The One Laptop Per Child program is experimenting with what at first seems to be the lazy way to philanthropy: dropping off tablet computers in remote Ethiopian villages and then simply leaving. Could illiterate children learn not only how to operate the Motorola Zooms, but teach themselves to read? According to Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop Per Child, the results were astonishing:
“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
Although further trials are needed, the initial results are electrifying. This drop-and-go approach could bring literacy, and all its benefits, to millions of children in remote, impoverished or unstable regions.
The fact that the children were able to hack their computers – a skill that many of us will never even attempt, let alone master – speaks to the fact that they come from a culture that never left the DIY ethos behind. These kids are used to altering objects to suit their needs, rather than having a pre-made solution handed to them. An utterly alien piece of tech was no different from a natural material.
The success of the program can also be attributed to the tablets themselves. Touch screens, gestural interfaces and symbols are more intuitive than keyboards and buttons. Rather than a gadget that changes us to fit its needs, tablet computers are “humane technology” that works with our natural ways of communicating and interacting with the world.