Sugar Labs @ NDSU

Building a smarter computing culture in Fargo, ND

OLPC and the Agrarian Mind?


In addition to the books and ideas I listed yesterday, Chris and I have been worrying about concepts like Larry Cuban’s “oversold and underused” critique of computers in education, and a more general critique of the place and value of computers and technology in our (collective) 21st century lives.  Negroponte and OLPC are definitely techno-utopian in their rhetoric and vision, and as intrigued as I am by OLPC and XO, I don’t think I qualify (or would want to disqualify myself) from that club.

I read an article by Arthur W. Hunt III yesterday, “Media Ecology, Sacred Earth, and the Agrarian Mind.” The article traces the second and third phrases of the title through a history of media ecology–McLuhan (an antimodernist and quasi agrarian early on), Mumford, Ellul up through figures like Tolkien, CS Lewis, Neil Postman, and finally Wendell Berry.  The article argues that McLuhan “shrugged off” some of his antimodernism late in his career, became more fatalistic about the inevitable tide of technology sweeping the world, but these other figures represent a vibrant, and in Berry, still active, agrarian, anti-modern response to technology.

What does this have to do with OLPC? Well, I do worry about the disruptive effective of the XO in a Sudanese village, in any place not already immersed in a culture of computing technology.  I have read an ecological argument about the XO that characterizes it as an invasive species.  And I generally worry about promoting yet another technology in our media and technology saturated world.  Sure, I argued yesterday that at least he XO is a smart technology, and we need it to push out the dumb technologies, but there must be enough of the agrarian, naturalist, antimodernist in me that I can’t quiet the voice that says “we need less technology and fewer distractions, rather than just slightly better technologies and distractions.”

Hunt’s article reproduced Neil Postman’s valuable heuristic, one that we should use to work through XO and Sugar questions:

  • What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
  • Whose problem is it?
  • What new problems might be created by solving the original problem?
  • Which people and what institutions will be most seriously harmed by this new technology?
  • What changes in language are being forced by these new technologies?
  • What sort of people and institutions gain special economic and political power from this new technology?
  • What is being gained and lost by such changes.

Hunt III, Arthur W. (2009). Media ecology, sacred earth, and the agrarian mind. Explorations in media ecology. 8.2: 115-131.

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2011 by in OLPC, readingnotes, XO.

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