Nicholas Negroponte in conversation

Nicholas Negroponte‘s an avuncular man and an incisive thinker. Yesterday I went to see him talk at TechHub in Old Street. I noted some of his comments – they’re in quotes below. I’ve added my own thoughts, too.

1. Going with the dynamic flow

Early in his career, Negroponte realised that ‘the future of computer science is in the applications, not in the science’. Applications release outputs into the wild. Their meaning comes from how they’re actually used, not what they are or what they’re planned to be.

Flipboard‘s a practical example of that. ‘I think Flipboard is more profound than Flipboard understands’. It’s the application of the application, not the application itself, that makes the difference. Success is a dynamic by-product of use, not a static end-product of design.

That fed through into his investment strategy. ‘The idea almost makes no difference. It’s the person, not the idea… time and time again I’ve seen good ideas fail and bad ideas make lots of money’. It’s not what you’ve got but what you can do with it that counts.

2. Learning the children’s new world

In the remoter parts of Peru, Negroponte’s seen his One Laptop Per Child project lead to children teaching their parents how to read. Children are experts in dealing with novelty and hard-wired to learn languages fast. OLPC reverses the traditional parent-child relationship.

‘Many of the kids sleep with their laptops…’ When the laptops break, they’re very reluctant to hand them back for repair. They won’t let go of the broken laptop until the new one is in their other hand. This is symbiosis. The child sees the laptop as a permanent, non-negotiable component of self.

In the western world, ‘I don’t know of any child between six and twenty six who has read a newspaper… (they’ve) abandoned long-form reading. The concept of boredom has gone. If you’re not doing something, your thumb is.’ What technologies have our children fused with? What are they trying to teach us?

3. The politics of OLPC

It’s easier to seed more autocratic countries with laptops. One person can get behind the project and make it happen. I asked him about the problems of dealing with more democratic countries. He defined the difficulty as bureaucracy. ‘In a bureaucracy, if things go wrong you get the blame, and your boss gets the credit’. Risk aversion breaks progress.

OLPC put the Koran on the laptops it sent to Afghanistan. This is the only time that they’ve supplied them with content. Because of this, the Taliban haven’t taken any of the laptops away from the kids. ‘That was purposeful and worked magically’.

There’s ‘very little theft, very little abuse. The worse you get is an older sibling who didn’t get one of the laptops because they’re older than the age group’. I wondered what it would be like to be one of those, trapped in the middle as your juniors become fluent in the new world, and then start teaching your parents how it works.

4. What’s the significance of Social Media?

Social media creates ‘a general feeling of your voice meaning something… it’s heard, it’s meaningful’. Its multiplicity breaks autocracy. Negroponte cited the various Middle Eastern revolutions as examples.

OLPC is a subset of social media. I wondered about the various autocrats pushing laptops out to their children. What did they understand themselves to be doing?

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