Editor’s Note: We are lucky to have Morgan G. Ames @morgangames back from her fieldwork in South America to contribute a post to March edition of Stories to Action. Morgan gives us an insider’s view of a One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) project in Paraguay. Her insights reveal how ethnographic work creates a critical eye to reveal the truth behind what she calls “performing success.” Her story helps us see how the real benefits that users experience with a technology are often covered up with mythologies that we tell about the device. The result of her work provides invaluable insights for OLPC.
Morgan shared this story below at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk. After her presentation, Morgan also hosted the geek version of My Little Pony or Porn Star (take the test if you haven’t yet!) in having us guess the technology referred to in overly optimistic quotes about new technologies. You can play along by watching the video of Morgan hosting the game with the conference attendees. Morgan created a tumblr, Techutopianism, dedicated to tracking technology utopian quotes!
This vignette problematizes the value of first impressions by illustrating an example of participants’ desire to perform success to visitors, especially high-profile ones. In the process, it shows the value of ethnographies, as more sustained research initiatives which ideally last long after the novelty effect of the visitor and of the (techno-)social interactions they are studying have worn off.
The day started like many schooldays in Paraguay. It was a Tuesday in late October, 2010, well into spring, and several months into my fieldwork studying the medium-size One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project there. The sun was beating down and temperatures had already climbed into the high 20s C when we rolled up to the school at 8am with our visitor in tow, just in time for the start of classes.
The visitor, one of OLPC’s founding members and chief software architects, was in the country for a whirlwind five-day visit. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, Paraguay Educa, had carefully filled his itinerary with meetings with high-ranking officials they hoped to convince to support the project as well a visit to Itaipu Dam, one of its most high-profile donors – and this school visit.
I was excited and intrigued that this visitor was going to actually visit a school and spend time in a classroom. After several months of fieldwork, I had noted a number of positive aspects about the project, especially due to the sustained efforts the NGO had been putting into teacher training, community outreach, and laptop maintenance, but I had also noted a number of troubling issues, some of them caused by OLPC’s design or support choices. Would he see these issues, and if so, would he act on making them better?