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Edward [Mokurai] Cherlin Expands the Vision of the OLPC Project


Mokurai: My name is Edward Cherlin. I'm here at the Linux World Expo, in the One Laptop Per Child booth, but I'm also here working with the [Linux] computer Installfest for schools, and I'm also here with the Open Voting Consortium, and I'm also involved with other aspects of Linux and Free Software, particularly language support, and with education issues.

One Laptop Per Child started out to produce a computer for education that would realize the dream of Xerox Smalltalk, Alan Kay's work in creating Object-Oriented Programming, the Graphical User Interface, the environment in which programming and graphics are completely integrated with the operating system and not add-ons, which resulted in the Apple Macintosh user interface and Windows and so forth as an unintended side-effect, and what we're doing with One Laptop Per Child now is what Alan Kay was aiming at 30 [actually 40] years ago. He's a very important part of the project.

Similarly, Seymour Papert started talking about Logo. In his book Mindstorms [Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas] he talked about the importance of powerful ideas in children's education way, way back, and has been following that up in software and education ever since, and his software is running on our laptop.


There are a number of other issues that have to be addressed, so Earth Treasury, my organization, is currently focused on electricity and Internet for villages with microfinance support. Put all four of those elements together, the three we're working on, plus education, and you have a program for dealing with poverty issues that is far more powerful than any of them alone. So we're exhibiting in the booth to explain first,

  • What is One Laptop Per Child?
  • What is this software that we're offering?
  • What are the hardware innovations that we've made?
  • What are we doing about rugged computers for children in the most difficult environments, whether it's rain forest or high mountain or the tropics, frozen tundra, or...?

Actually Mongolia is the most difficult from the point of view of cold right now. The batteries' chemistry starts to seize up at 30 below. But we're also going into countries that have had to deal with coups and invasions, and with genocide as in Rwanda and Cambodia, that are still dealing with civil war as in Afghanistan. There are all the issues that anyone can think of that afflict the poor, whether it's health, lack of education, lack of communication, lack of jobs, the corruption of their governments, the wars that break out in various places, any of these things that may be going on. These are problems shared across a wide range of cultures and peoples in countries all around the world.


We know that we in the developed countries do not actually know the depth and specifics of a lot of these problems, so that programs that are engineered and designed and thought out solely in a government setting, in a university setting, in a non-profit setting, will not work when they arrive on the ground. They have to be thought out, certainly, somewhat in advance. But they have to be tested and refined and improved, according to the conditions that you find when you get there.

One of the best examples is the World Health Organization program that eliminated smallpox from the wild. There are, of course, still military weapons with stocks of smallpox virus, but there have been no cases of smallpox since the last one discovered in Ethiopia, I believe 20 years ago now, and WHO and national governments and so forth have all recommended and actually implemented no further smallpox vaccination. Now of course, since this is in the weapons labs, there is still a risk, and now that nobody has been vaccinated for decades, the risk is severe, but the point was that the actual eradication by getting people from the local communities, speaking the local language, understanding the local requirements to discuss with local opinion leaders what they were doing, how it would work, why they were doing it, and any objections that might be raised. Objections come from all sorts of sources.

It may be rumor that the vaccine is really some sort of plot against the people. This has been going on in Nigeria [with polio vaccine], and the only way around it has been to go to the Muslim community leaders with people who have been vaccinated, and their children, to prove that it did not make them sterile, as rumor would have.

The same kind of thing goes on with Vitamin A drops to prevent children going blind, that some people worry might be something other than medicine. It happened with the smallpox vaccine, and it has happened with every medicine that is offered to poor communities today. And there is, of course, reason for suspicion because the history, for example, of Black southern syphilis sufferers who were permitted to go through the full course of the disease and die in a so-called “medical experiment” in the US, authorized by the government, is far better known among Black Africans than it is among the US public.

So we need to go to the people and talk. And not merely talk to them, and not merely listen to them, but be prepared to demonstrate what we are talking about. The same thing happens when we're talking about electricity, and Internet, and training their children for jobs, and not simply training them for existing jobs but educating them to create the new jobs, and to be able to learn the new skills for the jobs that will appear after they leave school.

Collaborative Discovery

On our computer, the software is specially designed for teaching children collaboration and discovery. The collaboration is built in through mesh networking. This is MIT Roofnet, which is the basis for the proposed IEEE 802.11s standard, which is expected to be finalized in a year, perhaps, and to result in chipsets, some time after that, and to be widely available in laptops sometime after that.

