Jennifer Mack on her book, The Construction of Equality

Interview by Lynda Chubak

Lynda Chubak: Bringing together architecture, urban planning and anthropology, you trace the decades-long transformation of Södertälje, Sweden arising from the settlement and spatial practices of Syriac immigration. What drew you to this project and what were your primary goals going in?

Jennifer Mack: Before I started the project, I had a longstanding interest in thinking about alternative, minoritarian forms of public space in European cities. I wanted to understand whether European public parks and town squares were exclusive, and, if so, what kinds of other spaces migrants had been developing to accommodate their needs to gather. And when I first visited Södertälje, I had the good fortune to meet some very enthusiastic soccer fans who were also Assyrian nationalists and Syriac Orthodox Christians. During that summer, I followed the fans (of the Swedish team Assyriska FF) as much as possible and sometimes 24 hours a day for a documentary project I was working on with the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. As I followed the fans to away games in central Sweden, to a burger joint in town, to the high school gym where they painted banners for a match at 3 o’clock in the morning, and to their homes, I learned a massive amount about the town and the role its physical space had in Syriac Orthodox Christian diasporic practices of identity-making. That’s because they talked about those spaces all the time. It also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, and people from all over the world were in the town for the celebrations. So, I quickly understood that places like the soccer arena, the Syriac Orthodox churches, and the cultural associations in the town were not just “standard” Swedish public spaces or forms of architecture.

Another primary goal of mine was to examine how Swedish tropes of segregation played a role in creating both means and methods for spatial intervention on the part of both politicians and design professionals in that country. During my research, I observed that segregation (and fears of future segregation) was frequently used to justify holistic, sometimes quite radical approaches to urban design and planning. These approaches rested on ensuring that enclaves would not emerge, or, if they did, that they would somehow be disrupted or dispersed. Why were ethnic enclaves regarded as a problem? I wondered. Of course, as you can read in the book, there is a long tradition harkening back to the expansion of the Swedish welfare state that assumed that standardization and building norms would produce societal equality. Part of the logic there was that historical built environments in which people had constructed building in formally distinct ways or lived in housing that specifically telegraphed their class status had reinforced socioeconomic divisions in the society. So, developing enclaves in the 21st century still served as a representation of the very opposite of that approach, especially when ethnic minority groups were behind them as clients or designers. I wanted to understand why these architectural projects were so threatening and why they were repeatedly framed as a so-called planning problem.

Lynda Chubak: You offer an alternative to a common assumption that geographic segregation or enclavization is an inequality problem to solve. Can you briefly describe what you mean by “urban design from below”, and how this played out in Södertälje to unsettle understandings of integration?

Jennifer Mack: My notion of “urban design from below” helped me to theorize how people whom planners understood as only users – not as agents in designing or forming the city – were actually reshaping whole neighborhoods. I presented this as a process that happened building by building and over a very long period of time – a process that was very different from the faster ones that planners might themselves label urban design but that had, nonetheless, changed the main spaces for shopping, social gathering, and leisure in one neighborhood, Geneta, replacing the welfare-state planned town center where those activities were supposed to take place. Urban design is traditionally positioned as a top-down practice carried out by design professionals, but this change in Geneta happened because of the individual and collective initiatives of migrants themselves. So, suddenly we saw that each building that had been constructed had become part of a larger whole that was not imagined – as a master plan – in advance. Instead, this hub for the community grew, one could say, both by the accumulation of buildings and by the socially-enacted, everyday reinforcement of the idea that some areas of the city were more accommodating of specific Syriac needs – such as wedding planning services or Orthodox religious services – than others. Over time, Syriacs changed the built environment of the city of Södertälje at the urban scale. This process happened slowly and required Syriacs to interact with professional planners and architects. In other words, they changed plans piecemeal, but their efforts had large-scale results. In fact, if you look at an aerial view or map of the Geneta area today, the Syriac commercial and social zone looks very much like a coherent urban design that an urban planner could have drawn. In my view, and in light of their numerous architectural projects, renovations, and productions of space, the way that both planners and politicians typically relegated Syriacs to the user category was inherently discriminatory. This discursive move suggested that they were only passive and perhaps just recipients of other people’s buildings and spaces. By using the rubric “urban design from below,” then, I wanted to call attention instead to how Syriacs are active, agentive participants in the architectural development of the city, and I hoped – and hope – that planners might see my work as a call to engage with minority groups and their architectural aspirations differently.

