Big Think Interview With Nicholas Negroponte

Technologist and Futurist
  • Transcript


Question: How did One Laptop Per Child get started?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, One Laptop Per Child is based on the theories of constructionism and those were founded originally by Jean Piaget in Geneva and more contemporaneously with us, at least, by a man named Seymour Papert who was also at MIT. Seymour made an observation in 1968 that was very simple, but very profound, and that is, if a child writes a computer program, that child is engaged in the closest approximation we can come to thinking about thinking. And what is sort of even more important, is that when you write a computer program, it never works the first time, so you have to go through a stage called debugging. The process of debugging, going an correcting the program and then looking at the behavior, and then correcting it again, and finally iteratively getting it to a working program, is in fact, very close to learning about learning. And what Seymour observed back in the late '60's, and early '70's, was that we didn't really teach thinking, we taught subjects and that we went through school learning particular bodies of knowledge, but we never learned learning itself. And that was the real influence for One Laptop Per Child because, in the '70's, we started to work with computers with children in New York and other places and very poor districts. This wasn't just in fancy private schools.

Then in the early '80's, we were doing this in Africa and Asia and South America in very remote, rural parts of the world. That was the beginning and it all started with constructionism. It started with learning learning and children being active agents in their own education.

Question: How did you design a laptop specially tailored to children’s needs?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, the laptop is designed to be child-centric in a number of very important ways. First of all, there are some simple properties because when we say child, we mean six to 12 years old. We really mean primary education. And as soon as you have that age group, you have to make it pretty indestructible, you've got to be able to drop it from six or seven feet; it's going to be stepped on, it's going to be carried in the rain, and so, it gets subjected to treatment that's more like military equipment than it is office equipment. So, that's one aspect of it, which is a bit mundane, but is certainly true.

Another aspect is, you want it to work in the sunlight. When kids are outdoors, you want them to be able to read books on it, you want them -- it doesn't mean they have to be in the baking sun, but your laptop and my laptop really don't work outdoors because the screen technology just is not reflective screen, it is transmitted and it gets washed out very easily, so we had to do some again very pragmatic things; make the display, what we call a dual mode that it works both reflective and transmissive.

And then there are other aspects of it that have more to do with the emphasis on collaboration, so these laptops talked to the neighboring laptops. And so there are these cute little ears on them that are the antennas for WiFi, but they are also antennas that if you had a room full, or a neighborhood full of let's say 50 laptops, each one could talk to the other and they can actually relay messages. So, you could sort of daisy-chain to connect all of these laptops together. And the interface shows what other kids are using it, a little bit like a cell phone, or some of the so-called, social media that we have today, where you're buddy lists and things like that, are embedded in our laptops. So, it's not a diminutive office machine, it is really a children's machine, and it was designed as one from the very beginning.

Question: Do you worry about the laptops growing rapidly obsolete?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, in the world of computers and just devices in general, the lifespan, or the shelf life, is relatively short just because technology moves so fast and the costs drop so quickly and the power, whether it's computing power or memory rises very, very quickly. On the other hand, the shelf life isn't quite as short as advertisers and companies would want you to believe. There's a lot of life in these machines that is beyond what is advertised. So, we designed them for a five-year lifespan. And that five years drives us to do things, which again, normal manufactures don't do, namely you can charge and discharge our battery about five to 10 times more often than you can a normal battery because we expect them to be used a lot longer.

The evidence that this could be true can be seen in automobiles. You go to developing countries today and you'll find automobiles that you haven't seen since you're childhood and that's because they really are valuable, they're taken care of, they're repaired, and when something breaks, they just don't buy a new one, they actually fix it. And if the product is no longer on the market, they make it. And we think these laptops will be treated that way as well because the ones that we have out at the moment, the kids really take care of them. They love them dearly and they sleep with them in almost every case. We have about 1.5 million of them in the field today in 31 countries, and I would guess that 50% of the kids that have them, sleep with their laptops and little boys get their sisters to make bags, and there's a whole ownership and a sort of a feeling towards these machines, which, yes, in five years they should get another one, and it will be more advanced then, but one doesn't wait.