The collaboration continues in the software design, where many of the applications let several students sign in to the same session. For example, everyone's used to chat, where what you type appears in everybody else's window, but in this case we can do word processing where there are multiple cursors visible. Each child is typing at a different location, and they could even be typing in different languages at the same time. There are many possibilities for what could go on here. We will have a multi-user spreadsheet.

Now multi-user word processing and multi-user spreadsheets are fairly familiar to people who use Google Docs at all. It is possible to have several people signed in to the same document and editing in different parts there as well. But we're doing this at the level of elementary school, for every student in entire countries. It's not just who has access to Google online.

The collaboration includes the music program, the writing program, the paint program where they can have multiple brushes in different sizes, shapes, colors, whatever, and will extend to the integrated development environment, the IDE for programming in Python, in Smalltalk. In a whole lot of other areas we're still working out what collaboration means. We know that in games we want two children to be able to sign on to play a game, and any number to sign on as observers, and the observers will then be able to comment on the game, without the players seeing the comments. So this is the polite thing to do, and the way that all the Internet game servers are set up.

So we have models for a great deal of what we want to do. We are then thinking of how to make some things that are not currently collaborative into something collaborative. When the author of SimCity [Don Hopkins] decided to GPL—put the SimCity source code under Free license, he said he really didn't know what it would look like as a multi-user game. There are people discussing what it could turn into. So we shall see.

And we certainly know that it is possible to have a multi-user game in which people are controlling different societies that come into contact with each other in various ways. Or possibly even to have different societies come together in cooperation would be something useful for the future of the entire world. I don't know how well that would go with gamers, but there are certainly people interested in trying it, such as the Dalai Lama Foundation, which is building cooperative games.

There's a vast amount that we couldn't possibly cover. There are well over 150 activities for the XO now. There are many more in development. There are people talking about introducing other programming languages, mathematics languages, geometry programs, simulation software of many kinds, to provide children with the tools to handle any kind of mathematics, any kind of model for the sciences, any kind of data capture, whether it's visual, or on our digital oscilloscope, or merely numeric and to analyze that statistically, and to be able to visualize the results. All of this and much more has been done in adult software and at college-, university-level software, and now can be done in elementary school software.


Scott: I have not ever heard of the hardware and software project that was so uniquely architected to address socio-economic change, but it sounds as if that is the embodiment of the goals of the OLPC project.

Mokurai: That is the idea.

Scott: Would we consider this revolutionary?

Mokurai: Yes, this is the most disruptive technology currently existing in the world. And I can give you examples. In Peru, even before we see the major educational changes in the schools, even before we have a chance to rewrite textbooks to use software routinely and so on, we hear from the teachers that students who were formerly very standoffish from living on isolated farms, are now (because they can chat together at home and do homework together over the mesh network at home) talking to each other on the way to school, at school, on the way home; sharing personal possessions in a way that never happened before; and losing their fear of outsiders.

We're hearing from Ethiopia that a system which put a higher value on politeness and instant obedience than it did on subject matter, where it was considered an insult to ask the teacher any kind of question, these are no longer the guiding principles. Now they still want a degree of obedience, they still insist on politeness, but it is no longer impolite to ask a question. The teachers now routinely make time in their lesson plans for questions. And we're not completely clear why. It appears that part of the issue here is that when teachers were teaching by rote, teachers would teach a computer skill, supposedly, by reciting the steps and having the children recite the steps, but not actually doing it on the computer. The teacher could say, “I have taught you the whole lesson. There is nothing more to ask about.”

But when the child does each step on the computer, rather than merely reciting the words back, and when the child, having started on some skill, goes on to explore a piece of software, or explore some topic on the Internet, then the teachers discovered that there were legitimate questions about things that there was no way for the teacher to tell children in advance, and so the idea that children had legitimate questions became immediate and obvious, as a matter of experience, not of theory.

And so we have now advanced to collaborative work in the classroom, being able to explore, and not merely memorize, and being able to ask questions as a matter of routine, in only the first few months, again, before we have come to the really good stuff that happens when we rework the curriculum, rewrite the textbooks, and figure out how children really learn at different ages so that we can reorganize this material for more effective learning at an earlier age, and get on to even deeper topics and more advanced material before we let them out of school.

And we can go for understanding, not merely right answers. We can go for expertise, and not merely passing a test. We can go for the idea that a child can start before school, before they learn to read, doing art, and music, using the camera, still or video, and the voice recorder—sound recorder. That a child by the time of getting out of high school and perhaps going for a job or going to college can be a sound engineer of twelve years' experience; can be an artist of twelve years' experience; can be a videographer of twelve years' experience; or could be a programmer of ten or twelve years' experience; or have experience in developing Web sites or in any of the other computer skills, and technical skills; the electronics; the communications; the specifics of the hardware that's in their villages; the issues that their village faces on how you could design systems to deal with those. We could have children who have ten and twelve years' of experience actually working in all these areas before they graduate.

