Falling from Grace

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One of the projects that has inspired me over the years is Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child. He set out in 2005 with the vision of designing a fully functional $100 laptop for children in emerging economies. Quitting his job as the head of MIT’s Media Lab, he set up a project team, fired up the open source community and won over heads of state from Nigeria to Uruguay and corporations from Quanta Computers to Intel for his educational project – an amazing feat.


Image: wikipedia.org

The team came up with the XO, a small, power-efficient networking computer that is technically unbeatable for its purpose, generating a whole collection of patents that the individual developers assigned to the project. The “green machine” is also protected against abuse by its design: Negroponte explained when he presented it at TED in 2006 that they wanted to produce something that no-one would be able to steal, a little like white Volvos in Italy. Then they set up the “Give One Get One” special drive for people in rich countries to buy two laptops and donate one of them to a child in a poor country.

Unfortunately, the project which started out so full of hope has run into major snags. First of all, the special drive, which ended on December 31st, generated far lower sales than expected, which has thrown the financial setup into a tailspin. Secondly, the project partners have started to leave the ship. His CTO, Mary Lou Jepsen, the brains behind the self-refreshing XO display, is leaving to set up her own for-profit company to commercialize the technologies she developed in the publicly subsidized, non-profit OLPC project. And finally, Intel announced that it is backing out of its co-operation, refusing to comply with Negroponte’s demand that Intel abandon its own Classmate PC, which competes with the XO. Vision and development meet capitalism. Game over? Many people in the open source community, including Christian, who first pointed out to me that Jepsen had resigned, seem to think so.

But what exactly is the game, and are the defecting project partners really backstabbers, tax-stealers, fallen angels? We don’t know enough. How are the patent rights set up? Is Jepson just cashing in on the project or does she have other motives? How solid was the co-operation with Intel in the first place? Back in 2006 my alert English students at the LMU’s FFP cast a cool eye on OLPC, and their reaction was: IT projects, even if they are declared educational projects, will turn out IT products and will follow that market. Systems reproduce themselves. If children in the third world profit from the project, it will be purely by accident, they said. This turn of events, to them, would come as no surprise.

Has Negroponte, the guru, stumbled over his own hubris, neglecting the legal aspects of patent rights, foolishly trusting in altruistic personal commitment? Let’s be hopeful: Two are down, but the XO is still there. Perhaps the game isn’t over yet.

Learning the ropes – Vokabeln, die Sie weiterbingen

to fall from grace – Sündenfall begehen/ in Ungnade fallen
to set out – sich aufmachen
fully functional – voll funktionsfähig
emerging economies – Schwellenländer
to quit – verlassen
head – der Leiter
to set up (v), setup (n) – aufstellen, Aufstellung
to fire up – anzünden
to win over – für etwas gewinnen
head of state – Staatsoberhaupt
an amazing feat – eine unglaubliche Leistung
to come up with – erfinden
unbeatable (adj) – unschlagbar
purpose – Zweck
to assign to – rechtlich zuweisen
to protect against – schützen
abuse (n), to abuse (v) – Mißbrauch, mißbrauchen
special drive (USA) – Sammelaktion
to donate – spenden
to run into a snag – auf eine unerwartete Schwierigkeit stoßen
sales – Verkaufszahlen
far lower – weitaus niedriger
to throw something into a tailspin – etwas ins Schleudern bringen
CTO Chief Technology Officer
the brains behind – der Kopf hinter
publicly subsidized – öffentlich gefördert
for-profit – gewinnorientiert
non-profit – gemeinnützig
to commercialize – zu Geld machen, vermarkten
to back out of – sich zurückziehen aus
to refuse – sich weigern
to comply with – (einer Forderung/Vorschrift) nachkommen
to abandon – aufgeben
to compete with – konkurrieren mit
to resign – zurücktreten
to defect – sich absetzen
backstabber – Verräter
tax-stealer – Steuerentwender
fallen angel – gefallener Engel
to cash in on sth – etwas zu Geld machen, sich bereichern
in the first place – überhaupt
back in 2006 – schon 2006
to cast a cool eye on – kühl betrachten
to declare – ausweisen als
to turn out – ergeben
by accident – zufällig
this turn of events – die neuesten Ereignisse
to come as a surprise – überraschen
to stumble over – stolpern über
hubris – Hybris
to neglect – vernachlässigen
foolishly – törichterweise
trust in – vertrauen auf
commitment – Engagement


One Response

  1. Just found this nice BBC Factfile on the XO with good videos: bbc XO
    Negroponte talked about the XO at Davos on January 25: see Davos
    “Constructionism is simply the idea of learning by doing… (and it) is at our very roots.” He looked thin and tired, but still in fighting form, and he had some good news. Hoping for more.

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