The article I didn’t write.

I haven’t written much about the One Laptop Per Child initiative in the past few months. This isn’t because little has happened with the project – in the months since I wrote a long OLPC post, we’ve seen a prototype of the machine, a factory-produced device, major work on the “Sugar” operating environment, and a finalization of the first five countries to pioneer the device. It also isn’t because I’ve lost interest in the device – I continue to be fascinated both by the audacity of the project and by the degrees of success it’s had so far.

I agreed to write a long piece for a well-respected technology journal about the laptop late in the spring of 2006. The editors of the journal asked – not unreasonably – that I not use in the information I was going to publish in that piece on my blog, and I agreed. I turned in a draft of the piece in early July, went through several edits with my editor, and generally felt pretty good about where the piece was going. (A slightly updated version of that draft is available here.)

But then the managing editor of the journal got hold of the piece, and I discovered they wanted something very different from what I’d written – they wanted critique, tension and controversy about the project. I got a draft back that bore very little resemblance to what I’d written – it was filled with international development clichés (“In a world where half the world has never made a phonecall, does it make sense to give children a laptop?”) and mean-spirited skepticism about the project (“if the laptops overheat, poor people can use them as pot warmers”.)

Basically, it wasn’t something I was willing to have my name attached to. And so I withdrew from writing the piece and told the editor I’d been working with – not the editor who’d demanded these changes – that she was free to run the piece under her name using my research, but that I wasn’t going to be associated with the tone or the conclusions of the piece.

So… eight months, several drafts and many, many unhappy phonecalls later, I’m not going to have the peer reviewed journal article that I could hold up to my colleagues at Berkman to prove that, yes, I really am trying to be an academic. And I’m left with some questions that I need to think through before taking on an assignment like this again.

One of my best friends, Nathan Kurz, read through the draft I ended up refusing and helped me conclude that I shouldn’t allow it to be published. He flew home a few days later and read “The Best American Science Writing 2006” on the flight home, which gave him a useful insight on my experiences. “I’d wager that about half the pieces had the same tone of breathless controversy that your editor added.”

This comment helped me understand the experience I’d had with my editors regarding this piece. When I first started writing it, my editor asked about a possible “hook” based on Bill Gates’s opposition to OLPC. Later, we talked about creating tension between mobile phones and inexpensive computers as dueling strategies for wiring the developing world. The draft of the article I ended up refusing created tension between the cyberutopian optimism of the laptop creators and my hard-earned field-tested cynicism about the stresses Africa puts on laptops.

It’s not that I don’t think there’s any tension, conflict or disagreement over the One Laptop project – it’s just that I don’t think the disagreement fits into a neat “He say, she says” form. Personally, I’m pretty convinced that the hardware’s quite well designed and that the software is evolving rapidly. My concerns over the project have to do with whether educators will embrace the project or fight it, and whether the project’s aims will be embraced in developing world schools. But that’s more an open question than it is a breathless conflict. It’s possible that the draft I came up with is simply so boring that it couldn’t appear in this journal without some tension to draw in readers… but it raises the question of how one writes about science or technology when there’s no great drama unfolding, just progress being made.

The other frustration in this process is the timescale. When I drafted this article half a year ago, it was quite up to date and would have broken some new ground in writing about the project. Subsequently, Wayan Vota has reported much of what I’d planned to say on his excellent OLPC blog, and John Markoff has written the definitive OLPC article in the NYTimes. Even had I approved the last edit of the piece, it would have taken another couple of months to get through peer review and into print, possibly nine months from my first draft to publication. And this isn’t even that bad – I have a book chapter waiting for publication which is now over a year old – when I wrote it, it had up-to-date statistics regarding developing world weblogs. By the time it’s published, it will only be interesting as a historical document – not a single figure will be within an order of magnitude of accuracy.

It’s hard to figure out the value of academic publishing if you’re not an academic. When I write here, I tend to get critique – usually smart, well-informed critique – within hours. I often discover that I’m flat out wrong about something I’ve asserted, and I can update my opinions and impressions based on feedback from people better informed than I am. That seems like a much more efficient form of peer review – at least in the academic realm I inhabit – than waiting six to twelve months to find out whether an anonymous reviewer thinks my now-out of date paper is worth publishing.

