Wednesday, July 16, 2008

control through scarcity

Christoph Derndorfer:
OLPC Boston (and close associates, like Brightstar) appear to have all the power. All that power is in one single nerve pressure point which is very easy to control: the availability of XOs
- The Lost Tribe of OLPC, Continued ...
On the surface initially making OLPCs only available to children in disadvantaged countries seems admirable and egalitarian. One of the side effects was that it made it difficult for someone like me, a supporter in the industrialised world with mainly educational knowledge (not a python hacker), to get involved. OLPCs are still quite rare in Australia.

Until Christoph's post I hadn't seen this clearly as a means of controlling potential supporters. But in any organisation control is exerted through the way in which things of value are distributed. Be it information, hardware or something else.

I used to be a member of a communist party which had a very top down, unelected, hierarchical leadership and which encouraged its members to go into the workplace or to be activists, to look outwards to the needs of "the masses" but not to look inwards at the quality of the leadership. There are lots of ways in which "leaders" can pretend to be doing great work for the people while at the same time shoring up their position as important leaders. It boils down to a division of labour where an elite group does the important ideological, thinking work while the rank and file members are expected to be workers, activists etc. ie. it's just a reproduction of the boss-worker relationship which the "communist party" was meant to be overthrowing. Easy enough to see how this could be translated into the OLPC community - hard working software developers who aren't all that interested in the politics of it all, in the first place. It can be hard to sort out and devastating when you finally figure out you've been led down the garden path.

I mentioned earlier, Ursula LeGuin's, The Dispossessed , where she describes perfectly how groups founded on equality and continually proclaiming equality can generate incredibly sophisticated and devious methods of power seeking

btw I like the open and above board style in which Walter Bender appears to manage the Sugar project (without knowing a great deal about it but my first impressions are positive)


Tom Hoffman said...

I don't think there is any conspiracy here. Worldwide retail sales of XO's will require worldwide support and distribution; in other words, a real global business, much larger than the current OLPC organization, which can barely seem to manage 20 people, let alone 200.

Didn't we learn in the first G1G1 the problems with an ad hoc, semi-volunteer distribution chain?

Bill Kerr said...

Quite right, Tom, my post did not connect to the economics or to the underlying ironies.

- main beneficiaries so far have been the buyers of cheaper laptops in the developed world

- some who want to help find it hard to help because the necessary infrastructure is not in place

- new markets have opened up for Intel, Microsoft etc

Doing good deeds in a world where money talks is not easy. The title of Christoph's post, "the lost tribe" evokes my feeling about the situation better. Everyone involved may be trying to do the "right thing" but the internal dynamics of the system creates chaos and misunderstandings, inevitably. I think this extends to how power relationships operate in NGOs, philanthropic groups etc. People end up feeling used and blame the handiest target.