Selling a Charismatic Technology

By W. Patrick McCrayJanuary 23, 2020

Selling a Charismatic Technology

The Charisma Machine by Morgan G. Ames

I WAS A DEVOTEE of Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s. My favorite activity in the classic role-playing game was not slaying monsters but creating new characters, which I did by rolling three six-sided dice (in D&D parlance, “roll 3d6”). The resulting numbers generated attributes such as strength, wisdom, or dexterity. But there was another more enigmatic attribute with which each character was blessed or cursed: charisma. It determined how well my paladin or mage could charm, persuade, and coax others to do their bidding. A nimble and charismatic thief could separate a druid from his stave or score a discount when buying a magic cloak.

This quality lies at the heart of Morgan Ames’s book The Charisma Machine. Ames, a faculty member in Berkeley’s School of Information, uses the One Laptop Per Child Program (or “OLPC”) to explore the “complicated consequences of technological utopianism.” Announced at a meeting of the World Economic Forum before an enthusiastic gathering of businesspeople, celebrities, and other thought leaders, the audacious OLPC set out to put inexpensive laptop computers in the hands of tens, perhaps even hundreds, of millions of children in the Global South.

The laptops themselves were presented as engineering marvels. Each bright green machine was exceptionally friendly looking. About the size of a hardback book, it was designed to enable kids to easily learn to use, tinker with, and even repair it in the field. Initially, advocates claimed its flash memory — a less energy-needy system than a conventional hard drive — could even be powered up by a yellow hand-crank. As for the machine’s wireless “mesh network,” it could allow users to interact and collaborate with one another without needing a central internet access point. Such a system would permit users to circumvent choke points of censorship or surveillance. Likewise, the laptop’s interface was based on the Linux system, another nod toward openness and to users being able to modify their own machines. Finally, embedded in the laptops’ design was a whole set of ideologies about how children could and should learn, ideas that radiated outward from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the OLPC program first originated.

The ballyhooed initiative failed spectacularly. Ames’s book explains why. By the time readers reach the final pages, they are likely to have an exceptionally grounded and clear understanding of the hype and hubris surrounding new technologies, especially when advocates promise they will reshape education here and abroad.

Adapting the term from religious and sociological studies dating back a hundred years or more (see, for instance, Max Weber’s classic writings), Ames defines “charismatic technology” as deriving its influence — real and symbolic — from the possibilities it possesses. A charismatic technology gets its superpowers from what its advocates promise it can do and various publics and potential patrons believe it will do. In other words, a charismatic technology is rooted in an imagined future, positing a time when its adoption will lead, perhaps inevitably, to large-scale transformation, be it social, economic, or technological.

But, despite the agency afforded them, charismatic technologies are ultimately conservative. Their potential for disruption notwithstanding, their appeal is based on their seeming familiarity: they reinforce existing values and ideologies. Whether as cryptocurrencies or cyber-trucks, they have the best of both worlds: they promise profound change while also appearing “unchangeable, inevitable, and natural” — that is, as nonthreatening. But of course, as Weber noted and Ames’s book details, charisma has its decidedly dark and authoritarian side, compelling and coercing people into behaving in questionable, even immoral or dangerous, ways.

Charismatic technologies are often promoted by equally charismatic people. Ames’s story presents at least two such people. The most visible public spokesperson for the OLPC program was Nicholas Negroponte, an architecture professor at MIT, author of the best-selling 1995 book Being Digital, and the founder of that school’s Media Lab. Born to a wealthy Greek family, Negroponte was exquisitely connected to the Cold War establishment — he presented himself not as a rumpled scholar but as akin to the corporate chieftains who funded the Media Lab (including, dare one say, convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein).

It was Negroponte who unveiled the OLPC program to the global elite at Davos in 2005 and subsequently promoted it around the world. Foreshadowing troubles to come, at an event in November 2005, Negroponte, who was in fact a consummate salesman for digital dreams of all kinds, took the stage in Tunis with Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations. Gesturing to a prototype laptop, Negroponte told Annan and the other audience members that just one minute of turning the bright yellow hand-crank could power the device for 40 minutes. When Annan tried this, the crank broke off.

Undaunted by such mishaps, Negroponte continued to extol the disruptive potential of cheap laptops placed in the hands of millions of schoolchildren worldwide. That same year, at a TED conference, he noted that the machines could even provide lighting for people in the undeveloped Global South (no more candles!) and pooh-poohed the idea that OLPC should be tested first via pilot programs. “This laptop project is not something you have to test,” Negroponte proclaimed. He continued: “When people say, ‘well, we’d like to do three or four thousand in our country to see how it works,’ screw you. Go to the back of the line[.] […] When you figure out that this works, you can join as well.” This imperious attitude — that somehow engineers and designers based around Cambridge innately understood the educational needs of kids across a diverse array of regions and cultures — infused the OLPC project from the outset. Little was said, for example, about how the OLPC program might work in underserved parts of the United States itself, or Europe. Instead, promotion photos for OLPC showed an image of brown-skinned children — visual code for the Third World’s poor — beaming smiles from the laptop’s screen.

