The Trojan Laptop

Recently Professor Nicholas Negroponte attracted much attention by announcing that his Media Laboratory at MIT would soon be releasing the specifications of a laptop computer whose cost would be about $100, and which could be distributed free in large numbers to the poor of underdeveloped countries (that is, the real poor, not the poor of advanced industrialized countries like the United States, who are in the eyes of the Third World almost unimaginably rich; we’re talking here of peoples in South America, Asia, and Africa who are barely subsisting.) Giving the poor these machines, it was assumed almost without saying, would go far to liberating them from their poverty and backwardness, and do much to bring them into the modern world. This assumption is false and dangerous.

To begin with, the computer is anything but a stand-alone tool; it is the topmost node of a hierarchy of technical resources and ancillary devices, on all of which it depends. It needs the support of an elaborate technical infrastructure, and of a great deal of social and technical expertise on the part of its users, including both verbal and graphic literacy. If those users are to have access to the body of Internet sites loosely called “the Web,” as of course they must if they are to reap the biggest rewards the computer offers, it also requires from them the skill to negotiate a path through a terrain that is almost completely lawless. Here is a warning, and some advice, that was issued to students of anon-line editing course offered by the University of California/Berkeley:

As anyone who starts using the Web quickly learns, there is an enormous quantity of good information there, along with an enormous quantity of misinformation, and of information that is so badly presented as to be unrecognizable as good or bad. The reward for those who use the Web wisely is great, and so is the penalty for those who get taken in by the monsters of ignorance, malice, and craziness who lurk there; it is indeed a web. The magic amulet that enables you to traverse the Web safely is called Discrimination; never travel the Web without it. And the way you use it is this:

  • If the text at a site is badly written, ignore the site; it is unlikely that the information it offers will be good, and even if there is some good information there, bad presentation will rob it of much of its value.
  • If it is not clear who is running a site, or if the author or Webmaster does not invite comments and corrections, it is unlikely to be trustworthy. If you catch an error and report it to the author or Webmaster, and get either no reply or a surly one, forget the site.
  • Have a private criterion to apply to the site: whatever the subject matter on which a site offers information, you should know a few facts about it beforehand; if you don’t, do a little research to provide yourself with a few. Then test each site that professes to offer expert information on that subject by looking at its treatment of the points that you already know. If it treats those correctly, you may proceed—cautiously. If it doesn’t get even those right, cross it off your list. Example: on the subject of telecommunications, I judge reference sources by their treatment of baud, a term that many supposed authorities do not understand—or explain so badly that it’s impossible to tell whether they understand it or not.

If you have not used a trusted site recently, don’t assume it’s still trustworthy; ownership and authorship of sites change frequently and without notice.

One example of the sort of dangers that the Web poses: as these words are written, a minor scandal has erupted around a Web site called the Wikipedia. This is an on-line encyclopedia—a collection of articles on every subject that anyone might be interested in—with one new and unique feature: anyone can add an article, or change an existing one, and in most cases do so anonymously. Many of the articles are well written, and seem to be accurate—but seem is the operative word. If an article offers a surprising or otherwise questionable statement, the reader cannot look up the credentials of its author, because its author will generally be unnamed, and even if his name is supplied, it would generally mean nothing to the reader in search of reassurance.

What is missing from the Wikipedia, in a word, is accountability, and without accountability the reader must take what he reads on blind faith—the antithesis of a real encyclopedia. The conventional print encyclopedia has the drawback of being incorrigible until the next edition is published, but is for the same reason invulnerable to casual perversion or mutilation—or even official, state-sponsored perversion like the old USSR’s attempt to substitute in the Soviet Encyclopedia an article on a hydroelectric dam project in Siberia for the biography of Soviet Interior Minister Lavrenti Beria, who had just fallen out of favor and into his grave. (We need not concern ourselves with the Wikipedia entries that have been vandalized or corrupted by later contributors, or those that were malicious or deceptive from the outset, like the slanderous one that occasioned the current scandal, but of course these are and will continue to be a constant plague that cannot be eliminated from any work that admits all comers as contributors.)

Can the poor of the Third World—which means, among other things, the uneducated—exercise the necessary caution and canniness, the high-tech equivalent of street smarts, when even many educated citizens of advanced nations fail to do so? Dropping the Third World poor into the Web without preparation is dropping children into the deep end of the pool—or, in some cases, the shark tank—without first teaching them how to swim, or even float.

Let’s suppose that somehow the beneficiaries of Negroponte’s project evade the worst of the dangers that the Web holds for the innocent and unwary; what positive benefits can we realistically expect them to derive from their laptops? Of course there are many good things available on the Internet, and through software generally, but how are the poor to avail themselves of these good things, and what use could they make of them if they had them? Do the poor have much use for spreadsheets? Can the barely literate get much value from Word? Yes, there are many good things available through computers—and they are of great benefit to the free, the educated, and the leisured; there is little or nothing they have to offer the poor. All that our gift would probably bring them is torrents of pornography, offers of pirated software, and solicitations to decrease the size of their mortgage payments and increase that of their penises.

