an already intrenched power that spread quickly through some parts of the known world =)

Noah Gift said...

I just finished "Foundation" last night for the first time, and your post reminds me of when the Foundation invented a religion as a form of controlling the four hostile planets. They brought over their technology, but didn't explain it, just ritualized it so priests were nuclear technicians.

I think I mentioned to Guido a bit ago, "Fountain Head", and I think there is a correlation to be drawn to some degree with OLPC. I am not a "Rayndroid", i.e., a follower of Ayn Rand, but she does make an interesting point against collectivism, or helping for the sake of helping.

Do we have any data that would suggest that dropping laptops off in a region where people live at the lowest tier of Maslow's Hierachy is helpful? Maybe there is a more effective way to help?

I will agree with Ian, that the Pope probably is happy, as he sees the laptop as a way to spread the word of God. It would be odd if the OLPC turned out to quite literally be the new "Bible", and it was mainly used an electronic form of scripture.

There could even be a potential negative outcome to the people in developing countries if this occurred. The Catholic Church's policy on birth control could potentially influence large segments of the population to avoid using condoms, and the spread of HIV, and unwanted births could skyrocket. Wouldn't that be an odd side effect of the OLPC?

Back to the Foundation book, I think it would interesting to attempt to think backwards toward a solution first strategy like Hari Seldon. What is the end goal in helping Africa? Is to turn them Catholic, help them eat everyday, or maybe create a change that would cause a serious of chain reactions, that would eliminate widespread suffering?

Johannes said...

I don't know enough about the OLPC to make a wise comment on it - but your post makes me wonder how you envision the ideal project for helping out the poorest 1 billion people on the planet. Thus far, my opinion is that giving them access to information, technologies, and resources most relevant to their situation should be priority; this will typically include clean water, drugs, fertilizer, cell phones, etc. The best speaker I've heard on this subject thus far was Jeff Sachs when he visited Google.

Brian Slesinsky said...

It's abundantly clear that people in third-world countries *do* need information devices, but so far they seem to be much more interested in cell phones than laptops.

Who knows, perhaps the next generation of programmers will grow up programming on their cell phones? (If you think it's unlikely, what about the kids who had fun programming calculators back in the day?)

dsmit said...

guido the chomsky of computer science :D

Author said...

I am sure most people would rather worry about consumerism, global warming, and credit default swaps than infested water, malnutrition, and civil war.

Our way is objectively better, sometimes.

Anonymous said...

So any kind of missionary effort is the same thing as christian missionary efforts? It's a really bad analogy, sorry. Just because two things share a common feature (people moving out into other countries with a message), doesn't make them the same thing - there are still lots of other aspects that make them different.

At least, afaik, OLPC doesn't force people to give up their old beliefs and ways of living to be allowed access to the benefits of the new religion.

Unknown said...

I agree completely!

Our shipping technology has never helped the ignorant savages of India, Japan, or China. People in the current third world will look back in glee to days of starvation, plagues, and massacres when the need to spend days dealing with spam email, office politics, and constant advertising.

Anonymous said...

Would mind to talk some day about ORMs in python.

test said...

>Blogger CharlesMerriam said...

> I agree completely!

> Our shipping technology has never >helped the ignorant savages of India, >Japan, or China. People in the current >third world will look back in glee to >days of starvation, plagues, and >massacres when the need to spend days >dealing with spam email, office >politics, and constant advertising.

Good thing we have e-mail spam! That sure saved us from the starvation, plagues, and massacres! As did the joblessness brought on by imperialist US / US-puppeteered (IMF, etc) international trade practices that undercut/consolidated all the farming in our area! Boy, and when President Bush lines Monsanto's pockets with $700 billion to flood our markets with cheap grain, put even more of our farmers out of business.

The issue isn't one of lack of food. People starve because they are poor. People become poor because they do not have a job. I suppose you could say that education will give them a job because blah blah IMF bull blah blah "creation of wealth." But another thing that would give them a job would be a little more control over the means of production in *their own country* rather than renting their farmland from international companies centered in the US and being forced to pay the difference if there is a bad season, etc.

Problem is, even if the jobs that education provides are essential ones (like teaching jobs), if the country's government simply *does not have the money* to fund those jobs, or the money is too centralized within the populace to spread to them, there's no point going for those jobs with education because you can't get them anyway.

Also, those massacres? Who do you think gives them the guns? Which countries are among those which have happily provided tools for mass slaughter?