A second person — less visible but equally charismatic — animating the OLPC program was Seymour Papert. Born in 1928, he and Negroponte joined MIT’s faculty at about the same time. Although his training was in mathematics, Papert branched out in the 1970s to child education and theories of learning. Building on his experience with programming computers, Papert developed a learning framework called “constructionism,” which he presented in a popular 1980 book called Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. This book would become a foundational text for students at the Media Lab. 

Constructionism is the sort of singular and simplistic idea that would appeal to a TED audience. As Ames makes clear, its roots lay in MIT’s “hacker culture” of the 1960s and 1970s. It was based on notions of discovery-oriented learning. Students were to work hands-on with actual objects — Papert was obsessed with gears, for example. This would benefit them far more than traditional pedagogical models, he said. Exploration and creative expression were key, and so Papert argued for their needing “free contact” with computers as “objects-to-think-with.” One can see shades of these ideas today in ongoing demands that kids should and must learn to code, as well as in various plans to place tablets and other electronic devices in the hands of schoolkids everywhere.

Technologies, of course, embody certain political ideas.

OLPC, along with Papert’s concepts, which provided the program’s foundation, was no different from other technologies in this regard. Papert extolled the ethos of MIT’s hacker ideal, which meant he privileged rebellion, decentralization, and mistrust of authority. But he was unwittingly thinking only of boys. Indeed, MIT’s hacker subculture was almost entirely dominated by men, and hacking was largely seen as a form of masculine rebellion. OLPC adopted, consciously or not, the model of the “technically precocious boy” as its idealized user. In addition, there was, Ames notes, a distinct libertarian sensibility running through Papert’s ideas. Public schools were imagined as poorly run government institutions cranking out factory-made products whereas constructionism treated children as learning entrepreneurs, responsible for their own education.

Papert’s theories on child education gave rise to another central concept — the “social imaginary” — underpinning much of Ames’s own story about the OLPC program. This idea originated with the work of scholars like Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson, who wrote about “imagined communities” and the origins of nationalism. Later, academics from science and technology studies developed the idea of “sociotechnical imaginaries.” As originally presented by Sang-Hyun Kim and Sheila Jasanoff, these referred to “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects.” The Apollo program of the 1960s or France’s pursuit of a national infrastructure for nuclear power are two such examples. Academics have subsequently adopted “imaginaries” as a conceptual tool in ways that range far from its original formulation. The term appears many dozens of times in Ames’s text.

It can be a problematic concept, appearing as a passive vision shared by actors and institutions alike and shaping their actions. But OLPC was fundamentally an engineering project and thus necessarily active in nature. OLPC demanded engineering in the traditional sense of designing and making something. But it also included vigorous social engineering, such as Negroponte’s advocacy and the implementation of the inexpensive laptop programs throughout the Global South. All of these characteristics — developing a radical view for the future of education, deploying the requisite mechanical and computer engineering, and relentlessly promoting both the technology and its imagined future — are, in my opinion, much more dynamic activities than what’s implied by “imaginary.”

Academic terminology aside, Ames’s book provides a largely unflattering portrait of both the prejudices that went into the OLPC program and the mixed reception the machines received once they were in the hands of their target audience. For example, at a press conference in 2006, Negroponte commented, “Now when you go to these rural schools, the teacher can be very well meaning, but the teacher might only have a sixth-grade education. […] As many as one-third of the teachers never show up at school. And some percent show up drunk.” Other OLPC advocates presented a vision of student-led educational experiences as antidotes to stultifying American-style learning factories or “classrooms” in the Global South, which “might be under a tree.” Moreover, Negroponte explicitly referred to OLPC’s machines as the “Trojan horses” that would introduce the ideology of constructionism into foreign classrooms, undermine government control of education, and “provide a shortcut to social change.” At one point, he even suggested tossing the rugged green laptops out of helicopters and letting children teach themselves. “It’s like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky,” he explained.

Laptop. Education. Coke bottle. Whatever.

