Technology and Hope

Recently, MIT’s Technology Review featured an article on the $100 laptop and the One Laptop per Child program. These projects are attempting to export hope in the form of education and limitless technology. While upon first glance these seem to be worthy goals, but they lose their luster a bit when thinking about their effects in the future. We are a culture enamored of technology (see the recent swooning over Apple’s iPhone). We love our gadgets, but we also see them as tools. The internet has opened literally thousands of educational doors, bringing together like-minded people in the pursuit of knowledge (a living, breathing example of the sorts of learning webs Ivan Illich proposed in Deschooling Society). This is a good thing. But this and other benefits are not without their costs, both material and spiritual. In light of the Technology Review article, and a recent post by Joseph Pearce on the costs of globalization, I would like to examine the costs of distributing laptops to developing countries as a way to spur educational growth.

We often under-estimate the material costs of technology. I do not mean the rising end cost of technology–that is, the hit on our pocketbooks–but the “hidden” costs of technology, namely energy consumption. There is a commonly held conceit among many people, especially those that trend to the political left, that cars, SUVs especially, are bad, and thanks to them, it’s 60 degrees in Pittsburgh in the middle of January. There may be a morsel of truth there, and I’m a critical acquaintance of the car, but gasoline is not the root of our problems. Many of these same people hold almost limitless hope in the potential of computers, without realizing the costs. The networks of computers that support the wonderful Internet require massive amounts of energy to run. Much of that energy is generated by methods that are not without their negative effects on the environment. More importantly, the production of our computers leaves a very heavy mark. Another conceit is that American factories are horrible polluters, but the truth is somewhat more rosy. Thanks to our environmental protection laws, American manufacturing is relatively clean when compared to many other nations. Economically developing nations have little concern for the environment–their concern is maximizing production and maximizing profits (globalists are, generally, supportive of this because they perceive economic as a populist panacea–as a country grows economically, so does its citizens). In order to satiate our desire for smaller, faster, more powerful computers (and other gadgets, ahem, iPhone), developing countries, especially those in the East, throw ecological caution to the wind. Now, imagine as we export this technology (in the form of hope) to the Third World. Mr. Pearce outlines the costs this way:

Here?s the real heart of the matter: If globalization is as successful as these globalists hope, the proportion of energy consumption and pollution attributable to the United States will continue to drop, but not because Americans use less energy and cause less pollution but because the underdeveloped countries, particularly those on the Pacific Rim, will begin to use more and more of the earth?s resources, catching America and perhaps even overtaking it in terms of energy-conusumption and pollution. If the globalist dream is fulfilled, it must surely mean that the whole world enjoys the fruits of the consumer system. Imagine everyone in China owning two cars. Imagine everyone in India demanding the same number of consumer goods as the average European or American. Several billion extra cars polluting the atmosphere, millions of new factories producing hundreds of billions of disposable goods for the billions of new consumers in the developing world. The economist?s dream is the ecologist?s nightmare.

Now, I don’t mean to conflate the motives of the laptop project with those of economic globalists, but the results will likely be the same. Hope takes the form of consumer goods, and as consumption rises (ultimately the result of such a program, again whether a stated goal or not) so do the costs.

The spiritual costs are not as easily counted. Neil Postman, the bright cultural critic, understood these sorts of changes truly groundbreaking–a new medium being introduced into a society. Though the bullk of his work focused on the television and its effects in Western culture, he often compared the introduction of the television to the introduction of the printing press. When Guttenburg perfected moveable type, he was only thinking of the great benefits it would confer on society. Obviously, he did not know that it would split the Church, or cause countless revolutions, or reshape the very nature of childhood. Postman often joked that critics told him he would have been against the printing press, and he would respond that, yes, he would at least have voiced his concerns about the changes to the cultural landscape that the invention might cause.

And so it is with the introduction of technology across the Third World. This is not to say that the introduction of cheap laptops would destroy, say, African culture (as if there is a single culture). In fact, such tools, if used convivially, could create learning webs that aided farmers and builders (many Africans who come to the United States for formal education often study agriculture or animal husbandry, because these subjects are far more useful to bettering lives when they return home). Yet technology will change the cultural landscape, and not necessarily confer additional educational benefits. Our own educational system has embraced technology not strictly because of its benefits for the process–it is understood that because the technology is so pervasive, it is best to expose children to it and teach them how to use it. However, in, say, Tanzania, technology education is far less important. History shows that the computer is not a prerequisite for higher learning–there are quite a few very bright people who did very important things without the benefits of a laptop or the Internet. Yet we have so much hope in the power technology that we believe that laptops could change the fortunes of the Third World.

Technology is not a silver bullet, merely a tool. Viewing technology as a hope for the development of the Third World is little more than symptom of the rule that technology exercises over us (as described by thinkers like Ellul and Schuurman), and our complicity in extending its power. This isn’t to say that technology would not be useful in developing the Third World and its system of education, but the OLPC must realize that simply dropping technology into a technologically-starved region will have significant ramifications on the culture, some good good, some bad. Simply approaching the issue with the attitude the laptop could save the world is short-sighted at best and destructive at worst.