Saturday, November 04, 2006

Calling home

My Dad is an inventor. A Chemical Engineer by training, his passion is for problems and blank pieces of paper.

My Mom is wonderful. She has strengths and insights I can’t begin to count here, but she is not an inventor. At 50 something, I’m still growing up with this lovely family wrapped around me.

When I call my folks, Mom usually answers. Dad is usually working. When the ebb and flow of their family life seems to be on divergent courses, I can hear it coming quickly. I can count on Mom to summarize all her thoughts about my Dad’s imperfections, flaws and unfamiliar behaviors with just one word. I see the word coming, inexorably as the little pleasantries get covered. It’s a word not usually associated with venom. It’s a pretty neutral word. An unemotional, technical word,

Except in my family, and in lots of naysayer corners of the world.

To get Mom’s version right, you have to say this word as though it gave you a disease, or say it as though you were spitting out something unpleasant. Are you feeling surly? Good. The word? Prototypes. As in “Your Father is making (there are spiders in my mouth) prototypes.”

It’s good to be on the phone for these conversations because Mom can’t see me smiling. Of course he’s making prototypes. He has to. That’s where change comes from.

The Nov/Dec ’06 MIT Technology Review has a great article by James Surowiecki summarizing the work of an endeavor called One Laptop per Child (OLPC), and its evangelist Nicholas Negroponte. The core of the idea is to create a partnership of seemingly disparate parties, fuse in some technologies that barely exist and work out distribution channels in ways that seem counterproductive.

Prototypes. Squared and cubed. God I wish I was there.

Mr. Negroponte and OLPC are working out details omnidirectionally to get $100 computers into the hands of millions of the world’s poorest children.

They’re probing the world’s realities to find a seam that will work. The technology designs make me shiver. Self powered, drop ‘em on rocks computers that can link every kid in a dirt floor classroom together, as well as to the global internet. It’s a really cool story. Good on ya guys. Make no small plans.

The discussions swirling around this project are interesting, and well illuminated in the OLPC article.

There’s lots of criticism of the plan. It hasn’t been done before. Global norms of common understanding aren’t in place. Bureaucracies are confused. Lefties don’t like it. Righties don’t like it. Spit with me kids, prototypes.

Much of the criticism seems to focus on the fact that resources for the poor should first be directed at the areas of greatest need.

I like the historical perspective from the OCPL article. Andrew Carnegie amassed a fortune in the 1800s that he turned toward building free libraries. He did this at a time when few libraries even existed, and the ones that did charged fees, and had few books to circulate. No one even considered that poor people should have access to these libraries. They had bigger problems.

So Mr. Carnegie went around what people considered normal. He created resources where none had previously existed. He found his own money could leverage public monies. He worked out commercial paths that were counterintuitive, yet repeatable.

Of course the criticism grew.

“… in fact, in many of the towns where he built libraries, citizens grumbled that their tax dollars should be going to something that really mattered.. Yet in the long run, one would be hard pressed to say that either Carnegie or the taxpayers wasted that money, because the social benefits of disseminating knowledge are so immense.”

Much of what One Laptop per Child proposes is tricky. Some of it may not stick. Good. Better than good. It’s great. Their striving will open new and unexpected paths for all of us. We will learn from their hard work what works and more importantly, what doesn’t work and why. We’ll be indebted to every failure and celebrating every success.

It’s the unconventional enterprise models that OLPC is creating that I find inspiring. They are not directing resources. They’re creating new resources to let people make their own lives better. They’re working to find non traditional paths to distribute those resources so those in need can make their own decisions.

You can do this in your own way, on your own path, with your own plan. Throw yourself heartily at one problem. Work to create resources where they don’t exist. The best part about making something new is that there are very few rules. Don’t expect all of it to stick. Just keep making prototypes.

Then repeat the ones that stick.

Thanks Dad.

One Laptop per Child

MIT Technology Review. Hard copy edition of the Nov/Dec cover is a close up of an OLPC computer overlaid with this title: Will This Save the World? The $100 Laptop. Mr. Surowiecki's article is titled: Philanthropy's New Prototype.

wiki info about James_Surowiecki author of the The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. A very interesting book I highly recommend.

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