Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Nicolas Negroponte – Contributions to HCI and a Bid to “Save the World”

In 2005, Nicholas Negroponte addressed the World Economic Forum with a computing idea to “save the world”. (1) Less than three years later, the One Laptop Per Child initiative (OLPC) launched into distribution with unprecedented cooperation of the United Nations, corporate funders, and governments organizations. Though it is early to review the success of Negroponte’s OLPC initiative, it provides us with an opportunity to explore the implications for rethinking the roles and responsibilities of individual researchers as key ethical players in the equitable design and distribution of technology. With corporations seeking new consumers to distribute technology and bridge the rapidly shrinking digital divide, it’s valuable to ask these questions while there is still time for researchers to contribute their leadership, vision, historical perspective, and critical thinking to ethically inform and guide this process. This paper will review Negroponte’s contributions to HCI and explore linkages to historical figures of the field. In addition, this paper aims to critically review Negroponte’s influence as an advocate for universal usability and the OLPC project.

Architecture Machine Group

In 1967 Negroponte founded the Architecture Machine Group at MIT. Researchers in the group invented new concepts and developed new approaches to human-computer interaction. Inspired, in part, by Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad design interface, The Architecture Machine Group’s original focus was to create an architecture machine to help users design buildings without architects. Computer aided design programs, such as AutoCAD, that became widely utilized in the 1980s were influenced by the early work of Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group and Charles Eastman’s work at Carnigie Melon. (2)

Though the Architecture Machine was never produced, the group’s work contributed to the concept of a spatial metaphor, multimodal inputs, and graphics for the user interface. In working on The Architecture Machine, the group created a spatial data management system called Dataland. Dataland inspired Bill Atkinson work as an interface designer for apple and was influential in apple’s formation of the desktop metaphor in Apple’s Lisa (and later Macintosh) computer. (3). The group made other significant contributions to the concept of graphic user interface including a hypermedia project, a conceptual precursor to Hypermedia/CD-Roms called the Aspen Movie Map, and the voice driven Put That There interface (developed with Richard Bolt).

Negroponte and others in the group were influenced by the HCI work of the 1960s. The idea of universal accessibility was central throughout the early research and development in computing and interface design. Alan Kay created the Smalltalk programming language and interface to make computing accessible to children and novice users at a time when computers were only available to an intellectual elite. Kay’s Dynabook concept was fundamental in the development of the modern laptop and Kay later became deeply involved with designing applications and interfaces for the OLPC. (4)

Seymour Papert’s Logo programming language was a fundamental advancement in the development of human computer interfaces. Papert’s Logo programming language was designed to be accessible and useful to children who had no prior experience with computing. Papert worked with Kay and other pioneers of HCI to harness the work of Piaget and other cognitive psychologists to form a constructivist theory of computing that was key in the development of the Apple Macitosh computers and a key influence of the OLPC project. Papert later became the Lego Professor of Learning Research at Negroponte’s lab and applied his constructivist theory of learning to develop Lego Mindstorms and development of the OLPC project. (4)

MIT Media Lab
In 1985 Negroponte expanded the Architecture Machine Group into the MIT Media Lab. During its first year the Media Lab worked with Papert to open “the school of the future” a multi-year high density computer project for low income students at The Hennigan Elmentary School in Boston. As director of the Media Lab, Negroponte continued to lead and develop new approaches to Human Computer Interaction and situated the Media Lab on the frontier of the digital revolution. The MIT media lab has become a well-funded research center that explored a wide range of new approaches to computing and now consists of more than 500 researchers and staff. Stuart Brand, in his book “The Media Lab”, credited the lab with developing the MPEG digital compression standard that is fundamental in encoding DVDs, Lego Mindstorm programmable bricks, and experimental projects such as wearable computing. (5)

In a 1984 talk at the TED conference, Negroponte highlights some of the founding principals and ideas of The Media Lab. In this important speech, Negroponte predicts a number of modern developments. Clearly disappointed with Apple’s new mouse as an input device, Negroponte describes the concept of multitouch displays and considers factors such as pressure sencitive displays, multi-finger inputs, and gestures. He considers multi-touch to be more than a luxury, but an opportunity for high-level input. Today with the Apple iPhone, Microsoft Surface, and a number of new multi-touch devices, consumers are just beginning to realize the value of multi-touch as an input medium. (6)

In describing the concept a “new kind of book” that “knows about itself”, Negroponte lays the foundation for the CD Rom. In doing so he describes books with text, pictures, and video and touches on concepts that will become fundamental in hyperlinking and the development of the internet. (6)

Negroponte goes on to outline some work with computers and children. He favors the idea of computers as a pedagogical medium for children over the idea of computers as a vehicle for teaching. Negroponte describes using computers with children as a “complete reversal of roles. The child is, if you will, the teacher, and the machine is the student.” Negroponte described Media Lab projects working with children learning programming in Pakistan, Columbia, and Senegal. (6) Later in this paper, we will discuss these pedagogical ideas as a founding principal of the OLPC project.