Lynda Chubak: Part of your investigation included working for one year as an intern at the Södertälje Municipal Planning Department. For new researchers interested in anthropology of bureaucracy or documentation, what were some of the pitfalls, benefits, and/or surprises of doing ethnography within a government department?

Jennifer Mack:This is a really interesting question! It’s one that I have also raised with some of my students, many of whom are studying to be architects or planners themselves. One of the main pitfalls of doing ethnography in a government department, I would say, is that bureaucrats – and especially politicians – typically have assumptions about what you want to know and, when interviewed, can present something like a prepared speech as a response to your questions. In these bureaucratic settings, I always recommend paying attention to things like topics brought up during coffee or lunch breaks or before or after what one’s fieldwork interlocutors might think of as a real meeting about a project. These interstitial moments are often when the really interesting things get said, rather than during the meetings themselves. Furthermore, and this may be pretty self-evident because it applies to all forms of ethnographic research, I found that it was really helpful to establish a good relationship with colleagues before attempting to interview them, if interviews are planned. If you look at some of the ethnographies of planning offices or architecture firms that have been done in the last few years, you also see an emphasis on things like the gestures of different people within meetings, or on practices of project representation (like model building). For me, the relationship between bureaucrats and their objects (computers, drawings, chalkboards, file boxes, and the like) are also very interesting. One challenge, of course, is that you don’t usually record video of such encounters, so I find it important to find ways to remember how the relations between human designers and their non-human professional objects are bodily enacted (through the hands, through the voice, and so on), and to remain actively aware of those relations while talking with them.

Lynda Chubak: You describe how planners, as agents of the Swedish state, sought to create equality and redefine citizenship through the ambitious Million housing program, and the built environment more generally.  With a specific ethnographic example, can you explain spatial governmentality and how it relates to these kinds of recalibrations of citizenship?

Jennifer Mack:Yes, I was very inspired by Sally Engle Merry’s ideas of spatial governmentality when thinking about the Swedish welfare state and its explicit use of an architectural toolbox to enact its own desired modes of citizenship during the 20th century. This is in part what Yvonne Hirdman refers to as “setting life right” in her influential book on that topic. As you say, these recalibrations of citizenship were in fact part of a major modern project to transform Swedish society, and this was also possible because of a continuous period of Social Democratic leadership from the 1930s until the 1970s. We have to remember that Sweden’s housing was among the worst in Europe well into the 1940s, and that there was both a housing shortage and poor-quality housing stock in the country during the first half of the 20th century. This also led to a wide range of promises about housing from political leaders across the spectrum, which also produced numerous governmental studies on housing and urban standards in the pursuit of best practices, including observational studies of housewives. Optimal dimensions for housing, along with furnishing plans and sunlight diagrams, were then published the series Good Housing (God bostad), with the standards required when builders used government loans. This was especially important during the so-called Million Program, which built over one million dwelling units across Sweden between 1965 and 1974, including five new neighborhoods in Södertälje, where I did my research. With this, the notion that erasing visual difference would support social equality became pervasive both rhetorically and materially.

What I then found during fieldwork was how that these ideas continued to resonate in contemporary planning practice. When I was working in the Södertälje planning department as an intern, the promotion of social equality through spatial standardization was reinforced all the time. I mention in the book how one planner told me, “There is not a single plan in the entire planning department that is not functionalist.” I found this statement extremely interesting because this planner recognized how little things had actually changed in his line of work since the mid-20th century. This was despite the fact that the Swedish political context had shifted radically since the 1980s with intensive neoliberal reforms and the widespread popularity of ideas like New Public Management within public professions and bureaucracies. Even with these changes, I repeatedly found that urban planners held on tightly to the notion that minority groups could only achieve social quality if they submitted to architectural standards. Planners even expressed a kind of moral panic when Syriacs distinguished themselves architectonically and when they explicitly sought to live together in enclaves.