When our students go to college, we're expecting that they're going to be able to take part in Free Software projects, in social projects, in political organization to make the government aware of what is possible, what can be done, and what needs to be done. And when they get through college, they're going to be in a position to get good jobs, or to start businesses and create new jobs.

We want to have students as they grow up communicating with students around the world, learning languages, making friends, learning about other cultures and so on. But also laying the groundwork so that when they want to start businesses they have partners ready, who would be able to handle the issues in another country if you want to export, let's say coffee from Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and you want somebody to do, let's say chocolate-coated espresso beans in California, and they know where to get the chocolate and they know where to get the beans roasted and they know where to get the coating done, and they know how to do the packaging, and distribution, and so on for the appropriate market, whether it might be Whole Foods or other specialty stores, or hotel gift shops, or airports, I don't know, that people would be in a position in different parts of the world, to take a basic product, and turn it into something that's appropriate in the economy and culture where they are, and is marketed, branded and so on, in a manner that's appropriate to where they are.

I don't know what the details would be, but I would expect, for example, that we would want children in every country (not each child, but some children in each class) to connect with the Spanish-speaking countries, the French-speaking countries, the Arabic-speaking countries, the Chinese-speaking countries (of which there are about a dozen) and with the Chinese expatriate communities in many other countries, who are a great resource for doing business, particularly for doing import/export and local manufacturing. There are some other language communities and there are some other cultural communities, and there are regional communities, that we would want to give children the experience of making contact, having some exchange of culture, and views, and history, and whatever else they find appropriate.

(Tape change)


Scott: You were saying...

Mokurai: We want children to have the opportunity to make connections all over the world, whether it's to learn languages, to share information, to exchange information on culture and history, and whatever else they may find appropriate, but in particular, for later on, to have a network, a ready way to find the right connections for study, for creating new businesses, for whatever else they may find worthwhile. In my case I'm using MySpace, LinkedIn, several other services [Facebook, Friendly Favors, Plaxo Pulse, PerfectNetwork, Twitter, Wiser Earth], where I can find people to do business with around the world, where I can find NGOs around the world, where I can find engineers and designers and other such people all over the world, where I can find people to help out on translation and localization of software, and training materials and educational content, and oh, I don't know what I'll find to ask them, but whatever it is, this global network now makes it possible for me to find the right people. They say that in networking, it is not whom you know, and it's not whom they know, but in the third circle out from you, which is what many of these services offer to connect you with, in the third circle out from you, people you would never have heard of otherwise, people you would never have thought of otherwise, in your network are the people you're looking for to make all these things happen. And so, I find these services of huge value.

And of course we intend to do something for the children in our program. And one of the things we want to do is for the earlier grades, to make a kind of walled garden out on the Net, where only the children go. Or possibly a place where children, parents, and teachers go, but not the general public. And as they get older provide ways of getting safely out into the general community, to understand what sorts of hazards there are beforehand, and to have resources that they can go to when some issue arises. When we do this, so that it is safe, as far as we can make it, we provide even more opportunities, because the more trust you can have among your friends, the easier it is to get projects organized and done, to start businesses and make them succeed, and so on, throughout all the activities of life.

Collaborative Work

Now this takes us right back to where we started in first grade. We're teaching collaboration and exploration on the computer. And this is what life is about. When you work, you are in a collaboration, where different people do different things, but produce the product together; or produce a service together; or write different parts of a document; or somebody writes, somebody illustrates, somebody edits, somebody lays out, and all of these things come together into a finished product. If you ever look at the credits at the end of a film, you will see hundreds of people on any serious commercial film, doing a vast range of jobs, many of which you have no idea of, and neither do the other people on that list, but these are all vital jobs to make the project come together.

But we're going to be teaching small group collaboration, and then, as we can expand our network, to teach collaboration among children in different schools, and then in different countries all over the world. And we're going to teach the children how to explore among their new friends; among the resources on the Internet; among all the riches of human knowledge that they might want to get involved with for one or another purpose in their education; among all the different kinds of music in the world; all the different kinds of art in the world; all the different kinds of food in the world; all the different kinds of history that different peoples in different parts of the world have gone through; all the different issues that people are struggling with, where it turns out that people halfway around the world are dealing with the same issue that you are.

Shared Issues

There's a wonderful documentary called Vis à Vis: Native Tongues, which brings a Native American performance artist [James Luna] and an Australian Aborigine playwright and actress [Ningali Lawford] together. These are two people who did not know about each other, but the people putting the documentary [together] did know about them, and did realize what they could get from bringing them together.