In 1995, Negroponte developed key ideas from this talk and his columns at Wired into “Being Digital”, an influential book in the field of HCI that provided a forward looking look at the digital revolution.

WIRED Magazine
In 1992 Negroponte helped found WIRED magazine. The magazine reports on how technology affects culture, the economy, and politics. WIRED was launched before widespread adoption of internet browsers and was a key publication in bringing ideas from the world wide web to the public and was one of the first magazines to list the email addresses of it’s editors, authors, and contributors. The magazine was well received and quickly earned several national magazine awards for design and general excellence. WIRED is still in publication and recently won another National Magazine Award. WIRED has been at the forefront of articulating key emerging concepts to the public.

Negroponte wrote a column for WIRED from the first issue until 1998. Negroponte expressed new concepts and ideas in his columns and influenced a new generation of users, designers, creators and thinkers of the web and emerging technology. Negroponte was influenced by the work of many others in the field of HCI and shared those influences with countless others through WIRED’s magazine and website. In a July 1994 column, called Learning by Doing, Negroponte takes Seymour Papert’s work with logo from nearly 25 years ago, adds some contemporary observations and relates to a new generation of thinkers.
On April 11, 1970, Seymour Papert held a symposium at MIT called "Teaching Children Thinking" and placed a new stake in the groundwork of epistemology. His notion was based on using computers as engines which children would teach and thus learn by teaching. He moved the locus of interest from how computers can teach to how children learn. This astonishingly simple idea simmered for almost fifteen years before it came to life through PCs. Today, when almost 30 percent of all American homes contain a personal computer, the idea really has come into its time.

The computer changed this radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception (7)

This particular column was challenging and controversial to some educators and sparked dialog and debate. Negroponte’s WIRED columns served as a major node in the field of HCI and connected thinkers across generations and academic disciplines.

Review of the OLPC Project
The idea of the OLPC was to work with governments of developing countries to provide children with inexpensive laptops and software developed under a constructive learning model. The OLPC website states that in 2005 Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab worked closely with Alan Kay, and Seymour Papert to develop the One Laptop Per Child project. (8)

Through prototyping and development the $100 laptop, became the “Children’s Machine”, and eventually was distributed as the X0-1. The XO-1 is a durable, small low-power laptop and uses flash memory for storage. The machine utilizes the 80211.n wireless mesh network protocol for networking, collaborating, and sharing of internet access. The device has a hand crank that can be utilized to recharge the battery. The XO-1 laptops are sold to governments and distributed with the goal of one laptop per child.

Bill Gates was an early critic of the OLPC initiative. At the Microsoft Government Leaders Summit in early 2006 Gates questioned the value of the initiative. "If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user, thing while you're trying to type." (9) The cost of OLPC laptop hardware and all necessary software was less than the cost of Microsoft’s windows software alone and clearly had the potential to disrupt Microsoft’s business model. But a number of others were similarly critical of OLPC’s decision not to use office standards like MS Office and Windows.

A key point about the OLPC is that it is much more than an idea for an inexpensive laptop. The OLPC website describes its custom software, Sugar, as a complete rethink of the interface, OS, and applications and was specifically designed as a tool to encourage constructivist learning in children. (8) The controversy over OLPC’s Sugar and constructivst learning theories is at the core of the most salient arguments leveled against the project.

In a January 2007 press release the NGO FAIR (Fair Allocation of Technology Resources) argued that the OLPC project is misleading developing countries to take an investment risk, without informing them of the uncertainty of a new technology: “We fear that the authorities in many poor countries will be misled into believing that investing in OLPC could cover the ICT needs of the 12-18 age group. This could be fatal for a country which would then be unable for many years to make new investments in ICT for secondary schools, in which PC labs are needed to prepare students for modern working life or further education”. FAIR points out that the OLPC is lacking anything resembling a spreadsheet program, which are central to many standard workplace environments. (10)

Dr. Steve Eskow works with NGOs in Nigeria and in email exchanges available online has gone as far as to describe Negroponte as selling snake oil:
The world is convinced that the computer and the Internet and the Web
are changing the world, and that those changes need to be reflected
somehow in how we rear and school children.

How to do that well is not a matter for salesmen and preachers, but
for patient and thoughtful collaboration between school people,
researchers, scholars, and those in government and industry who can
help finance their work.

In the US there are words like hype, hokum, and snake oil salesmen for
those who sell dreams and delusions to people badly in need of real
help. (11)
The idea of the OLPC came about in a time just before the widespread availability of inexpensive laptops. A June 2009 article by Chuck Lawton argues that early OLPC enthusiasts missed the point
At the time, before the netbook explosion, all they were buzzing about was a cheap laptop. But the XO laptop is not a hardware experiment. What One Laptop Per Child has done is create an ecosystem whereby kids can learn through doing and sharing. They have organized a group of talented hardware and software developers and challenged them to invent something new. They have created a philanthropic organization to achieve their goal of production and distribution. The cost is only one part of the equation - a barrier that must be broken in order to make that ecosystem accessible. And it’s that ecosystem - their vision - that deserves more credit than many of the tech blogs are willing to discuss. (12)
Lawton goes on to argue that the OLPC has an image problem. Experienced computer users are very disappointed with the software and interface:
This learning curve proved to be challenging as I tried to do even the most basic of tasks. But this is the thing I think many of the past reviewers have overlooked: The XO isn’t meant for us. It isn’t a netbook, and it’s not meant to be compared to a Mac or PC.

The XO is a tool - a gateway - to creativity and experimentation, sharing and discovery for a generation of people who’ve never used a computer. (12)
While Negroponte has ignored many of OLPC's detractors, he has incorporated some of the feedback into new thinking about the project and is working to continue the project through a new laptop called the XO2.

Even if the OLPC project proves to be a failure, their may be some indirect benefits. Corporations such as Microsoft, Intel, and others are now creating their one initiatives to distribute inexpensive laptops to the developing world. In a reversal, Microsoft is a key partner in the XO2. More importantly, Negroponte has raised the prominence of the issues of universal accessibility and sparked a debate on the best way to empower disadvantaged children. There is potential for the key players to continue to explore these questions and make advances with the best interests of children in mind.

The general public including the media, NGOs, governments, teachers, and youth workers are well informed about the value of teaching children in developing countries to conform to current standards of computing and be able to compete with the developed world. A critical review of Negroponte’s work towards universal accessibility and the OLPC project allows us to expand these ideas and is valuable in raising several important questions that may challenge assumptions by key pioneers in HCI and guide future thinking, research, and breakthroughs.

Are corporations exploiting these conditions to create more consumers in a way that is not in line with the best interests of children? If so, how should researchers and scholars advocate for the best interests of children in the developing world? How can researchers and scholars partner with key players and advocates to expand the dialog to include a vision of technology that empowers children to become active contributors, informed, and empowered members of society, stakeholders, even agents of change in the HCI community? Can researchers and scholars explore new distribution models that are implemented, adopted, developed and shared at a grassroots level in a way that avoids jepordized the limited resources of fragile economies and governments? Regardless of the outcome, Negroponte’s OLPC project is an inspiring and ambitious example of research, theory, vision, and leadership directed towards highly developed ideas of ethical responsibility and may inspire others in the HCI community to offer their unique contributions.


1. Jack Schofield, January 29 2009, “The Sugar daddy for future generations” The Guardian
2. Kathy Varnelis, 2009 “Discursions II: Interfaces, New Media and the Architecture Machine Group”
3. Matthias Müller-Prove , 2009 “Vision and Reality of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces”
4. Alan Kay, 1987 “Doing with Images Makes Symbols” (video)
5. Stuart Brand, 1988 “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M. I. T.”
6. Nicholas Negroponte, 1984 “Negroponte Addresses the Ted Conference”, (video)
7. Nicholas Negoponte, July 1994 “Learning by Doing”, Wired magazine column
8. One Laptop Per Child website,
9. Ed Oswold, March 16 2006, “Gates Pokes Fun at $100 Laptop”
10. FAIR, January 2007 Press Relase “Scathing criticism from FAIR for ‘One Laptop Per Child’”
11. Steve Eskow, email sent June 2008 link:
12. Chuck Lawton, July 2009 A Look Back at the OLPC XO-1 and a Peek at the Road Ahead, Wired Magazine

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