For me, one of the most interesting expressions of these concerns had to do with the new private houses that Syriacs were building in the town and their choice of both form and materials. I write extensively in the book about how much anxiety resulted among planners when one deregulated plan for a new neighborhood produced a wide range of architectural forms commissioned by Syriacs: from houses in stucco to walls on the edge of the street to buildings where two stories looked like three. Planners talked mentioned this plan as a cautionary tale all the time. One time, I was talking with a majority Swedish planner in her 30s about her understandings of what a dream house was for Syriacs versus majority Swedes. She subscribed to the idea that most Swedes wanted a small wooden house in the traditional style with white window frames, while Syriacs preferred large houses in stone with columns. For her, it was a major professional issue that these dream houses could potentially be built side by side! She decried the impossibility of having “an area where everything matches” in a place where “gigantic stone houses with very grand columns” would coexist with smaller wood frame houses. She also told me that visitors might assume the wooden house to be a “construction barrack” rather than a private house, suggesting other anxieties bubbling below the surface of her comments. In her professional understanding, a plan that allowed this kind of formal, architectural difference would ultimately lead to that Swedish house being eclipsed visually (and culturally, it was implied) by its neighbor.

During fieldwork, I heard a lot of comments like hers, where choices about materials or even the design of the front yard appeared to serve as shorthand for concerns about migration and its effects on Swedish society more generally. Planning and architecture were frequently cited as tools to improve an imagined integration between minority Syriacs and majority Swedes, but the way that this would be enacted and the outcomes envisioned had not changed much from earlier methods to address differences between socioeconomic classes in early and mid-20th century Sweden. This is another reason that I wanted to call attention to the way majority Swedish planners were interacting with Syriac clients and interpreting the consequences of their building projects.

Lynda Chubak: Throughout your book you reveal how diaspora space is made material, having both intended and unintended consequences. For example, “Major monuments may unite the diaspora, but they also bifurcate the city.” (p. 131)  Over the last several months, across the United States and beyond, contestations over monuments have intensified. With these conflicts and your research in mind, what advice might you give to planning departments that are considering public monuments?

Jennifer Mack:Thanks for this question, which is very relevant in the present moment! And I think I would like to frame my response by expanding the definition of public monuments because, in my view, they can take many forms. They may be literal sculptural elements in the landscape, such as some of the monuments that you’re referring to in this question. Certainly, there can be explosive debates about projects like that when they make it down the pipeline to a planning department. For example, in Sweden, here have been controversial proposals to create monuments in suburban neighborhoods to the victims of the genocides in early 20th century Turkey, and one such monument was constructed in Botkyrka despite opposition that deemed the tragedy it represented as supposedly foreign to Sweden and thus out of place. This shows just how much emotion that monuments – which are not merely materials carved or cast – can elicit. I would like to suggest that we could also broaden the definition of a “monument” to include symbolic buildings that, for many diasporic groups, also serve as pilgrimage sites.

During my research for the book, I found that Syriac Orthodox churches and a soccer arena were not just gathering spaces for religious services and rituals and soccer matches but also critical symbols of settlement and success for the Syriacs who proposed and commissioned them. When Syriacs from abroad came to Södertälje, it was often to visit these sites – not just to join community members in their celebratory or solemn rites – but because of the status of these buildings as monuments. Intriguingly, both my historical research and in ethnographic research conducted in planning meetings about new churches (and in a later project, mosques), planners’ concerns often centered on two issues: 1) parking and noise levels during events; and 2) the social and spatial effects of these buildings on the neighborhoods and cities holistically. For these reasons, these emblematic, expensive, and often hard-won buildings typically ended up sited in peripheral locations, and very often these were even in industrial zones next to factories or other spaces with more mundane or pragmatic functions. In conversation, planners expressed their beliefs that this choice of location would reduce complaints about traffic and other disturbances associated with the projects, but it also placed the largest Syriac Orthodox Cathedral in Europe (at least the largest according to my interlocutors) in the middle of a block next to a factory and a chain link fence. Certainly, many Syriac interlocutors believed it was, as one man told me, better not “to be in the people’s eye,” and therefore desirable to be hidden in this way – to avoid conflict. But the results are tragic and exclusionary, too.

