“We can drop it again and again and again,” declares Nicholas Negroponte, while nonchalantly shutting and tossing a plastic computer across the room. Negroponte, a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, is showing the BBC a laptop developed for the OLPC project. OLPC stands for “One Laptop Per Child,” and the device in question is named the “XO”— which is also readable as an emoji-like simulacrum of a child with arms flung wide in excitement. As the clip continues, Negroponte retrieves the textured white machine, outlined in bright green rubber and sporting a green silicone-membrane keyboard, a swiveling 7.5-inch screen, and two green antennae/latches. He opens it and shows it off: yes, still running.
Like so many technologies, the OLPC project was enveloped in breathless hype. The machine’s customized learning software and state-of-the-art screen would tap the natural technical creativity and rebellious inclinations of children. Its ruggedness meant it could withstand heavy use, even the sand and saltwater of a beach, as Negroponte boasts in this video. It would also use an order of magnitude less power than most other computers—though an early promise of charging by hand-crank was soon scrapped as infeasible, and its lowest price was nearly double its $100 target.
Moreover, its entirely open-source software would inspire hundreds of millions of children all over the world to teach themselves to program without the help of (or even in spite of) the parents, teachers, and other supposed constraints in their lives. This, combined with its rugged construction, meant that these kids themselves could maintain and repair the laptops—no tech support or extra parts needed. Soon, they would leapfrog past adults in abilities, joining the ranks of open-source software developers and becoming truly global, networked citizens.
All of these promises failed. For one, OLPC fell far short of its distribution goal—placing fewer than 3 million XOs total, with a million each going to Uruguay and Peru. More importantly, these local projects were blindsided when the laptops proved far more fragile than OLPC had promised. Unlike the carpeted floors and sprung stages onto which Negroponte threw shut XOs, concrete classroom floors and cobblestone streets spelled the demise of many XO screens. Meanwhile, swinging and yanking did in many chargers, and even normal use cracked the membrane keyboards. Just over a year into projects in Uruguay and Paraguay, between 15% and 25% of laptops were broken; four and a half years into Paraguay’s project, well over half were unusable. Moreover, kids could not fix them as the project had promised. Fixes required spare parts and were technically challenging—and most kids weren’t that into the laptop, period.
In the end, not only did OLPC fail to overhaul education around the world, it diverted limited resources from other projects and left a trail of e-waste in its wake. Still, Negroponte’s demo is a masterful example of how such performances can help people stay invested in unrealistically utopian promises—especially when the media is at work advertising them far and wide. And such performances have long played an essential role in hacker culture more broadly. From Doug Englebart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” (showing off many of the critical features of networked personal computers developed in subsequent decades) to the MIT Media Lab’s founding credo of “Demo or Die”; from the self-described hackers of Marvin Minsky’s 1960s computer lab showing off the PGP-1 computer by developing the Spacewar! videogame to today’s starry-eyed TED talks; these performances exist to kindle utopian dreams for what might be.
But as was the case with One Laptop per Child, demos can have serious consequences when too disconnected from reality.