Morgan Ames on The Charisma Machine



On Henry Jenkins’ blog, he interview Morgan Ames about the One Laptop Per Child project.   With Jenkins’ permission, I am re-posting the interview here (but see the original here:

Henry Jenkins: You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Morgan Ames: Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert’s, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was “the life’s work of Seymour Papert.”

And when you read through all of Papert’s public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called “constructionism,” as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren’t true for all children — and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  


Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn’t a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I’ve interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along.

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys’ supposedly “natural” interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years — there’s this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there’s transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.


From all of this, at every turn boys — and particularly white middle-class boys — are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It’s something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the “technically precocious boy,” it’s both of these pieces — the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a “social imaginary,” or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert’s other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about “girls and boys” and “many ways of knowing,” they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Henry Jenkins: Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America?

Morgan Ames: The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods — most of their peers couldn’t care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.

When I’ve said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, “well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!” And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too — he called them the “Proteus of machines,” with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay — as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru — just weren’t very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn’t find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music — pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they’d really want to learn to program.



Henry Jenkins: You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice?

Morgan Ames: The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt — in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children’s creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are — I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one — but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves — the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.

But you’re right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as “co-learners” even as they are charged with steering children’s learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on — more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance — but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa’s, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability.

I can’t fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it’s one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in — but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

Henry Jenkins: What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground?

Morgan Ames: Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He’d tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers’ reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying.

Papert had a version of this analogy as well — but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn’t give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively — but even if OLPC’s XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that’s a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay’s population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don’t have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers — the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.


Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching — they were not “drunk or absent entirely,” as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn’t have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It’s no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

Henry Jenkins: The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame?

Morgan Ames: Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn’t really discuss media use — it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework — which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children’s interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning — was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO’s hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools.

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children’s interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children’s educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered “educational.” While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children’s cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies’ efforts to make money off of that.


Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project — and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies.”

Herve Varenne on his new book, Educating in Life

Ilana Gershon:  This book contains a wide range of ethnographic topics – how did you select what to write about and what to focus upon in these cases?

Hervé Varenne: I did not exactly “select” the ethnographies.  They were a gift from my students springing from the intersection of my interests with theirs, over the past decade.  What may be my own contribution is the organization of the book.  I intend to help make a general point about education, and about culture and, particularly the inevitable drift of any set of forms as people face the arbitrariness of the forms and educate themselves about what do next, collectively.  I always admired Marcel Mauss, and Claude Lévi-Strauss for the manner of their intellectual practice: again and again, on fundamental matters like gift-giving, the body, the classification of people, they proceeded through systematic comparison based on solid ethnographies.  The Trobriand can tell us about the Kwakiutl, and vice versa, as well as about us.  In our case, young girls from the Dominican Republic can tell us about young men venturing other people’s capital, mothers can tell us about teachers, and humans interacting with horses can tell us about everybody—particularly when one of the protagonists is voiceless, or silenced.  And all of them, together, can tell us about “education.”

Ilana Gershon: Throughout this book, you explore instructions and instructions about instructions.   What does a focus on instructing let anthropologists know about social life?

Hervé Varenne: I became a “legitimate peripheral participant” in professional anthropology in the Fall of 1968.  Then, David Schneider asked all the new students taking the required “Systems” course that they read the first 243 page of Parsons and Shils Towards a General Theory of Action (1951).  I did not notice then what was wrong with this theory.  It took me 30 years to shape the argument developed in the book, and first articulated formally in a lecture in 1999: “action” is not based on socialization leading to shared “value orientations” or an “habitus.”  Action is based on ever renewed ignorance about what to do next in the full details of a very particular here and now when all the solutions one may have inherited or developed earlier prove somewhat inadequate.  Of importance is the reality that this ignorance is triggered by what others are doing that one now has to deal with.  Thus, we must start with the assumption that, in any scene, and at whatever scale, all participants must tell each other what they are going to do next and what the interlocutors (those who are addressed or may have an interest in overhearing) should themselves do later even as the interlocutors start stating their own, possibly contradictory, intentions and instructions.