Based on my experiences in these settings, my advice to planning departments considering public monuments – especially those commissioned by minority groups – would therefore be to embrace these projects as evidence of societies in transformation and to give them prominence and the kinds of spaces that other similar majoritarian monuments would receive. Likewise, when planners reflect upon monuments from the past, it is important to understand how they relate to the society of the present. If a monument – such as those you might be referring to in the United States – represents oppression and racism, then it is also the duty of a planning department to consider its continued relevance as part of the public realm. So, monuments are indeed tricky when we think about issues of permanence, representation, political conflict, and belonging.

Stuart Dunmore on his book, Language Revitalisation in Gaelic Scotland

Interview by Christian Puma-Ninacuri

Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Gaelic-medium education (GME) has been developed as an initiative to maintain the Gaelic language through education. The role of formal education as a tool for revitalizing a language has been widely studied and theorized; however, empirical research on the long-term outcomes of minority-medium education has been relatively scarce. What was your motivation to evaluate the revitalization of Gaelic from an empirical point of view? How does your study contribute to our knowledge of language revitalization processes?

 Stuart Dunmore: I think my main motivation was, as you rightly say, the paucity of research evidence that has been brought to bear on long-term outcomes of minority-medium immersion education historically. In Scotland, GME receives a great deal of attention as the main means we currently have of increasing the numbers of speakers that exist in the world, since vernacular community use of the language continues to decline apace. Generally, Gaelic has not been passed onto a majority of the youngest generations in heartland areas, so school has tended to be used to plug that gap elsewhere in Scotland. The trouble was, we just had no real idea as to whether or not former students who have received an immersion education in Gaelic continue to speak it after completing their studies. So, my research set out to answer that question among a sample of adults who went through GME after it started in the 1980s.

I hope what the book contributes to the wider literature on language revitalization is its stress on the importance of critical, empirical approaches to evaluating language policy outcomes; when it comes to linguistic and cultural endangerment it’s not enough for policymakers to simply invest in new initiatives and hope for the best. Interventions have to be evaluated critically to ensure they are effective and to identify where and how they can be improved, as the stakes are so high for minoritized communities throughout the world.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: The revitalization of Gaelic has faced different challenges over the years. On the one hand, policymakers made the language official, especially in the educational system, but on the other hand, it was initiative from parents who wanted to continue using the language that led to GME’s development. Taking this into consideration, how do you understand the participation of both policymakers and members of the community in revitalization processes? How does community engagement contribute to minority language education?

Stuart Dunmore: That’s an absolutely crucial point, that bottom-up, grassroots initiatives from within the minority linguistic community are vital for the long-term success of revitalization policy objectives. GME was developed in the 1980s as a consequence of Gaelic-speaking parents’ relentless campaigning for the establishment of immersion education in Gaelic at the pre-school and elementary level. They wanted their kids to be fluent and confident Gaelic speakers but worried that within an English-only system, their Gaelic acquisition and abilities would be significantly undermined. Subsequently, GME classes were augmented by children of parents who couldn’t speak Gaelic themselves, but who wished for their kids to become bilingual. But it was only due to the hard work of grassroots Gaelic organizations that policymakers were persuaded to establish the system in the first place. Similarly, I suspect that internationally, it is only bottom-up support from parents and community that will encourage and enable minority-medium immersion pupils to maintain their linguistic abilities in minoritized varieties after schooling is completed.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Mixed methodological approaches are increasingly being used in the field. Your book uses semi-structured interviews (qualitative data) and online surveys (quantitative data). What were the challenges that you experienced while analyzing the data? How can your methods guide other research on language revitalization?