While I’m sad this article won’t have a life beyond my blog, I’m happy to walk away from it as it lets me start writing about OLPC again. I’m off in a few minutes to a meeting about the content that might be included with the first generation of laptops and hope to share notes and impressions from that meeting over the weekend.

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6 Responses to The article I didn’t write.

  1. Pingback: Davos Newbies » Blog Archive » The value of immediacy

  2. betsy says:

    I still find your analysis of OLPC in this blog to be the most enlightening I’ve read, and the educational theory challenge you have cited in our discussions of it to be the most nuanced critique of it that anyone has identified to me. I would love to read an article focusing on that point alone, not because it’s controversial, but because it seems like a point of academic interest. But it seems intellectually lazy to confuse controversy wtih interest, and that’s what troubles me about this experience. It seems like the second editor of this article wanted to manufacture controversy for its own sake.

    Perhaps the lesson to be taken from this is not that academic writing is bad — that would be a sad lesson — but that it is ill-suited to covering developments that might otherwise be called “news.” News develops too quickly, and is too susceptible to the desire for controversy. One cannot peer-review the news. Imagine what a peer-reviewed issue of Rolling Stone or The Economist might look like. (Or perhaps we are too far down that road already, but that’s a thought for another day.) So where academic writing crosses over with news, it is built for a wide audience, its underlying basis becomes a moving target, and it becomes a hybrid with popular writing. Which is okay, but it doesn’t strike me as terribly academic. It’s designed to get eyeballs on the page.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to say that I think this experience isn’t a condemnation of the academic press as much as it is of this particular editor, and of the hybrid between academic and popular press. And yet another ratification of blogs as providing something that the elephantine press cannot. But what you learn from the blogging experience in real time can create the basis for something more “academic” (say, an article about learning theory or about the democratization of information flow) as well. No?

  3. zephoria says:

    There are other venues you could publish this kind of article. I would actually recommend First Monday – it’s one of those venues that both academics and “other” people read.

  4. paul says:

    Thanks for posting the article, which is a great summary. If it had been published in a journal, very few of us would ever have read it.

    It sounds like academic publishers need to learn a little bit from wikipedia, which is one step beyond peer-reviewed – it is peer-generated. It is not that difficult to imagine review models for academic journals that are more streamlined than the three-reviewer model that currently dominates, where your article sits untouched on the desk of a reviewer for four months until she finally gets around to reviewing it. For instance, academics could flag themselves as “available” or “unavailable” to review an article within one or two weeks, and articles for review are sent to those who are at a point where they can conduct a review quickly.

    As for OLPC, I think you’re right that the implementation approach is the key. If the laptops sit under lock and key, to be used for structured learning, one hour every week in “computer class”, then they won’t have very much impact at all. I’ve both taken and taught such computer classes, and while they can be beneficial, they are not transformational, because they constrain the child’s pace of learning to that of the teacher, which is dramatically slower, especially in technology.

    But if it’s open access, the challenge will be to stop parents who lack the vision from selling the laptop at the local market – even $50 goes a long way in the places where the laptop wants to be used. Especially if the Ministry of Education is committed to replacing “stolen” laptops.

    Maybe a secure, public environment is finally best, where use is free and open, but laptops are locked down and difficult to steal. While it lacks the coolness of kids playing with laptops in their mud huts, I imagine such computing centres would still be quite popular.

    In any case, these sorts of things will surely face the buyers of the OLPC in the years ahead. Hopefully they can have sufficient vision to realize the potential of the device, and the wisdom to learn from their mistakes.

  5. But Ethan, you are publishing a journal, and it’s peer-reviewed. If we link to your article, then we agree that it’s worthwhile.

  6. paolo says:

    Ah ah, it is always refreshing, even after years, to read your experience with publishing on journals and what is broken with it. Your words resonate strongly with every researchers, I think.

    I’ve heard you are involved with Ahref, the new foundation in Trento. I’m involved as well, so it might happen we will finally have a real meeting, at least one more successful than that video conference I tried to set up for the doctorate course in ICT4Development time and time ago. ;)

    Ciao! ;)

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