Morgan C. Ames, The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (The MIT Press 2019)
The Sally Hacker Prize for 2020 is awarded to The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death and Legacy of One Laptop per Child by Morgan C. Ames. Through the case study of the implementation of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project, this book reflects on the history, power and persistence of charismatic technologies–objects which conjure a broad, gripping vision for changing the world. These technologies offer rapid change in the form of a “quick fix” which of course they can never deliver, leading to a Catch-22 of shortfalls and calls for further funding. Charismatic technologies have a deep history; they are linked to notions of magic and transcendence and the sublime that have been associated with earlier technologies from the railroads and through the internet. They have amazing staying power because they enable the performance rather than the achievement of change. OLPC exemplifies these attention-grabbing projects that rely on deploying a specific object to circumvent the considerable social, infrastructural and ideological work it takes to accomplish even minimal social change. Centered in the scholarship of the history of technology and STS, The Charisma Machine demonstrates that there is no quick fix because technologies are inseparable from their social, cultural, economic and political contexts.
The Charisma Machine narrates what happened as the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project was implemented in Paraguay in the early twenty-first century. OLPC was pioneered by Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at MIT heavily influenced by the values and assumptions of hacker culture. He believed that the inequities of the “digital divide” could be overcome by providing laptops to children across the Global South. Negroponte pitched this idea at Davos, TED and similar gatherings using a prototype of a hand-cranked laptop that would be cheap, sturdy and easily repairable. OLPC caught the imagination of tech companies, the open access software community, educational reformers and policy makers as a technological fix, not only to problems of global poverty but to perceived problems of childhood, learning and education that often reflected the personal experience of Negroponte and others growing up as technically precocious boys in the United States.
The promise of OLPC was that all it took was a laptop for children to become individualistic, creative explorers of digital technologies. Ames follows the course of OLPC in Paraguay and the issues that mitigated and altered the ambitions of OLPC. Some of the issues were material and systemic—changes in design and manufacturing made the laptops less sturdy and repairable and the hand crank was abandoned, which meant that the laptops required electrical networks and internet access which limited where and how they could function in schools. Teachers and students struggled with both hardware and software. Some of the children only used the laptops at school, while those who continued to use them outside of school did so as a gateway into the English-centric world of the internet. Negroponte’s goals altered from that of changing every child into creating a cadre of individualistic “agents of change” who would transform their countries society and economies through their entrepreneurship, and it ignored the critical role played by parents, teachers and cultural systems for the children who did fulfill his vision for OLPC. One of Ames’ key points is that promoters of OLPC had a powerful social imaginary of the way childhood should be that focused on the image technically precocious boy—which many of them had been. Disregarding social and cultural contexts, they assumed that all it took to universalize that experience and make it applicable to the impoverished children of the Global South was the material artifact of the laptop.
The Charisma Machine fulfills the mandate of the Hacker Prize well. It is clearly written and accessible to a broad audience. A non-academic reader would not only learn about OLPC but would get an introduction to the history of technology and STS. Ames’ introduction is a primer of the basic concepts and vocabulary of SHOT scholarship such as social imaginaries, non-human agency, ideology and charismatic technologies. The author’s engagement with anthropology and cultural studies makes the book broadly interdisciplinary. This book maps the nature and function of charismatic technologies in the hopes of making what is familiar appear strange and enabling readers to become aware of their ideologies about technology and society.