Images of African kids notwithstanding, some 85 percent of OLPC machines went to Latin America. Peru and Uruguay, for example, bought more than a million each, at a cost that hovered around $200 per unit. To describe what the implementation of this educational future looked like on the ground, Ames relies on her detailed ethnographic work in Paraguay. When advocates for OLPC showed up, Paraguay, relatively speaking, was much poorer than either of these two countries and also in the midst of serious political realignment. Ames’s fine-grained research reveals the disconnect between the varying meanings attached to the OLPC devices by the program’s advocates and its users. While Negroponte and company imagined their charismatic machine as infused with valuable constructionist ideals, teachers in Paraguay often saw it as a distracting “little toy for games.” So did many students. Unsurprisingly, many of them used it to download music, watch videos, and, of course, to access pornography. Charisma met its limits when the allegedly durable and easily repaired machines malfunctioned, broke, and otherwise failed to live up to their promise.

Despite their utopian potential, OLPC embodied a distinctive “cruel optimism.” For example, it was expected that many, if not most, users would be conversant in English. But English was a skill unequally distributed across Paraguay’s society. As a result, OLPC reinforced existing linguistic, economic, and social inequalities. (And gender ones, too: as mentioned earlier, the MIT-derived “hacker ethos” favored a user typically imagined as male.) Although poor children in rural settings might imagine being able to fully interact with the OLPC machines, in reality “language represented a site of yearning as well as an index of marginalization.” OLPC’s advocates may have envisioned that their machines would enable Horatio Alger–like tales of bootstrapping but this ignored insurmountable social and economic barriers (while often ignoring the hard work and commitment exhibited by Paraguayan teachers).

In 2010, Ames observed a visit to Paraguay by Walter Bender, an OLPC executive and MIT computer science professor. She reveals it to have been particularly cringe-worthy. Although Bender did indeed find students happily using the laptops, this was actually a highly scripted “charismatic performance” that obscured the machine’s technical difficulties and erased the adult “trainers” whose input was required to make things work at all. Nonetheless, Bender, who spoke no Spanish, included an account of the Potemkin Village–like encounter in his 2013 book Learning to Change the World as proof that the project was working. Ames’s version of his visit could hardly have been more different.

Ames’s book thus enables readers to see how the OLPC program brought together several strands of thought rooted in 1960s-era discussions of technology. Besides reflecting the “hacker ethos” and Papert’s constructionist theories, OLPC also reflected what became known as “modernization theory.” Championed by MIT economist Walt Rostow, it posited that countries and economies pass through distinct stages of growth. New technologies — such as computers — were a powerful tool for helping countries become “modern” while also serving as a measure of their progress toward this goal. Although it was never explicitly framed as such, OLPC embodied this linear, normative thinking about Western technology as offering quick and easy “solutions” to deep-rooted problems of social and economic policy.

But there is another relevant strand rooted in the 1960s that Ames does not include. The “Appropriate Technology” movement in the United States arose out of the ferment of Vietnam War protests as well as the nascent environmental movement. It was a reaction to top-down “Rostowian” failures to develop viable technologies for people in the then so-called Third World. Reflecting a critique of “megamachine” technological systems (“You want to be modern? Let’s build you a giant dam!”), advocates for appropriate technology encouraged technologies that made sense in their specific social, economic, and geographic context. Championed in books like E. F. Schumacher’s 1973 Small Is Beautiful (subtitled, A Study of Economics As If People Mattered), alternative technologies were designed to help level social and economic inequality. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, groups throughout the United States promoted appropriate technologies (i.e., inexpensive, maintainable, suitable for small-scale use, and compatible with local conditions in Appalachia, Asia, Africa, and South America). It’s hard not to see the OLPC initiative as a 21st-century manifestation of these same ideals, albeit oddly and uneasily coupled to the goal of making the Global South more “modern.” As Ames shows, OLPC played into all sorts of racial, gender, and class assumptions that, in principle, advocates for appropriate technology worked to avoid.

Today, OLPC is, at least according to its website, still alive as a program but with far less charisma than a decade ago. At the end of The Charisma Machine, Ames describes OLPC as an example of the “solutionism” so often aimed at disrupting and reforming education. From MOOCs and flipped classrooms to the “maker movement” and coding “boot camps,” an array of charismatic people have made grand promises. The fact that this activity peaked in the wake of the Great Recession, with its defunding of public education and parents’ deepening anxiety about their kids’ economic future, is no coincidence. Like the proponents of One Laptop Per Child, these efforts often embody an anti-statist libertarian sensibility featuring mistrust of authority, trained experts, and public services. Ames’s book offers one more reason to mistrust dazzling displays of charismatic technologies. As any Dungeons & Dragons player can tell you, charisma is a powerful attribute. But so is wisdom.


W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

LARB Contributor

W. Patrick McCray is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara and the author of five books on the history of modern science and technology including Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture (MIT Press, 2020). McCray is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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