Ilana Gershon: Your book reminded me that lately I have been telling people: revolution lies in micro-interactions.  And of course, the converse would be true as well, the lack of revolution lies in micro-interactions as well.   Although admittedly I try to avoid saying this to Marxists.  I am wondering what you think the political charge of your book is?

Herve Varenne: To the puzzlement of at least some of my students, I asked them this year to read the chapter in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1901) about the “consciousness” of the working class, and particularly their lack of the consciousness Lenin deemed necessary for a true revolution in their conditions.  Most surprisingly perhaps, Lenin argued that this consciousness could only be produced by the “bourgeois intelligentsia” to which Marx and Engels belonged.  As far as I am concerned, this is an early version of the future “culture of poverty” argumentation, directly echoed by Bourdieu and Passeron when they assert that the poor always “mis-know” their conditions.  I asked my students to read Lenin (rather than Franklin Frazier or Oscar Lewis) partially because of its shock value, but also because I will also ask them to read and ponder Jacques Rancière’s many books about, very specifically, the practical consciousness of workers facing their conditions explicitly and looking for “next” political steps that might help them, in the here and now, but which also, in the long run, may lead to altogether radical changes in social structures.  In that sense, farm workers in Southern Illinois who meet to teach themselves how to speak English and develop transcriptions methods, glossaries, and so on (Kalmar 2011), are engaged in “micro-interactions” that may lead to much more.  Rancière’s rants against all those who deliberately refuse to learn from workers and the otherwise “ignorant” are, of course, but a version of Boas’ rants against those who claim knowledge of “them,” and particularly of those who claim to know what “they” need, when all such knowledge is not based on intimate association with the people in their everyday lives.  The difficulty for all revolutionaries, reformers, other do-gooders, and particularly “we,” anthropologists, is that “they” may not go where we want them to go, and that “they” may also be altogether unpleasant, if not dangerous people.  If there is any “political charge” to my work it is the hope that anthropologists will also go to the many “upstates” and “downstates” of their academic localities to listen to people they do not like and against whom they may be struggling in their own politics.

Ilana Gershon: You evocatively quote Bateson in arguing that most of education involves “people working hard at protecting themselves” in the many social contexts and infrastructures that other people have made (167).   For many people who think about education, this may be a surprising turn since the focus is on protecting oneself from one’s contexts.  How did your case studies lead you to be so concerned about protection?  When doing fieldwork, what are the moments someone might want to ask about protection?

Hervé Varenne: I entered anthropology of education by pondering the travails of McDermott’s “Rosa” as she worked hard, in collusion with her peers and teacher, at not getting caught not knowing how to read (McDermott and Tylbor 1983).  I graduated into the field in awe of Garfinkel’s statements about “passing” as that which one is trying to convince others one “really” is—against various challenges that one is precisely not that.  Whatever one’s “identity” the problem is convincing one’s most significant others that “it” is this and not that.  Garfinkel also taught me that we can “trust” that most claims will not be challenged.  After all, challenging is also hard work that may have drastic consequences.  Better to let sleeping dogs lie.  In one way or another, all the ethnographies in the book are about establishing that this, possibly dangerous or new, thing is to become an “it” of some sort for various sets of people, whether it is young girls having fun, biologists making up a lab, capitalists venturing large amount of other people’s capital, mothers taking care of children, etc.  In every case, we report on people being more or less explicitly hurt, people challenging others, people seeking protection, but also people asserting their power even when this assertion might hurt.  I am sure that the administrators of the schools Koyama bring to our attention, even as they fired other administrators and teachers, were unhappy at the resistance to something that must have seemed eminently reasonable. After all, the new curriculum was required by the State, and certified by experts as more helpful for the poor and immigrants everyone was concerned with.  Ethnomethodology confirmed for me something I had noticed and other ethnographers had mentioned.  The only way to find what may be “normal” is to observe a disruption, a moment when one or more of the people are specifically seeking protection for someone else.  But one should also remember that the ethnographic goal may not be just accounting for the normal, but also bringing out the evidence that people, everywhere and everywhen, notice stuff about their conditions, analyze causes and consequences, imagine alternate possibilities, work at convincing others, and deal with the consequences of what they have done.