Once we stop fucking over their economy with irresponsible greedy, corporate-fueled lunges into controlling international trade, then this digging-their-country-and-culture deeper into dependence on western companies and goods will look less like a means of further breaking solidarity within and between the populations of these countries. Right now, an attack on solidarity is what it looks like. Much like the priests divided many of the natives so the military became entirely unnecessary most of the time.

Heck, now for many parts of Africa, bringing your generously-funded-by-american-technology box to school will be a fundamental part of "education." You can't learn without intel and the american-textbook-curriculum included, huh? Kinda weird, right?

But y'know, heck, maybe this will be a good thing for them, right? It's probably and I'll admit that.

But I think the way this was managed fits into this whole imperialist trend of deciding what is right for other countries and people without asking them first. Maybe part of their education problems was they couldn't afford computers, but I bet that was several dozen places down the line. If we really wanted to help them, rather than just do whatever seemed cool/white savior enough, there might have been some dialogue going.

"But you can't talk with Africa! They're all crazy dictators!"


Few of them. Many of them are corrupt and violent. But those who are, for the most case, are those we prop up (Mugabe being a noted recent exception) or create the necessary environment for. Just like in America, but exacerbated because of poverty: people engage in tertiary economic opportunities like thieving, drug dealing, or prostitution mostly because the opportunity for good, first or secondary sector jobs aren't available to them. The same goes for warlords. But with warlords, it helps if they have the guns we supplied them.

And somehow indoctrinating them with whatever textbooks we decide to distribute at *bargain rates* will somehow make up for that. Educate them. Cultivate the "savages," huh? There we go. That'll cure 'em good. I'm sure. Once they get back control over the pirated resources of their country, they might be able to manufacture their own versions of patented vaccines and medications which won't be sold at horrendous monopoly mark-ups. ;D

Unknown said...

Hi Test.

Nice rant. My 'computer generated rant' light is lit, but I'm guessing you are a human.

Sounds like you are saying:
+ The U.S. is not my friend
* Overseas companies are not good for your economy.
* Farmers sign stupid contracts.
* U.S. aid to U.S. food growers is killing your local food industry.
* U.S. sells weapons.

+ Laptops from the U.S. are bad
* The textbooks are from the U.S.
* It won't be sufficient.

So, um, are you against shipping laptops?

Ian Bicking said...

My more extended response: Cultural Imperialism, Technology, and OLPC

Unknown said...

Comparing the OLPC program to Christian
missionary programs is very interesting.

Missionary work has always involved
education. In order for those stacks of
bibles to be effective, large
translation programs were undertaken to
provide bibles in the local languages of

For the translated bibles to work,
missionaries often had to first teach
people to read. Indeed, in some cases, a
written language form had to first be
developed for cultures that had only
oral language.

Mission work has always been fraught
with unintended consequences and abuses
of power. Here in Canada we still, as a
country, suffer from the after affects
of the aboriginal residential school

Much of the evil that comes from
meddling in the affairs of others stems
from the western attitiude of manifest
destiny. The idea that we in the west
are superior beings and thus have the
right to assert our control over other
inferior people.

There is certainly the potential for
this kind of attitude within the OLPC
project. I suspect most westerners still
hold on to a shred of this meme, deep
within their concsiousness. I know I've
been surprised to catch myself
expressing this idea.

The key to solving problems is to treat
people with respect as equals and to
share opportunity with them.

Just like the missionary movement helped
to spread literacy around the globe, I
think the OLPC project may have a chance
to make a difference.

If regular people in the west are given
access to people in the third world,
through chat rooms, blogs, listserves,
VoIP, etc. We may be able to see the
people in the third world and throughout
the world for what they are; regular
people, like you and me, rather than as
abstract charity cases.

Perhaps, with enough interaction, our
culture will one day no longer tolerate
the exploitation of others with our

That said, it may be more effective to boycott Nestle than buy a
give-one-get-one OLPC.

Unknown said...

I don't think it's fair to tar all missionaries with the same brush. Clearly much harm has been done by some, but not by all.

For example in The Legacy of William Carey, Vishal and Ruth Mangalwadi (both Indians) see Carey's contribution to India as incredibly positive in numerous areas (womens' rights, education, agriculture, literature, etc)

OLPC is clearly fraught with struggles, but you have to give them some marks for effort, and for at least trying to give disadvantaged children the means to explore the world.