Saturday, December 15, 2007

Brave New World is here sooner than you think

Can you imagine a world where everyone could talk to everyone, anywhere in the world? Not just adults, but children too?

What would happen if all the 9 year olds all over the planet were able to talk to each other? It's not a rhetorical question; it looks like we may actually find out, thanks to revolutionary new technology like the XO laptop, which is making it literally possible in the here-and-now.

Rory Cellan-Jones, in this article for the BBC News, writes about his experience with the XO laptop. He was given an XO laptop after a recent visit to Nigeria to see how the laptops were being implemented there.

Because the laptop is designed for children, he decided to give it to his 9 year old son to use. He thought the boy, Rufus, would quickly grow bored with it, but the opposite has happened. The kid not only quickly learned the software and capabilities of the computer; he ended up talking to other children with XO laptops around the world. And his dad doesn't quite understand how it is happening! A few excerpts here:

A child's view of the $100 laptop
[...] Enter Rufus Cellan-Jones. He is nine, has far more experience of games consoles than computers, and has strong views on most matters.

"Looks fun," was his only comment when I handed over the small, green and white laptop, explaining that he was the only child in Britain to have one.

But very quickly he was up and running.

All I did was give him the security code for our home wireless network so he could take the XO online.


But the real surprise came one evening, when Rufus asked me to explain what his friends were telling him on the laptop.

I thought those imaginary childhood friends from years back must have returned.

But I went and had a look - and it was true - he appeared to be chatting online.

So how had he managed that?

"You go on "neighbourhood", then you go to the chat thing.

You go on Nigeria and you chat to them."

But why, if he was online with the children at the Nigerian school I had visited, were they sending messages in Spanish?

I decided he must be linking up with one of the South American schools taking part in the OLPC project but we still aren't sure quite how that is happening.

Still, Rufus is widening his social circle. " I have three friends. It's nice to talk to them. They don't speak much English but I can understand them." The conversation is not exactly sparkling, but Rufus has learned to say "Hola". [...]

The XO laptop uses something called mesh networking, which makes it easy to connect to other computers on the mesh network... even children in other countries using the OX laptop, apparently.

The software is Linux, using a Graphical User Interface (GUI) called "Sugar". The Sugar GUI is designed to make learning the computer easy for children who have never used a computer before. Thus, it's not like a conventional computer desktop.

I considered downloading it to try it out, but as I read about it, I didn't find it appealing. In a story on, a man buy's an XO for his wife for Christmas. But as he tries using it himself, he thinks she won't like it; it's not made for adults (although there is potential for an adult version of the XO to be produced).

Below you can see a Youtube video of Rufus using his XO computer, demonstrating some of it's features, and showing how he finds other children around the world on it:

The video is less than 3 minutes long. I recommend reading the rest of the BBC article for more of Rufus's opinions, and details from his dad about how it all unfolded, and what he thinks now of the potential of the OLPC Project.

I'm still wondering about the unforeseen consequences. Some people are worried that child molesters could stalk the mesh network, and lure children into dangerous situations. But that at least is being foreseen, and steps are being taken to secure the network against child predators. What I mean by unforeseen is, what will a completely internet-connected world be like? Where all the 9 year olds on the planet, where just about EVERYONE, can talk to each other?

It's never happened before. But ready or not, it's coming. If the OLPC Project fails, someone else will pick up the ball and run with it. It's inevitable. Are you ready for it? Are any of us ready?

Oh, brave new world, with such people in it.

You can click here to see a page with this and all my other posts about the OLPC Project, and similar devices.

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