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.

I am without question ideologically motivated, if ideology is defined as an inability to remain idle when there’s still work to be done, combined with a passion for finding practical ways to make that work easier. And I confess that I do like new toys. Especially toys that don’t break in a week. Toys that don’t chew up more than a month’s income. Toys that actually do good, providing immediate as well as longer-term benefit to the user. Toys that have practical value.

Toys? I guess I meant tools. But who am I to split hairs?

This isn’t the first time that I – and others in my profession – have been accused of treating development as an excuse to have some quality time with the latest playthings. The implicit assumption, of course, is that people don’t need or want what we’re offering. I’m just another Music Man, flitting from town to town selling pipe dreams that people can ill afford.

This statement gives me pause, because it layers truths together in a most insidious way, filling the gaps with an unspoken – but unmistakeable – lie: Regardless of my motivation, my passion for technology has led me into a reckless, irresponsible and possibly – Heaven forfend – ideologically motivated act of deception. I’m taking advantage of the very people I’m supposed to be helping, further impoverishing them instead of enriching their lives.

There’s only one little problem with that characterisation. It’s false.

It’s also extremely hard to defend against. The tendency to see nails everywhere is the failing of every hammer-wielding man. But knowing when and where to strike is one of the cardinal lessons of technology. One would hope that after 15 years of experience with this stuff, I might have developed some ability to choose my tools well, and to apply them properly.

And where ideology is concerned (or philosophy, for those less invectively inclined), the issue at hand is the source and the nature of belief. Against those who believe – heh – that Free Software evangelism springs sui generis from a geek’s forehead, wrapped in the robes of Saint IGNUcious, there is no defence.

You see, if the premise of someone’s argument is that their opponent’s ability to reason is fundamentally impaired, they cannot be moved from that point. Any logical, practical arguments in support of one’s stance are waved away as rationalisations – in effect, clever post hoc constructions for something that was a priori considered to be true. In order to win, the accuser has only to roll his eyes and say, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

The irony of the situation is of course that such reasoning is invalid, irrational and guilty of the very accusation it makes.

Ultimately, the entire argument boils down to this: I am a bad man. Whether bad at what I do or bad in what I think – that’s all in the eye of the beholder.

I can’t defend against that. No, sorry: I won’t defend myself against that. If someone wishes to question my competence or my integrity, let him. There’s evidence enough around for everyone to make a reasonable estimation.

But there’s one part of that attack that makes me fume. That’s the implication that people don’t get technology, even if it’s presented to them fairly and clearly. Either I’ve whispered enough sweet nothings to the poor benighted yokels that I’ve utterly beguiled them, or we’re all too stupid to be able to spot the pitfalls of our choice.

What an ugly thing to say! To my mind, the accuser stands accused: What is it about someone who comes from the village that makes them a worse judge of what’s good for them than anyone else? These are the very same people who run the largest financial institutions in the country, the people who operate the most successful NGO in the entire Pacific region, the people who efficiently and effectively manage an organisation with 16,000 members nationwide. And yet, because they were not born in Sydney, Brussels or New York, somehow they are not qualified to know what’s best for them and their people.

In every single demo I’ve conducted so far, the questions have been pertinent and informed. People’s skepticism about the ability of a product to live up to its promise is a survival trait here. They bring it into the meeting unsheathed and honed to a point. But to listen to some people, the fact that the audience allow themselves to be persuaded can only be the result of the same crude beads-for-land short-circuit that is the downfall of ‘natives’ everywhere. I reject that contention utterly.

As far as I can see, the only ones letting the stars in their eyes obscure their vision are those who are willing to deny the evidence lying in plain sight, who would rather stage their retreat from Moscow by letting issues of intelligence, ability and finally integrity fall by the wayside, until nothing is left but opposition for its own sake.