The Cyborg and the Noble Savage: Ethics in the War on Information Poverty

The Cyborg and the Noble Savage: Ethics in the War on Information Poverty

Martin Ryder (University of Colorado at Denver, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-022-6.ch016
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This chapter provides a brief summary of the technical and social hurdles that define the so-called ‘digital divide’ and it considers the celebrated ‘One Laptop Per Child’ project as one response to the problem of digital poverty. The chapter reviews the design of the XO laptop with particular interest on the ethical territory that is traversed in the implementation of a low-cost computer intended for millions of children in underdeveloped nations. The chapter reviews how XO designers negotiated between ethics and feasibility as they confronted numerous problems including infrastructure, power consumption, hazardous materials, free vs. proprietary software, security, and the cost of labor. Apart from technical considerations, this review of the XO evaluates the notion of cultural hegemony and how the imposition of such technology as an educational tool might be balanced by considerations of local control and user agency.
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The digital divide is the white man’s burden of the present era. As technically advanced people become enriched by the knowledge they create, there is a consciousness that millions of disconnected people lack the ‘freedoms’ associated with modern civilization. In this digital age, the billions who survive without computer technology are seen as languishing on a globe that can no longer sustain hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. The technical world of automation, manufacturing and mass consumption is increasingly hostile to the simple folk who live directly from the land. Modern humanity’s ability to dominate nature has imposed serious consequences on pre-modern societies that depend completely upon nature for their sustenance.

Kipling’s White Man’s Burden captured the prevailing ethic of a colonialist society that justified conquest of non-Western cultures in the name of ‘civilization’. It was a noble enterprise to lift savage populations from their ‘simplicity’ and hopeless poverty. This transformation began with skills of reading and writing. Literacy came first in the form of religion, then it flourished under the tutelage of commercialism. Today, the medium of literacy has migrated from parchment to silicon and the electronic well of knowledge is deep and boundless. Those who draw from the well continue to enrich it as they are enriched by it. But most of the world’s people remain disconnected from this knowledge source. They do not speak its language, they are unaware of its powers, and they are completely consumed by the more urgent necessities of daily living.

The focal point of this chapter is the celebrated OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project founded in 2005 by Nicholas Negroponte and a core team of the M.I.T. Media Lab. OLPC is an aggressive project that addresses the core issues of information poverty head on. The stated goal of OLPC is “to develop a $100 laptop – a technology that could revolutionize the way we educate the world’s children.”1 In working toward this goal, the designers have grappled with problems of technical feasibility, organizational pragmatics, social and political considerations, and the overarching problem of cultural hegemony. Negroponte’s non-profit team has wrestled between government ministries (as customers) and corporate interests (as suppliers) over questions of content, connectivity, power sources, the user interface, privacy, licensing, component sources, manufacturing, distribution and scores of related issues. What has emerged is a very novel technology at a very low cost with the potential for wide distribution in equally novel markets.

The ethical issues that we confront in this chapter are as numerous, complex, and varied as the science of ethics itself. They traverse several major traditions of ethical theory including natural law, utilitarian theory, and deontology and the applied fields of environmental ethics, engineering ethics and computer ethics. The very fact that we are addressing this issue - the digital divide - places us immediately into a state of anguish associated with Sartre’s existential ethics. While embracing the new powers that we inherit from information technology, we accept responsibility for ourselves in the use of these powers. And yet, as a free people, we also accept responsibility for the impact of our choices upon those who do not possess such power. Can a moral person ignore the growing knowledge gulf between our present-day civilizations? Who of us is justified in raising the question of digital poverty? Can the Western mind presume to understand a life of survival without technology and then dare to suggest a technical solution? In advancing our technologies to the farthest reaches of humanity, what are the unintended consequences of our actions? Do we, as Albert Borgmann (1999) suggests, risk the possibility of forever losing touch with nature?

This chapter will address some of the salient ethical issues associated with the digital divide and the moral implications of one specific intervention: the OLPC project. We will briefly consider some of the engineering ethics associated with the design and world-wide distribution of a child’s laptop computer. We will also consider the issue of cultural hegemony that is unavoidably associated with this project and observe the manner in which the designers have consciously addressed this concern.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Constructivism: Constructivism is a philosophical position that views knowledge as the outcome of experience mediated by one’s own prior knowledge and the experience of others. In contrast to objectivism (e.g. Ayn Rand, 1957 ) which embraces a static reality that is independent of human cognition, constructivism (e.g. Immanuel Kant, 1781/1787 AU34: The in-text citation "Immanuel Kant, 1781/1787" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ) holds that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought. Each new conception of the world is mediated by prior-constructed realities that we take for granted. Human cognitive development is a continually adaptive process of assimilation, accommodation, and correction ( Piaget, 1968 ). Social constructivists (e.g. Berger and Luckmann, 1966 AU35: The in-text citation "Berger and Luckmann, 1966" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ) suggest that it is through the social process that reality takes on meaning and that our lives are formed and reformed through the dialectical process of socialization. A similar dialectical relationship informs our understanding of science (e.g. Bloor, 1976 ), and it shapes the technical artifacts that we invent and continually adapt to our changing realities (e.g. Bijker, 1995 ). Humans are shaped by their interactions with machines just as machines evolve and change in response to their use by humans. ( Lemke, 1993 ).

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS): This is software that is available to the general public not only to be used, but to be changed and adapted as local usage patterns may dictate. Sometimes referred to as ‘freeware’, the design documentation and human-readable source code are openly published and not constrained by intellectual property restrictions that would limit how and where the software will be used or how it might be improved or adapted to a particular need. Recognizing the social nature of knowledge and the constructivist nature of technology, participants in the free and open software movement routinely collaborate and share information with peers and they assert no exclusive claims to the software designs and code implementations that result from this wide collaborative praxis.

Cyborg: A compound word formed from the words: ‘cybernetic organism’. The term was coined by two medical researchers ( Clynes and Kline, 1960 ) to describe a cybernetic augmentation of machines with the human body toward the goal of achieving super-human capabilities of survival. The term has been adopted in popular literature to describe a synthesis of organic and synthetic parts, and is widely used to convey the melding of the human mind with computer technology to achieve super-human cognitive powers. Dona Haraway frames the expression in context of techno-political supremacy as “the awful apocalyptic telos of the West’s dominations,” (1991, p. 150).

Digital Divide: This expression arose in the digital age to describe the information gulf that exists between peoples and societies. The perceived gulf is the result of the dramatic rise of information technologies that evolved exponentially in the developed countries during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. The expression connotes the idea that information is a potent source of power, and those who enjoy access to information technologies have the potential to wield significant power over those who have no such access.

Subversive Rationalization: Coined by Andrew Feenberg (1992) , subversive rationalization describes the constructivist nature of technology. In particular, it denotes the manner that technologies undergo a metamorphosis through the process of adoption and use over time. While such changes may undermine a designer’s intentions, the transformations result in a democratizing trend that may convert a given technology from an instrument of social control to one that is guided by democratic social forces and human values. The final shape of an instrument is determined, not by the designer, but by the cultural logic of the human actors who adopt and use the technology.

Hegemony: Hegemony describes the political, economic, and cultural domination of one class of people over other classes. Hegemony comes about, not by means of forceful repression over those who might resist domination, but through the passive consent of subordinate classes who eventually accept the social order as a natural state of affairs as it is manifested in virtually every social institution. Hegemony is most pronounced in societies where the dominant class controls the information sector including mass media, education, and the market supply chain.

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