Question: What evidence is there that One Laptop Per Child is working?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence that I have found that this program is working, is that everywhere we go, truancy drops to zero and we go into some places where it's as high as 30% of the kids, and suddenly it's zero. And we have been doing experiments, before the actual laptop existed, for eight or nine years. And by that, I mean, kids with laptops in remote parts of the world, as best we can tell, all of those kids are in school still today, eight years, nine years later. And that's important because there is a belief that children drop out of school because they're needed by their families to work, or the little girls are needed to take care of younger siblings. It turns out that's not really true. Kids drop out of school mostly because school is boring and not particularly relevant, so, just the statistics on truancy and how long kids stay in school, to me, is very, very good evidence.

Then we have other things happening that are again, somewhat surprising. For example, in Peru, as many at 50% of the kids because they are in remote rural villages in the case of Peru are teaching their parents how to read and write. That is such a game changer in the sense, the role of the child is very different. It's not looking as a child as a recipient for whom you have some curriculum that you've figured out what they should learn and they digest it and then you test them to see if they've digested it, this is really actually children being the agents of change, and the self-esteem that children get from this, the joy that the parents get from it, the whole sort of village changes. Life changes in a very fundamental way. And so, we see that kind of think happening, time and time again. There are now so many machines out there in so many different places, there are 30 anecdotes a day.

But they all come back to basically showing one thing and that is the passion that children have for learning. And when we go to school, very often, we don't see that passion because the way school is run, the disciplinary nature of it and the rote learning are so, sort of, offensive actually, that children sort of lose that passion more often than not. And so, one of the things that I think this laptop will do is be the death of rote learning because rote learning is a killer for most of us and for some people, it really excludes them.

Question: How can teachers and students make the most out of a new laptop?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, let me do it from both perspectives. In the case of a teacher, what we have to do; now "we," whether it's One Laptop Per Child as an organization, or the in-country parent of the project, is give the teacher enough preparation to have self-confidence enough to let the child show them how to use it.

In the case of the child, you don't have to do very much for a child to get started. A lot of people told me at the beginning of this project that, you know, you can't just give a kid a laptop and walk away. Well, you know, you sort of can, actually. You really can, it's quite amazing. You can hand a closed box to a child that's never seen a computer, or doesn't use an automobile, or doesn't have electricity at home or at school, and they'll open that box and they’ll have that laptop working pretty quickly.

Now, obviously some guided experience is going to benefit everybody and you prefer that, but what we see is the teachers are very often very apprehensive and then very quickly realize that this is the best teaching that they've ever done in their life. And so, I can give you -- let me give you one anecdote. In Uruguay, the President of the country announced that this would be his legacy, "One laptop per child." That he would do every single child within two years and as an aside, they completed that a couple of months ago. So, every child in Uruguay has a little green laptop.

When he made that announcement, a teacher, who had been teaching for 30 years, went to the Social Security office and asked for early retirement. "I'm not going to be able to teach in this new environment, so I'd like early retirement." They told her to come back in six weeks. And during the intervening period, the laptops arrived in her classroom. Everybody was unpacking them, the kids are using -- within two days; she went back to the Social Security office and asked for late retirement. It just took her two days.

We get five comments we get from most every teacher that's involved. The first comment is that discipline problems go down in the classroom. The second comment is they've never loved teaching so much. The third comment is that they've never had parents so deeply involved with school, which is really very, very interesting. The next comment is that is almost universal is not just that truancy drops to zero, but that the energy level in the classroom is just undeniably different. And the last comment, which is perhaps the only negative one from their point of view, is that they just get swamped by emails from the kids. And since these laptops can exchange information, whether or not there's a cell phone grid or some other telecommunications, the teacher's suddenly gets lots of questions. Very often kids don't ask questions in class because they don't want to be seen asking a question, in either sense. Either they are embarrassed to ask it, or they don't want their colleagues to think that they're sort of goodie goodies. But at the privacy of your keyboard, you can ask a question and suddenly the role of the teacher changes and becomes much more active on an individual basis than it had been before.

Question: How do you respond to critics who say, “Students should read books, not play with computers?”

