Riding the Tide

For almost a month now, the Vanuatu IT Users Society has been conducting demonstrations of the One Laptop Per Child Project’s XO laptop. These demos have led to numerous conversations about computers, the Internet and access to information. What affect is this going to have on the Vanuatu way of life?

Most people assume that as a geek, I see technology as a Good Thing, one of the miracles of the modern age. That’s not always the case.

The professional life of an ICT professional is fraught with dangers. They’re not personal dangers, of course. There are few safer things to do than plunking down in front of a computer for several hours each day. The risks a geek faces are risks of responsibility. Every choice we make has implications, some of which can be quite serious, especially in places where resources are limited.

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Black Smoke and Storm Clouds

Every weekday morning, in every street in Port Vila, we see a steady stream of people walking into town. On the road beside them, innumerable buses and cars drive by, belching black smoke into their faces. Just as regularly, we see complaints in the local media about this smoke. But nothing ever gets done about it.

Police and inspection officials don’t enforce the laws, and the drivers don’t make any real effort to clean up their act. Everybody knows they should. Everybody knows that this pollution causes health problems. Even the simplest metrics, like the dirt it leaves on our clothing, on our skin and under our nails, makes it impossible to deny that there’s a problem. And yet we do nothing.

Why? The answer is simple….

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Stars in Their Eyes

In an online discussion recently, I defended the XO laptop by mentioning how impressed people were when I conducted demonstrations of the hardware and software. If the XO is such a mediocre piece of hardware, “why,” I asked, “do people walk away with stars in their eyes?”

I went on to say that in my experience, I’d never seen any technological device more appropriate to the particular task of providing a useful learning environment for children in remote and/or underdeveloped areas.

This was met with a particularly vehement explosion of outrage, accompanied by accusations that I was “happy because there’s a new toy in the block, to help [me] with [my] ideologically-motivated occupation.”

I confess to an impish desire to agree with that accusation.

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There’s been a ton of interest in the OLPC laptop ever since the Vanuatu IT User Society (VITUS) obtained a prototype to demonstrate to people here in Vanuatu. A few readers will have already attended one of the VITUS demonstrations. In the interests of raising awareness about this new approach to learning technology, here are a few common questions and answers about the laptop, the project, and OLPC-related activities in Vanuatu.
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Talking Technology

This week’s column starts with a mea culpa. The column about Microsoft’s meeting with the Ministry of Education raised some eyebrows, and both Ministry employees and individuals wrote in to point out that there were inaccuracies in the reporting. They rightly observed that the author did not attend the meeting in question, and was therefore presenting hearsay evidence. While efforts were made to corroborate the details presented, it is an unfortunate truth that no public record was available. If any of the facts were incorrectly reported, the responsibility for this lies entirely with the author.

In the course of discussions about how to properly correct the record, two points kept recurring, both explicitly and implicitly: So-called ‘geeks’ often focus far too much on technology and not nearly enough on what it’s actually for. Additionally, there’s often a lot of talk – some might say too much talk – based on speculation. Making blithe assumptions can spell disaster for any project, but those with high-tech as a principle ingredient are even more prone to failure because of their inherent complexity.

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