Great article in Wired News Online with Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and of Wired (hmm, wonder how Wired got an exclusive interview with him?). Negroponte recently unveiled a prototype laptop at the recent U.N. World Summit that can be produced for close to $100 a pop. His plan is to sell these to developing countries, and have every child in the world to own a laptop by 2010. Many countries (including the U.S.) have already placed orders, so this really could happen. What are some of the possible side effects of something like this?
The first, and most obvious one, seems to be that children will have access, very quickly to the WWW, and to a device which can accelerate their learning process dramatically. What happens when millions and millions of children begin to make cognitive leaps in cultures that are still living in tribe-like, near-desolate conditions? What happens when they begin learning object-oriented computer languages and start cranking out all kinds of software? Watch out Microsoft, and watch out Apple. These laptops are loaded with Linux, the open-source Operating System, created and used by the technologically savvy from day 1. But the impact is not limited to the technological world…
The writers at blogsite WorldChanging often discuss an idea called Leapfrogging, which is fairly simple. The basic idea is that “areas which have poorly-developed technology or economic bases can move themselves forward rapidly through the adoption of modern systems without going through intermediary steps.” From a technological standpoint it is possible that some of these developing countries that are receiving thousands and even millions of laptops can effectively leapfrog entire epochs of technological innovation. They don’t have to create electricity, discover the value of a vacuum tube, or start the Internet. All of that has already been done, over many years, and now will be available to them immediately, just as it has been available to us for nearly a decade in the developed world.
Seeing the above as potential leap in the exterior social dimension, or in Wilber-speak the Lower Right Quadrant, from a more interior cultural perspective could this possibly mean that entire Ethnocentric countries could make a leap to Worldcentric awareness? If so, what impact would that have on the world at large…? Certainly, and initially, it would be mass chaos. Never before have so many people made such a large jump, in what could potentially be, such a short time. Undeveloped countries could effectively become developing countries overnight (imagine there being a couple dozen more Chinas or India’s on the world scene in as little as 15 years).
As much as developed countries say they want the rest of the world to develop, will that just be too much too quick, especially given most countries competitive streaks (here I’m mainly referring to the good ol U.S. of A.)? What happens when we’re no longer one of the leaders in the tech-field (or in any field), and we become just one of many developed countries? This could have some very rash consequences, depending on who’s in power, and how adaptable the American people are. Worst case scenario to me, is that we find someway to try and sabotage this whole process, and cause a lot of harm in the process, instead of gracefully transitioning into becoming a single node in an emerging global system (or global organism depending on how you look at it).
But if these countries do in fact leapfrog, and the rest of the world can hold it together, then is that necessarily a good thing? Negroponte says of his project that, “There’s no angle to it that’s bad….” This naivety, and straight-up ignorance, is going to leave a bitter after-taste in the mouths of many people, if we don’t start looking at the possible effects that this kind of leapfrogging could have on the countries that are receiving and distributing these laptops. One thing I haven’t mentioned is my concern about how deeply a gap could widen between the kids who are receiving these laptops and the parents/elders who are not. These kids could effectively make huge leaps in their own cognitive understandings, and leave cultural stories behind almost completely. This is likely not going to have a positive impact on their relations with the previous generation.
There’s also the question of levels-and-lines (basically meaning that specific intelligences can be developed, such as one’s cognitive intelligence, but that other intelligences might not be, such as moral or kinesthetic intelligences). Computing will certainly effect the development of cognition, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this newfound cognition is going to be used in the service of a higher awakening. What happens if we have a couple million more hackers writing viruses that are essentially crippling the global economy? Just handing millions of kids laptops, loaded with programming environments, and not making any other changes to their cultural and social environments could be total disaster. The fact that no one is talking about this, or even thinking about this as far as I can tell, is truly worrisome.
What’s needed is a more comprehensive approach to this whole issue, so that we don’t end up rushing to help save the developing world, and in the process shoot the emergence of a stable global infrastructure in the foot. In the end doing so could have untold consequences, and if we aren’t willing or able to look at that possibility together, then we’ll have very little power to put out the fires which are sure to erupt.