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, that's a silly remark because the difference between a book and the computer is basically zero in the sense that physical books are going to disappear, they're going to become screens within a very short period of time because of all sorts of reasons, the economics of it, the environmental impact of it, and just the sheer access. When we ship our laptop, we ship 1.6 million books with it. You can access free, 1.6 million books and embedded in the laptop are 100 books per laptop of the choosing of the country, but what's important about that is, when you ship 100 laptops into a village, there are 100 different books on each of the laptops, so the village now has 10,000 books in the village and 1.6 million accessible. That's -- that is really, really different.

So, to compare books to computers, I mean, computers are the way to get books. That is the medium for distributing text because it doesn't require paper, it doesn't -- you know, it's editable. Nothing goes out of date, nothing goes out of print, it can be refreshed and updated.

Usually when somebody makes a remark like that, what they're doing is they are observing that kids in a classroom are playing with their laptops because what is actually going on is pretty boring and if you have an environment where somebody is not engaging the kids, not using the laptops as part of the ethos, if you will, of the particular lessons and material going on, this is certainly going to happen. It's a little bit like people using cell phones in the middle of class because they're bored and they're sending messages to each other. That's not because the cell phone is innately bad, it's because the class is boring. And we don't find this situation when we go out into villages, but what we will find because the kids take the laptops home, is of course they're going to use them for games and for music and for movies, and they should. And that's very important. In fact, we require the country to allow the kids to take it home because otherwise, it's not a seamless part of their life, it's part of just this thing called school and something that is just not part of their normal life.

And you have to also keep in mind that most children in the world go to schools that is two shifts, there's a morning shift and an afternoon shift. If you look at two-shift schools, and you count the number of hours that a child spends in class, it's a number like 12 to 14 per week. Now, if you make the classroom experience absolutely perfect, it's still only 14 hours per week; there are a lot of other hours. So, we really look at the whole day of the child and want to influence that whole period. So, that's a very, very big difference again.

Question: What will be the equivalent of the “Negroponte switch” in the next 20 years?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, what you're referring to is a phenomenon that 20 years ago was evident, but not quite as obvious as it is today, and that is that most of the information that you got through the ground, through wires and physically, would in fact come through the air, and most of the things we got through the air, like television, would come through the ground. That there would be this switch between the sort of wired and wireless worlds in terms of what was traveling where. It's even hard for people to imagine today that telephones were wired, and they certainly were and you went to the end of a wire to make a phone call.

That switch was very fundamental, as was the sort of natural convergence that happens when things are digital. When things are digital, they're all 1's and zero's, and so they commingle in ways we didn't anticipate and you could do things that were not like publishing or television, or computers, but were some intersection of those and that got known to be convergence, so between the switching, or trading of places and the convergence, you have today's media.

Now, what is the analogue today, that 20 years from now we're going to look back and say, "Well, yes, that was evident today and is a very profound change." And while I can't say it in ten words or less, but I can assure you that it has to do with this space between biology and silicone. The things that are part of the natural sciences and the physical sciences, where the two meet, and whether that's manifest in embedded computers that are embedded in us as human beings, whether it's using biology to create energy that is attached to a chip that does things, but it's that intersection of the natural and synthetic world that will certainly be the major change going forward and we will be doing things and wearing things and eating things and you know, synthetic beef will be part of it, and in it will be some of the computing devices that, when they're in your stomach make sure that everything is okay in your stomach and report back when they're out of your stomach.

Question: What are the most radical technologies forthcoming from the MIT Media Lab?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, probably the most radical work done that still has not seen the light of day is the work of a man named Joe Jacobsen, where he was communicating wirelessly, directly with cells in the human body and that's pretty interesting if you can sort of communicate directly with cells in the body. That probably will have some pretty big effects 10 or 15 years from now.

By chance, the same person, 15, almost 20 years ago, invented electronic ink, which is the display medium used for every e-book distributed so far and that had a pretty profound effect, that you could display medium that used no power once the image was on it and reflected and was more paper-like than your laptop.

Question: Should people “unplug” more to avoid media oversaturation?

