Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Story about Bicycles

Many years ago I worked for a delinquency prevention center, where children from low-income households would receive bicycles as Christmas gifts. I remember being horrified by the fact that by the New Year the bikes had often been sold by the parents and that it was hard to interact with people afterwards who could be so callous and selfish about their children's rights to innocence and play.

I think I've gained a little more perspective on poverty in the intervening years, although I still think that many of those parents were users and substance abusers. Chances are that at least some of those parents thought paying household bills that benefited the entire family might be more important than supporting a resource that could only be used for a single member. In other words, we often gave little pastel-colored bikes to the smallest tykes without considering how the parents who couldn't ride them might be coming up with bus fare to get to work.

Now that I have children of my own and have had to face certain fiscal realities in helping to run a household, albeit on a middle-class first-world scale, I see something different in the case of the missing bicycles. And it makes me see the MIT Media Lab's program for the Hundred Dollar Laptop differently. At SIGGRAPH I saw their prototypes in person for the first time, which are designed to provide portable devices for computing to the developing world.

In the past I've promoted the MIT laptop design aesthetic here on Virtualpolitik and have been lukewarm toward critics who promote cell phone technology as a more easily supported alternative. But since actually using one to do word processing, peruse news feeds, and surf the web, I find myself with concerns about their choice to create a model that is so small and toy-like and so unlike a grown-up laptop in scale and tangible experience.

The adorable little green-and-white devices had keyboards far too small for even my very wee adult hands. (I've always been self-conscious about having child-sized hands, and it made me feel like an even more inadequate music student than I already was growing up.) The MIT laptops seem to be both easily outgrown and hard to use for the rest of the family, even though the older generation also might have pressing needs for web-based information and editable text processing.

By going with this design aesthetic, is the MIT group making the same mistake as we made with our bicycles? Do humanitarians need to watch out for romanticizing ideas about the separateness of childhood?

Finally, how will this lilliputian device make a larger or older child with equally profound or perhaps greater literacy needs feel in comparison to his or her smaller and more nimble counterparts? I know from teaching them that this sense of disproportion of size to ability is often a feature of the lived experiences of special needs children here in the U.S.

Is the project also unintentionally writing off girls who are kept at home to watch younger children or being excluded from school to encourage an unwanted marriage? It was difficult and time-consuming to type the sentence that you see above, and I have hands the size of my eleven-year-old. The hands that type these words are probably smaller than those of many of the girls in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who desperately need a broader view of the world and one enriched by literacy experiences. For these girls, perhaps a six-dollar uniform is a better investment.

Update: Apparently, keeping the XO laptop "out of the hands of adults" was part of their design strategy according to this demo video from SIGGRAPH.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you not press the buttons at all, or was it just less comfortable than the keyboards you're used to?

I suspect the decision to design the keyboard that way has more to do with cutting costs than providing kid-size buttons, and an extra quid or two off the overall price was considered more worthwhile than keys that adults could use with greater comfort.

Of course, if it's really impossible to use for anyone above the age of seven, then yeah, it's a problem. As someone who used to do all their word processing on the basically-a-fancy-pocket-organiser PSION Series 3, I doubt families with have any significant problems though.

(The reason I had to use the PSION was the same as the users of these laptops: it had been donated to me because I couldn't afford to buy a computer. I was grateful to have a keyboard at all, and didn't have a very large frame of reference from which to attack the 6mm square buttons, as I doubt most families receiving the hundred dollar laptop will. Nor has it hindered my ability to write with a full size keyboard later in life - I managed this comment in a mere 5 hours without breaks.)

Your post permits the humorous interpretation that you were perhaps thinking of getting a laptop on the cheap and are furious that you'll have to opt out because the keys are too small. Personally, I haven't cancelled my pre-order just yet...

And, before anyone else gets in with it:

"The fingers you have used to dial are too fat. To order a special dialing wand, please mash the keypad with your palm now."

There are always solutions.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. The way I see it the easiest & and most effective solution is to use external USB keyboard.

11:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't buy the argument regardless of that the design intention was.
- There are 8 Million blackberry users hacking away on a 5x5cm (2x2")keyboard. They seem to 'not-mind'. These adults don't seem to mind and get real work done with these devices. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackBerry#Keyboard)
- Never mind that the 'mobile terminal' market pushes smaller 'keyboards' in the Billions. (http://www.windowsfordevices.com/news/NS5566717572.html) And as one reads, especially in Africa these devices are the communication and transaction equipment of choice, so people should feel right at home with the OLPCs luxurious (compared to a phone) keyboard size.
- As a previous poster pointed out there are USB options. May I suggest a particular kind: "Flexible Fullsize USB Keyboard" is waterproof, washable and rugged, yet still relatively cheap (available for $20 at TigerDirect ... hence available for a few $ a piece in lots of 1K from the Chinese manufacturer). I am sure if the OLPC market gets going solutions like these will become available as well.
- If the keyboard sucks, people will be inventive. Maybe the microphone (voice recognition can be made to work with 433Mhz) or one will be used the touch pad more frequently (as the iphones and ipods just teaching our thumbs).

6:52 PM  

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