Sunday, October 28, 2007

Organ Droner

On the mailing list for the Institute for Distributed Creativity, there has been some interesting debate about the One Laptop per Child Initiative to provide computers to children in the developing world.

As a rhetorician, what I find fascinating to see is the split between those who focus only on technological solutions to the problem faced by the program in winning converts, typified by reader responses to this post here, and those who look at how cultural, social, political, legal, and economic factors come into play when a technology is resisted by its target audience.

I wonder how much of my own attitude about the difficulty of adopting technology has to do with my own personal experiences and those of my family members over several generations. This isn't to say that bad technology alone can't sink a product, since -- whether it might be the Edsel or the Zune -- consumers still have some choices if the market is adequately crowded and diverse. But I do think it's relatively uncontroversial to say that focusing only on making the technology better while denigrating human factors as obstacles isn't a way to get any new product adopted.

Maybe I learned this skepticism about techno-futurism the hard way from my own participation in an ambitious collaborative initiative for teaching with technology. Or maybe it was seeing my father try to interest corporate clients in the products being developed at Xerox PARC during the seventies and eighties, at a time when companies didn't think they needed the instantaneous communication of printer-plotters in the days before the widespread adoption of fax technology. Or perhaps it was hearing stories growing up about my grandfather, who built the world's largest pipe organ in Atlantic City. Because of political factors and social changes in the media landscape, this giant instrument, which would have been an amazing technological feat in its day, only left a legacy of bankruptcy, discredit, and disrepair behind. (And -- no -- even though the video above is called "The Senator's Masterpiece," my grandfather was not a United States Senator.")

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