The Book of the OLPC

A few days back when I was trying to learn more about the Euphoria demo shown at the Game Developers Conference, I did a search that landed me on the OLPC News site (Link)… for no good reason other than I’ve been following OLPC development for some time now and was curious about that search engine hit. Anyway, that’s where I first learned of the One Laptop Per Child Game Design Challenge (Link). Interesting news, but I didn’t consider it especially relevant to this blog, even though I saw related news pop up on 3pointD (Link) and then later caught mention of that on “The Click Heard Round the World” blog (Link). Though I’d read enough to know better, I still thought of the OLPC in terms of design (with a little “d”*).

As recently mentioned, I was reading Neal Stephenson’s novel, The Diamond Age, and by that point it was pretty obvious to me that the “primer”, an extraordinarily interactive “book”, was in many ways not too different from a videogame (it starts off being more of a text book and gradually becomes more immersive as the young child, Nell, grows to adulthood). When I read news about the OLPC game competition I got to thinking that the device shares some things in common with Nell’s primer and decided to let that thought gestate a bit.

I was at about the stage where avatar Princess Nell is learning about the “Book about the Book” and the “Book about the Seed” when I surfed over to Julian “OpenCroquet” Lombardi’s blog (Link) and saw mention of Alan Kay’s interview for CIO Insight magazine. The piece is called “Alan Kay: The PC Must Be Revamped—Now” (Link) and there, again, was mention of the OLPC and the game competition.

The third project we’re just getting started on and don’t have completely funded yet, is to make a new kind of user interface that can actually help people learn things, from very mundane things about how their computer system works to more interesting things like math, science, reading and writing. This project came about because of the $100 laptop. In order for the $100 laptop to be successful in the educational realm, it has to take on some mentoring processes itself.

The book as a mentor. Certainly not just a device.

The Diamond Age has been around a while and plenty of people have discussed it, but I’m wondering how many have connected Nell’s primer with the OLPC; it seems an obvious comparison and I can’t help but think that the people behind the project are familiar with Stephenson’s fictional technological nanny. It also has me understanding a bit more why Vik, over on RepRap, is a fan{?} of the book (note that his personal website is named for it). Between the OLPC and something like RepRap, it seems some conscious effort is going into making Stephenson’s fiction become reality, even if only on a relatively crude scale.

I wish RepRap had the backing that the One Laptop Per Child project has. While I’m still critical of the OLPC, I’m rooting for the project. Especially now. Because like Second Life, it may not be the solution about which some of us dream, but at worst it’ll be an admirable failure.

* Design with a little “d” means design concerned with specifics; much of which aren’t all that important in the greater scheme of things. For example, it’s worrying about nuances in the aesthetic (form, color, texture, aso) or manufacturing (shut-off angles, ejection pin locations, gate placement, mold fill issues, aso). Or the user interface. Or the wireless network “mesh”. Or all the pieces or sub-assemblies that constitute the construct. Design with a big “D” means design concerned with the Big Picture. It’s a concern for the much broader implications and includes disciplines ranging from design and engineering to anthropology and sociology; more than just the solution or the impact on the immediate users.

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