Stuart Dunmore: I think the principle of data triangulation – that is, testing the reliability of conclusions made using one method against one or more other methods – lends a great deal to the validity and generalizability of social research generally, and this is certainly true of linguistic ethnography in my view. That can mean testing a researcher’s own ethnographic, participant-observations against more detailed interview accounts, focus group or survey data, or in my own case, employing statistical techniques alongside qualitative sociolinguistic methods such as ethnography of communication. As you say, it often is genuinely challenging for researchers to feel confident employing multiple methodological techniques simultaneously, but I would recommend this approach as one that we can adopt and learn to improve the reliability of our findings in the field of language revitalization.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: In your book, you mention Fishman’s claim that language revitalization efforts in schools will fail unless the minority language can be more broadly used outside school. Similarly, scholarship has demonstrated the importance of intergenerational transmission to language maintenance. How do your findings contribute to this debate? 

 Stuart Dunmore: Fishman’s point that communities and parents passing on endangered languages to children in the domains of home, neighborhood and community – intergenerational transmission – is the key to securing language revitalization (in the sense of re-vernacularisation, or normalizing the use of the minority language in the community once again); however, it is very difficult to take issue with on an empirical basis. My book demonstrates that for the majority of students who acquire a minority language in an immersion classroom, the language will remain a thing used for school purposes only if parents, community and grassroots organizations are unavailable or unable to encourage minority language use in the home. Gaelic language socialization – which I measured as having been raised with at least one Gaelic-speaking parent at home, correlated consistently with higher rates of Gaelic retention and use among former-immersion students in my quantitative statistical analyses, and in interviewees’ own accounts. Without this normalizing influence for minority language use outside the classroom, it’s hard to avoid Fishman’s conclusion that school-based interventions will not be successful in the long term.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Your book shows that the majority of participants’ social use of Gaelic is reported to be limited among peers such as friends, siblings and partners. However, there are other language practices of Gaelic that seem to be relevant to speakers (‘secret code’ and ‘informal’ use of Gaelic characterized by a code-mixing with English). What does this tell us about the relationship between Gaelic and practices related to language identity and ideologies? 

Stuart Dunmore: Quite simply, I think my data show that the relationship between linguistic practices, ideologies and identities is absolutely key to understanding language decline and revitalization processes. Limited use of Gaelic by my informants across the domains you mention above appeared to be underpinned by their language ideologies concerning the appropriate use of Gaelic and relative lack of social identity in Gaelic. Those individuals who tended to use the highest levels of Gaelic in the present day had frequently grown up with Gaelic at home, and subsequently have a stronger cultural identification with the language.

The school system alone didn’t appear to encourage pupils without this background to develop a clear sense of social identity in the language, and as a result, they didn’t use it a great deal or wish to pass it on to their own children in future. My sense is that these processes are universal in contexts of language shift and revival, and that language ideologies and social identities are crucial considerations for policymakers to bear in mind. Revitalization initiatives, whether focused within the education system or not, should clearly address issues of ideology and identity, which often have a strong and negative influence on linguistic practice.

 Christian Puma-Ninacuri: Finally, taking into consideration the results of your investigation, how does your book establish a conversation with policymakers, educators and community members to improve processes of language revitalization of Gaelic, especially to improve the GME system?

Stuart Dunmore: I hope the dialogue my research provokes will lead policymakers and community members to consider critically the effectiveness of top-down interventions, and how this can be improved through being joined and supported by bottom-up efforts from within the language community. A book on its own can’t do this job for educators and policymakers, but hopefully some of the knowledge exchange activities I have undertaken since completing the research can help to inspire discussion between communities and policymakers. As the book demonstrates, it’s absolutely crucial that bottom-up efforts from within communities complement policymakers’ interventions to support them if minority languages are to be successfully maintained into future decades.

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.”