So we see a good deal of personal back and forth, a good deal of exploring each other's careers, a good deal of exploring the cultural background. But at a critical point in the movie, we discover that both of their communities had suffered from governments forcing children into English-only schools for the explicit purpose of destroying their cultures. This is true in the United States, Canada, and Australia. It is undoubtedly true in other countries, and other such practices, such as outlawing native languages, are well known in various colonial situations [including Ireland under English rule and Korea under Japanese rule].

So it was very important from the point of view of the people making this, it was important to me watching it, to see this collaboration among people who shared a common problem but did not know about each other, and about each other's problems. Coming together and discussing how they could use their art to attack the problem from different points of view.

This is what we're trying to accomplish with the entire One Laptop Per Child program, that children in different areas and their parents in different areas who may have similar issues with nutrition, with health care, with subsistence agriculture problems, with the terms of trade that their countries have in the global marketplace, with corruption in their governments, with a hundred other issues, will be able to get together and work on these problems together and offer a variety of solutions from a variety of points of view, which may work in one place and not another, but nevertheless they can discuss them all, they can try them all out, and they can choose the best for their own situation.


So we're going to have a research program in which we set up all the background that we know of to make that happen. And the background that we know of is electricity and Internet to go with the schools; microfinance to place that, to create economic opportunity, to fund all of the loans for all of that, and then to proceed onward from there, at a point where people are making money, can save money, can invest in their future, and can progress to bigger and more important enterprises, hiring more people, having greater economic impact, and dealing with social, political, health and other issues in their environment.

Printing Press v. XO

Scott: Once upon a time, it was expected that the printing press, and then the Internet would lead to that type of cross-cultural, global awareness and collaboration, yet it does seem that in some cases neither literacy nor the printing press nor the Internet have made it to those people who most need it. Is part of the transforming element or quality of the OLPC that it actually steps in where the printing press and the Internet have left off?

Mokurai: That's certainly our hope.

You have to look back, though, when you talk about the effect of the printing press, it has been enormous, in the areas where it was accepted. And originally it was accepted in Europe, and not in the Arab countries, not in Asia generally, not among other cultures, outside the European culture zone. And so those countries where material could be published, where discussion in public was possible, where scientific advances could be spread around, where technology could be spread around, enjoyed a huge economic advantage, which extends roughly from the Renaissance in fourteen fifty something when the Gutenberg press came in, and the Turks conquered Constantinople, and the Greek scholars fled with their books to Italy and all sorts of stuff was rediscovered through the beginnings of science in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century with the people who laid the way for Galileo, Kepler, and Newton and all the rest of those. And so those countries took over the rest of the world. They colonized, they created their empires. They had the technology, they had the finances, they had the organization, they had the communication.

Well, after four hundred years, the rest of the world has definitely accepted the printing press, and in almost all areas is starting to catch up. We can now correctly print Arabic. We don't have to make the hash of it that an Arabic typewriter or an Arabic character terminal would do. We can correctly render the calligraphic script in print. We can correctly typeset Chinese, we can type Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean effectively on the computer. Where it used to be that only a professional could work—could learn to work a Chinese typewriter with 3,000 separate type slugs that had to be memorized, and another box for the characters that weren't so common, where you had to actually know how to look it up, because you couldn't memorize two boxes of 3,000 effectively.

The Internet

Well, now, the Internet—It is not so much that the Internet has failed to solve these problems. The Internet has simply failed to arrive in many of these places. And what we're talking about with One Laptop Per Child is a combination of providing [both education and] the Internet access that's fundamental to the modern economy and to modern education. Access to information in both cases; access to communication with your possible partners, your possible buyers and sellers, with your regulators and whoever else it may be.

And it hasn't arrived, not in this case because countries reject it, apart from, currently, Burma and North Korea—not so long ago China, but they're getting over it—but because of simple poverty. Because it costs money to install communications infrastructure, and it costs money for the devices. But instead of costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for a communications link, and thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for a capable computer, as was the case in the 70s, we're now talking about ten dollars per person for WiMax installed country-wide for 95% of the population. And it costs less than $200 for a very competent computer like the One Laptop Per Child XO. The first thing that happens with these, by the way, is that it's a bit of a puzzle to open up. But only the first time.