But let us suppose this problem, too, somehow overcome—perhaps our philanthropy would extend beyond the provision of bare hardware and standard software to the writing of special applications designed to benefit the unsophisticated and uneducated. But even with all the traps that the Web lays for the inexperienced guarded against, and even with special applications provided for their use, the greatest danger that these laptops pose to the poor remains in place, uncontrolled and uncontrollable: their use by tyrants to make their tyrannies more effective. Almost all poor countries have one thing in common: bad governments—corrupt, despotic, lawless governments. And putting computers in the hands of the poor natives of those countries would almost certainly increase the hold their bad rulers have over them. We would be giving their rulers a new and powerful tool for cramming propaganda down their throats and shaping the way they see the world. Shall we urge the poor of Third World countries to communicate with each other via e-mail, even though their words are likely to be monitored by their masters, who will punish them for anything deemed subversive? Shall we encourage them to form their view of the outside world on the basis of what they see on their screens, when what they see will be only what their masters want them to see?

The computer is not a simple force for good, as Negroponte apparently imagines, but like all machines is just a lever, multiplying the power of whoever controls it. The computer will just as happily lend itself to the further enslavement, terrorizing, and deception of its users as it will to liberate, enlighten, and enrich them. If the computer is widely distributed among people who live under tyranny, it will help reinforce that tyranny.

It is reported that J. Robert Oppenheimer had some misgivings about building the hydrogen bomb, but overcame his moral scruples because it was “technically so sweet”; with every Tom, Dick, and Nicholas fooling around with advanced technology in his garage or MIT’s, we are going to see more and more technical developments whose probable effect no one has really thought about, but are undertaken simply because technophiles find them technically sweet. The technophiles (probably better known to the public as geeks) cannot and probably should not be stopped from fooling around, but we who are not geeks—or at least not geeks exclusively—must be prepared to step in and exert adult supervision when necessary, as it will be increasingly in the future.

Negroponte surely knows that what a computer accomplishes depends on the software it runs; he may even be willing to agree that some countries—China is today a leading example—exercise very close control over what software their citizens may run and what Internet sites they may access, thereby controlling what information they can transmit and receive through their computers. And the recent push to “internationalize” control of the Internet by putting it under some U.N. agency—that is, to give the leaders of countries that are variously authoritarian, dirigiste, or out-and-out despotic more control over what their subjects may see and say—is a clear sign that many other countries want to emulate China in this. But in the excitement of designing a very cheap laptop, and of getting much favorable publicity from the politically naïve and technically unsophisticated, he has overlooked or forgotten or simply decided to ignore the uses to which those laptops would almost certainly be put. Brecht said, “Erst kommen das essen, denn das moral” as if he were getting down to bedrock; actually, he was a silly naïf—the political and legal order comes before either. Until the question of who is in charge is settled, you can’t even count on there being something to eat, let alone determine what you will do with your computer; you can’t make an end-run around political reality with any technical trick, however sweet.

The blinkered enthusiasm of Negroponte and many others for cheap laptops for all is among other things a symptom of a delusion that afflicts millions, that of thinking that the world is divided into inherently Good Things and Bad Things, and that of the former you can’t get too much, while of the latter the slightest trace is harmful, maybe deadly. For Negroponte as for many others, technology, and computing technology in particular, seems to be one of the Good Things, and can only be used for virtuous purposes. As noted earlier, some critics of the Hundred-Dollar Laptop (HDL) project have already observed 1 that that the value of the $100 laptop really depended on the software it would run, but that observation seems not to have affected Negroponte or his collaborators.

A recent newspaper story 2 quotes or paraphrases many remarks about thr HDL by Negroponte himself; by Seymour Papert, the computer education expert now retired from MIT; and by spokesmen for Microsoft, Apple, AMD, Intel, Dell, and Red Hat—and not one of them has anything to say about the applications it would run, let alone about the possibility that the machines could do any harm. All the talk was about whether the technical and economic goals could be met, and whether the operating system it would run would be “open source” (the answer to that seems to be no, since Negroponte wants Microsoft on board, and Microsoft would like to see the machines run a version of Windows), and other such geeky and marketing issues. And the news that Negroponte has demonstrated a prototype of the laptop to Kofi Annan, with a view to getting the idea approved by the U.N. and taken under its aegis, is hardly calculated to increase one’s confidence that close supervision will be exercised over the project to ensure that there is no fraud, and that no use of the laptops by dictators to solidify their powers will be allowed.

As we noted, the computer, for Negroponte and technophiles in general, is a Good Thing, and its proponents and cheer-leaders are probably constitutionally incapable of seeing it as anything else, but those of us who are not swept off our feet by even the sweetest of technical tricks had better protest loudly to keep this latest craze from forging stronger chains for many of the world’s oppressed. The battle against it will not be easy. Negroponte has already been lionized on ABC’s World News Tonight program for November 18, 2005, as “Person of the Week” for starting what their reporter hailed as a far-reaching reform in education, and the project has many of the elements of a “progressive” crusade going for it: modern technology! helping poor Third World children! the blessing of the United Nations! Almost everything except a note of common sense and realism.

Article Footnotes

1 Letters by Rosina Bucio and Marcel Bullinga, and reply by Negroponte, Technology Review (October 2005), page 14.

2 Steve Stecklow, “The $100 Laptop Moves Closer to Reality,” The Wall Street Journal, November 14, 2005.