I have read a great deal about the OLPC XO-1 over the last two years, and I have written about it myself a few times, starting with my "Linux Inflection Point" post from April 13th, 2006. More recently I spent some time with a couple actual XO-1's at the BarCampAustin III event, which I talked about a couple of posts ago. Yesterday, my "Give One, Get One" unit showed up at my house. It even had a blue "head" ( O ) on the case, which I hoped for, but could not ask for. You get what you get. There is a large emoticon on the case made with the X0 that sideways looks like a persons body and head. There are twenty different head colors and twenty different X/body colors for the large XO emoticon that decorates the head unit of laptop, for four hundred different color combinations. I wanted Blue/Blue, got Blue / Light Green. Close enough.
In all the reading I have seen about the XO-1, outside the OLPC website and Wiki, most of them have been reviews of the technology: Hey, look how small it is. How can a 433 Mhz processor possibly be fast enough? 256 MB RAM? How is that usable? How do you open this thing?. Lookie: it's Fedora Core 7 with a 2.6.22 kernel and a totally new user interface (called Sugar)! I wonder if I can put Ubuntu on here... USB and SD slots! Cool.
Sometimes the articles are reviews of how kids interact with the cute little boxes: Opened it in no time. Had web cam going in less than five minutes. Lots of laughing and smiling and happiness.
I couldn't wait to get one and play with it myself and see what my reactions would be. Having read a bit, and played with Anne Gentle's units, I had a head start. I was not going to be the dopey adult how could not even get the thing open or anything. I had some idea what the special keys did.
I admit it: Like most techies, I went for the technical side first. I hunted for, found command line and poked around the OS. Under the covers, it looked like every modern Linux I know. I inserted a 2GB SD card, and it mounted it. I stored files there. Then I started to think about how kids might play with it. What they might learn. How this might appear to someone who had never seen a computer before, or at least had never had a chance to touch one. Play with one.
It started to remind me of my first chemistry set. I did the regimented experiments that came with the box for a while, but then I just started to play with it. Try different things. I accidentally made a clear silicate looking ball of material without knowing how I did it or what it was. I also thought of the time I pulled a broken alarm clock out of the trash can and took it apart. My dad asked me what I was doing: he didn't know it was from the trash, and thought I was taking apart a perfectly good alarm clock. Back then alarm clocks had a motor and gears, and I had it apart to see what it was, how it worked, and to see if I could fix it. My dad thought I had just busted a perfectly good alarm clock. It went back together, and it worked for years after that, but in truth I was not really sure how exactly I had fixed it. I intuited my way around the thing poking and prodding and turning things till everything spun, and it was all OK after that.
That is what the XO is, but for a new world. A world where not having computer / technical skills means you are limited in the things that you can do.
After a night of messing with the music application, and the Python programming application, adding new applications like Gmail via the free downloads at the OLPC Wiki, downloading US Grants biography from the Gutenburg project to use the XO-1 as an ebook reader, and generally messing around, I put the XO-1 down around 12:30, and picked up my iPhone to look at what todays schedule looked like.
My technologist mind reeled. My wife, who was sitting next to me working a Sudoku Puzzle on her iPhone (national rank: 425 on the NYT puzzle she tells me, unless they had another of her favorite "diabolicals" in which case it is probably lower) asked me a question about the XO. I am unable to recall it. My mind was flashing back out of the play zone I had been in and back to the other world I live in. The contrast between the technology of the iPhone and the technology of the XO stood out in stark contrast.
Here in my one hand was this tiny Internet tablet, with a processor 1.5 times the Mhz speed of the XO, same RAM, 8 times the "disk" space, hugely brighter and more vivid screen (even if lower resolution) with higher DPI. 1/6 or less the weight. 4 times as many radios. Sure, the iPhone is more than twice as much money, and that is right now before the XO gets the volume up. No educational software to speak of: not yet anyway. The iPhone is, frankly, a rich person / countries toy or perhaps instrument. A very shiny, blinding one. For a brief moment I lost sight of what the XO was. Suddenly it was was this other thing. This seemingly slow, low tech thing that made no sense to me. I lost sight of the child. All I saw was the high tech thing in my hand and wondered why I would ever use this other device.
By and large I won't, other than to play. It is not for me. The concept of the XO is hard to grasp. Mysterious. It is not a toy. It is not technology. It is not, at least to start, Linux.
It is like Zero
Charles Siefe wrote a great book back in 2000 about the mysterious and dangerous number Zero. Zero is a very interesting and not very well understood number. Without it, all of modern science does not work. I know this not just because of the book, but because Commander Samatha Carter told Daniel Jackson that on Stargate: SG1. Without Zero modern physics can not exist. Infinity can not be dealt with. Math breaks down and can only do very basic things. As obvious or at least as accepted as zero is today, it had a long and tortured trip to acceptance, and there might still be a few that have not accepted it. Without zero there is no space program, no computers, no modern medicine. Without knowing how to use zero, one is doomed to a life of low tech.
You don't have to know zero if all you plan on doing with your life is living with things you can build with your hands, or perhaps certain other low tech pursuits. There is not anything wrong with only wanting those things either. However, if you want to get involved in the modern (read: technology oriented) world there are things you have to know. Things you have to learn. Concepts that have to be mastered. Zero is one of them.
Technology is another. Learning the simple mechanics of a keyboard, or the logic of a program, or music or any of a myriad of other things that we all take for granted in the western world. My kids grew up with Linux computers from the time they could first type. They could install software, and later even tear down and rebuild desktops and laptops. They had access to this stuff from the very beginning of their days. They were very lucky.
The XO-1 is a learning tool, and it is a superior one. It may be slow by modern standards, but it is not in a Mhz race. We technological types often get lost on the spec sheet, forgetting things like my first computer (A TRS-80 Model 1) ran at 4 Mhz. It only ran on 110v, could not be networked other than by a 1200 baud modem, and could not be schlepped about. It still managed to help me learn Basic though.
The XO is the delivery vehicle of a much larger concept than speed and feeds and the underlying technological platform that seems so woefully slow and small to my iPhone educated eyes.
It's job is to teach. To enable. The principles on the OLPC website take us part of the way there:
- Our five core principles—
- Child Ownership: I wear my XO like my pair of shoes.
- Low Ages: I have good XO shoes for a long walk.
- Saturation: A healthy education is a vaccination, it reaches everybody and protects from ignorance and intolerance.
- Connection: When we talk together we stay together.
- Free and Open Source: Give me a free and open environment and I will learn and teach with joy.
It is far more than that though. If the XO-1 is never delivered to every child on the planet (the only way one could keep these cute little things off eBay and in the hands of the kids is if they are ubiquitous), it does not matter. OLPC has been criticized as being heavy handed. Home schoolers in the US are angry because it is not easy for them to get them (it takes 30,000 USD minimum commitment outside the Give One Get One program that is now over to get one here in the US). Intel is woofed because AMD provides the processor. Microsoft is woofed because Linux is at the core of the OS.
None of that matters. Sure, as a Linux person I am happy about Linux as the Core OS, but that is not the key thing. The key thing is that the people that love the XO-1 and are giving them to kids, and the people that hate it and are doing everything they can to get *their* computer into the hands of the kids of the world are all doing the same thing. A US President used to call such things a hand-up, not a handout. They are giving kids who would never otherwise have had a chance to get a hold of technology and related ideas and paradigms a chance.
They are delivering Zero to the world.