The next version of this, the XO-2, for 2010, expected to be $75. It might be a little more, it might be a little less, but we already know how to reduce the parts count on the boards, we already know to reduce the number of plastic parts, we already know how to do a number of parts at a lower cost of manufacture, and we specifically know how to lower the cost of the screen, with vastly greater volume. And it will have two touch screens, one for display, and one for input, where the input screen can be changed between any keyboard layout someone feels like implementing, or a graphics tablet, or a music keyboard, or some other music input. It could be an 8-pad MIDI drum set, or a simulation of the fingering on a woodwind instrument. It could be a theremin. I don't know. But all of these things will be tried, and we'll see what works really well, and something in that vein will happen. We know about the keyiboards, we know about the graphics, we know that some kind of keyboard will happen.


Scott: In a state, and in a multicultural environment, like let's say the State of Hawaii, what role could the OLPC and this hardware play in helping to transform education and to maybe bring greater awareness amongst the many great cultures on that island.

Mokurai: The first thing it would do would be to allow each of the language communities to create their own materials in their own language, and to translate, localize, otherwise adapt any material from any other language. So it would be possible to have all of the known Hawai'ian literature and the various Chinese, or Portuguese, or Haole [white, Anglo] literature, all the different countries, all the different cultures that have made their way there, all the sea shanties of the ships that stopped in, anything else that affected the community can be put in a form where everybody on the islandS and everybody everywhere else in the world can access them all.

It will become possible for people in these various communities to communicate with each other, to learn each other's languages, and to learn each other's history. It will become possible to have cooperation in a way that has not been possible in physical society, because you can connect with anyone who shares your interests. If you are Hawaiian, if you like bluegrass music, you can connect with banjo players and fiddle players and whoever you like, around the world, and it may be that you will want to connect with the bluegrass players in Japan as much as with the Bluegrass players in Nashville, Tennessee, or North Carolina, or Cambridge, Massachusetts. And similarly for almost every other topic that we have.


Now, just being able to talk to people is a major component of this. Before we get to questions of creating textbooks or revising a curriculum or anything like that. But the greatest effect that we can have is that we are not now dependent on State Boards of Education, Superintendents of Public Instruction, or county, local, whatever it may be, boards to approve textbooks, because textbooks are such a large part of the expense of an education system. Because we can create free, online textbooks under Creative Commons or other Free licenses it will now be possible to produce educational material on any subject in any language for any community from any point of view and to make that available to anyone who cares to use it.

Now, this is a very important factor throughout the United States—also worldwide, but especially there is an issue in the United States that California and Texas currently dominate the textbook publishing business. Anything that is authorized in California or Texas can be bought for any other state, anything that is not authorized in one of those states doesn't get published. Homelessness

Scott: So, here's another hypothetical scenario. Many people may not realize that there are—again this is about Hawaii—there are many families that actually live on the beach. You don't just have homeless situations of functional or adjusting adults, but you have entire families that live in tent cities on the beach. What transforming role could the OLPC play, should a native Hawaiian entity or someone in Hawaii take the initiative to reach out to these people?

Mokurai: Well, the first thing you have to ask is, Is this intentional? Is this voluntary? Is this acceptable? Because Hawaiians traditionally lived on the beach. If you have adequate food, adequate shelter, adequate whatever it is that you're looking for in your life, you may not want to adopt the European and mainland American lifestyle. But, after that, the first thing that happens with One Laptop Per Child is you get a chance to talk to everybody who's in your situation. You get a chance to organize if that's what you need. You get a chance to find out what the alternatives are.

A Convenient Truth

It is interesting—It is not merely, of course, a matter of the laptop. In Curitiba, Brazil, slum clearance was done at a profit, because it was done in an integrated manner. There are several steps in this chain, but the first was that the slums were all in the river bottoms, where they flooded every few years. The city bought out everybody living on those river bottoms for enough money to get into public housing. The public housing was not free, but it was reasonably priced, and was outside the city center, on a ring road. That ring road was provided with excellent public transportation, with schools and hospitals and other infrastructure, and with the mixture of residential and business property that allowed everyone who got a job to go shopping, and everyone who could go shopping to give someone a job. That meant that the people who were moved out were not moved from one slum to another. Then the river bottoms were turned into parks, and property values around those parks rose so high that the taxes paid for the entire program.


Scott: I just want to thank you for taking the time to truly explicate why the OLPC is more than just another software [Mokurai: Yes] or hardware project. More people need to really understand that this is transformative, revolutionary, and evolutionary.

Mokurai: You see now why I want to introduce you to the two Brazilians who made the Curitiba video that I have [on DVD].

Scott: Yes.

Mokurai: Because Curitiba thinks this way, the whole city government and the whole of civic society thinks in this way of not regarding their problems as islands, and not seeking to place blame for their problems, but of thinking of how to solve a problem in a way that solves other problems, in a way that doesn't require massive expenditure.

Video made and narrated by R. Scott Belford, edited by Robin 'Roblimo' Miller