Ilana Gershon: Years ago, you gave me a remarkable intellectual gift by pointing out that as long as human lack telepathy, ethnographers can never truly study learning.   All ethnographers can truly do is study telling, and people are constantly telling each other who to be and how to be.   This has shaped my fieldwork ever since.  I want to ask, once you establish that any anthropology of education is an anthropology of telling, what are the set of questions that anthropologists of education should be exploring?

Hervé Varenne: Ray McDermott and Jean Lave have been the most influential of my contemporaries on my work.  But we have kept disagreeing on the fundamental point as to whether their work is to be a constructive critique of “learning theories” or whether it should be a more radical destruction of the very possibility of, and need for, such theories.  I keep arguing that we should leave “learning” to the psychologists who believe they can measure ‘it’.  In that vein, I was disappointed when an otherwise welcome recent paper in the American Anthropologist about education and anthropology was titled “Why Don’t Anthropologists Care about Learning …” (Blum 2019).  I dare say that anthropologists should not care about learning but rather that they should care about teaching—with the understanding of course that all teachings will fail (and thus will be “culture” rather than reproduction).  Re-reading Durkheim’s and Mauss’ passing comments about children, what strikes me is that they are always talking about the adults’ effort to “impose upon the child ways of seeing…” (Durkheim [1895] 1982: 53).  The Boasians did assume that such efforts would be successful and produce particular personalities or, as we put it now, particular “identities.”  But this was more a matter of conjecture than empirical demonstration.  It is not of course that children (and older adults) proceed ex nihilo.  It is rather that anthropologists should keep noticing “monolingual” children in English producing forms like “he singed” and then being corrected by some adult “dear, it is ‘he sang’.” They should notice cases like the one Perry Gilmore recently brought  to our attention about children “inventing” a new language (2016).  The first five ethnographies in the book are what I hope more anthropologists will do and that is bring to our attention the emergence of “new normals.”  In all the  cases in the book, the accent is on attempts to transform others or their conditions through various forms of “telling” (explaining, exhorting, teaching, and so on)—even as the teller notices various failures by those told to do what the teller hoped they would do … leading of course to further resistance, imposition, and so on.  As I wrote someplace in the book, “imposition” is the compliment power pays to “resistance.”


References cited

Blum, Susan.  2019.  Why don’t anthropologists care about learning(or education or school)? An immodest proposal for an integrative anthropology of learning whose time has finally come American Anthropologist 121, 3: 641-654.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and and Jean-Claude Passeron.  [1970] 1977.  Reproduction in education, society and culture.  Tr. by R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile.  [1895] 1982.  The rules of the sociological method.  Tr. by W.D. Halls New York: The Free Press.

Garfinkel, Harold.  1963.  “A conception of, and experiments with, ‘trust’ as a condition of stable concerted actions.”  In Motivation and social interaction. Edited by O.J. Harvey, 187-238. New York: The Ronald Press.

Gilmore, Perry.  2016.  Kisisi (our language): The story of Colin and Sadiki.  Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Kalmar, Tomas.  [2001] 2015.  Illegal alphabets and adult literacy: Latino migrants crossing the linguistic border.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lenin, Ilyich Vladimir.  [1902] 1961.  What is to be done?: Burning questions of our movement.  Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  [1962] 1963.  Totemism.  Tr. by R. Needham Boston: Beacon Press.

Mauss, Marcel. [1923-24] 1967.  The gift.  Tr. by I. Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton.

———-.  [1934] 1973.  Techniques of the body Economy and Society 2: 70-88.

McDermott, R. P., and Henry Tylbor.  1983.  “On the necessity of collusion in conversation.” Text 3, 3: 277-297.

Parsons, Talcott, and and Edward Shils.  1951.  Toward a general theory of action.  New York: Harper and Row.