Nicholas Negroponte: Well, it's interesting because unplugging is an expression we use and in fact, I find that unplugging is in fact for many people, including me, an uncomfortable state. And that what you do is you get to spend more time doing the things you love because you've used the interstices of time. I remember when I would come back from a trip and have to log in and do all my email and get a download and upload, and so on and so forth. Now, it's all done, not only on the airplane, but in the car back home, or to the airport. And suddenly you've used that otherwise wasted time and you can really use prime time for prime time. We are not quite a forced as we were before to, in the case of overload, to just cram everything out of one's life and I think we're seeing in young people a much more mixed existence where I'd like to describe a sort of life 20 years ago as being a fried egg. There was a yolk and a white and the white was maybe work, and the yolk was life. Today, it's more of an omelet. It's more mixed and it's more interspersed and I think that that's a more interesting state of being and for some people, they'll say well I want the crisp, fried egg approach to life. Well, I think life's turning into an omelet and people will just have to live with that.

Question: Following the battle between newspapers and Google, will walls between media increase?

Nicholas Negroponte: We're in a period of transition, and transition is always hard, and there is this dilemma between the sort of paid directly versus indirectly. I grew up with free television. Now, it wasn't free, there was these commercials, and so the economic model was driven through commercials and through advertising. That same model, in fact is what drives Google. And Google has a very powerful and new advertising model that, for them, prints money.

Some of the other media companies, and I call Google a media company because they really are one, charge more directly. Now, whether it's through a combination of advertising and subscription, there is a much more direct, in the sense that it is a subscription piece, and people would like their customers to pay. I'm not against paying at all. What I'm against is the complexity of paying. And you very often go to a website and you try to click on something and sometimes it will even say it's free, but you have to fill out this form. I'd much prefer to pay and not fill out the form. I mean, the time is to me far more inconvenient than paying for it. And I think that we'll see a world that will get easier to use and a lot more information will be free. A lot of people will contribute. The notion of collective contribution, like the Wikipedia, is a very powerful one. It's not the only one, but it's a powerful one. And so we'll see that grow.

Question: Which of the projects in your career has been the most difficult?

Nicholas Negroponte: It's hard to compare them. One Laptop per Child had the most difficulty and frustration in the sense that it included aspects that I was no good at doing that had to be done. But more important than that, it included things that I didn't anticipate, like the commercial interests fighting against us. I entered the project thinking we had this Mother Theresa shield around us because we're a humanitarian project, we're a non-profit, I don't draw a salary. I mean, I thought that that would isolate us from the normal battlefield of the commercial world and we found that that wasn't the case. I mean, people might wear gloves in public, but they certainly took them off in private and did things behind our backs that were quite frustrating, and I found that difficult.

Media Lab was different. The Media Lab was really amplifying the work of other people. And my job was to make it possible for them to do their research. It was not a management issue, I wasn't running their research, I wasn't even trying to determine it. What I was doing was trying to enable it and that could be making the environment, whether it was physical environment, economical environment, or social environment for those things to happen. So, there were very different challenges and very different periods in one's life.

In the case of the laptop, I had come to a stage in life where I didn't need to earn an income, I didn't need to earn a reputation, I didn't need fame, I didn't need any of the things you might want in your early career. And I knew a lot of people and had certain credibility because of MIT and the Media Lab, so it seemed like we were the right people to do something like the "One Laptop per Child," and sort of break the spell that had been created by companies adding more hardware features that then had more software, that then had more hardware, that then had more software, and the thing sort of gets to this obese state where, I'm going to use laptops in this case, were all like SUV's, they required more fuel to move the vehicle than the passenger. And how could you break that spell? How could you make something child-centric?

Well, one of the ways you could do that is if you had nothing to lose. If you had no other interests and that was our case. And it allowed us to do what then led to the so-called Netbook, and Netbooks today represent 30% of the work market of laptops. And that's a rather interesting change because it's as if I had come to you five years ago and said, "I think we should build an electric car," and I built an electric car and then today, one-third of all cars are electric, I'd feel pretty good about that. They don't happen to be my electric cars in those cases, but they are still, nonetheless electric in that example. And the same thing has happened with One Laptop per Child, that it gave birth to something that then had these other effects that now people can enjoy pretty good computing power, smaller machines, lighter machines, very inexpensive machines. And some of those will migrate to kids in Africa, and it's not just ours.

Recorded on December 4, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen