kevorkian’s color monitors and olpc

Readers of this blog will recall posts from several months ago that touched upon Martin Kevorkian’s fascinating book, Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America. Jim Brown pointed me to it and I decided to add it to the syllabus of my graduate course, Writing for Electronic Communities. We are reading it this week. The book is based on Kevorkian’s astute observation that black males have, since the mid-1980s, been cast in the role of the technician or computer systems analyst. Think Miles Theo in Die Hard (the guy who has to break into the vault) and Ving Rhames in the Mission Impossible series (and, though not mentioned, the same kind of role in Entrapment). One might also think of the entire Orc population of Lord of the Rings as fitting within this representation.

In chapter 2, "Lost Worlds" Kevorkian begins looking at the representations of black children in corporate and philanthropic advertisements and annual reports. He locates their images within the narrative of the digital divide which he see as "the desire for [the fusion of the young black body with new computer technology]" (p. 39). He observes that in

popular usage, the phrase "digital divide" tends to serve as a polite shorthand from which explicit reference to race has been omitted in describing the gap between technological have and have-nots. Of course, the degree of technological access does correlate to a range of categories, including geography, income, and ethnicity. But attempts to depict the access situation in its true complexity run up against the strength of established perception: when people hear "digital divide," they tend to think in terms of black and white.
    People think that way about the gap because that is, quite literally, how they see it. In image after published image, the face of that gap is black. (p. 39)

Kevorkian continues for several pages referencing advertisements and annual reports that showcase the black child with a computer. His examples include The Computers for Learning Project, IBM, EDS, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft. He argues that the "digital gap media campaigns suggest that the computer has been deployed in this fashion in part so as to cast the computer in a positive role. In these instances of tech-sector public relations, the affirmative action is technological: the placement of small colored people next to the machines forms as association for the advancement of computers" (p. 43). Reading that last phrase—"for the advancement of computers—I could not help but think of the One Laptop Per Child Give One Get One campaign and this image:

image of an African child walking with a olpc laptop balanced on her head

This image of a black child balancing a computer on her head is a recasting of the image of the black person balancing on her head a basket of food or crops or other essential item.  In it we see Kevorkian’s observations affirmed in a new setting. As well, the computer is now savior, providor of the new form of sustenance (propagated by all media in this country): information, knowledge, access. Information has become more necessary for survival than food.

Now, I must say that I am a tempered supporter of this program. I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the By One Give One campaign and am happy that a child in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Haiti, Mongolia or Rwanda now has access to computing technologies. I am excited with how the program has progressed in certain countries, and I hope all nations embrace the open computing ideas upon which OLPC is founded. However, ever since reading Lila Abu-Lughod I am wary of asserting technologies on others.

Kevorkian’s text raises significant concerns about how the program is showcasing the computers in local environments on its web sites. The participation page of the OLPC Foundation illustrates the white-black rich-poor dyad of which Kevorkian suggests by having a photograph of Negroponte and another white male signing something and the three following images being of happy, dancing, healthy black children. The implication is, of course, cause and effect: the men signed the paper and the children became happy.

screen shot of the olpc foundation participation page

Other similar images abound. In all of them dark-skinned children are happily sitting at the computer, smiling the computer, staring intently at the computer. This is not just for geographic reasons. According to the web site, trial locations include non-African, Asian, and South American countries. Indeed, the United States is included as a trial country.

olpc trial countries

The OLPC program raises heated emotions on both sides of the issue: those that see it as the west thrusting its values on other cultures and those who is it as a benevolent attempt to bring technologies to children in countries that otherwise could never afford it. Indeed, a hotly contested and sometimes nasty discussion recently threaded on the techrhet list over this very issue. And though I support Negroponte’s goals, I have to wonder about the program overall when the web site is representing success in this way.

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