Wednesday, September 19, 2007

91. Brave New World

So, what is to be done with indigenous children? Is it fair to simply permit them to be raised by their families, as indigenes, to be indoctrinated into the value system and traditions of their forbears? Won't they miss out on all the wonderful opportunities afforded by the modern world, for education and specialized training, so they'll have an equal opportunity to play a meaningful role in the highly technical culture of the new global economy? Shouldn't we at the very least give them the opportunity to decide which path to take, without undue interference on the part of their "backward," "primitive" and "superstitious" parents?

Before answering that question, those reading here should think a bit about their own cultural background, and the extent to which they themselves have become independent of their parents, and their own particular "ethnic," "tribal," and/or religious heritage. Many of us had certain opportunities to free ourselves from our ethnic past, and, with very little hesitation, took them. I know I did. So why shouldn't the same opportunities be afforded to all children everywhere, regardless of how impoverished -- or indigenous -- they might be?

This appears to be the thinking behind the latest and greatest scheme of Nicholas Negroponte, "visionary" director of the MIT Media Lab, who wants every child in the "underdeveloped" world to have a laptop computer. You can find the Mission Statement for his "One Laptop Per Child" program here. No one is asking the parents of these children for either their input into this program or their opinion of its worth. They are, of course, too "backward" to understand.

But their children "get it," don't they? Every kid wants a computer, no? After all there are some great games, unlimited opportunities to chat with ones pals, and all sorts of wonderful websites, devoted to such "educational" matters as shoe ads, music downloads and -- well -- shoe ads and music downloads. If the "shoe ads" bit puzzles you, I can understand. It puzzled me as well, when I learned (from the horse's mouth) that the number one Internet target for middle and high school children, at least in Pittsburgh, was websites featuring ads for footwear. Not porn! Not Hip-Hop! Footwear!!! I'm talking boys, by the way, not girls. Boys!

Is "One Computer Per Child" an educational program? or the cleverest global marketing scheme ever devised? Or, better yet (since it includes both in one neat package) the cleverest brainwashing method ever devised? Does it really matter? Because you know and I know that nothing is going to stop this juggernaut from polluting the already fragile cultural environment big-time. Lomax's words seem as relevant now as when he first pecked them, using his inimitable two-finger technique, onto his old-fashioned manual typewriter: "A mismanaged, over‑centralized electronic communica­tion system is imposing a few standardized, mass‑produced and cheapened cultures everywhere."

So, yes, all children everywhere are entitled to an equal opportunity. But an opportunity for what? If Negroponte gets his way and millions of impoverished children are able to access the internet via cheap (by our standards, not theirs) laptops -- and, moreover, by some miracle, large percentages of these children are able, as a result, to actually become "educated" by western standards, and even have the opportunity to go to college, then what percent of these children, do you suppose, will have any sort of chance whatsoever to actually participate in some meaningful way in "the global economy" -- or any economy whatever, besides the same economy of subordination, exploitation, slavery and crime the great majority are already engulfed in? Why not do something to improve that economy first, before attempting to sell them on the phony dream of participation in an elite that already neither needs nor wants more than the smallest percentage of the masses of over educated adults currently on the labor market?

Meanwhile what is to be done? Are the children of indigenous peoples victims of their culture's underdevelopment and backwardness (reinforced by the "romantic" notions of "essentializing" anthropologists), who must at all costs be rescued, by missionary groups, well-meaning charities, nationally sponsored educational programs (ala "Rabbit-Proof Fence"), or pie-in-the-sky "visionaries" such as Negroponte? Or are they victims, rather, of an aggrandizing, hegemonic, greedy, deceptively "egalitarian," but in truth ruthlessly exploitive, global capitalist system; hapless pawns, who must at all costs be rescued by essentializing, romantic anthropologists, so they can be returned to the bosom of their "native" society, to struggle for survival in communities that are, tragically, and far too often: sexist, homophobic, exploitive, alcoholic, drug-addicted, selfish, greedy, impoverished, ill, dysfunctional, dis-spirited, disinherited, displaced, disheartened, doomed to irrelevance in the brave new world of "today."

Pardon the sarcasm, but just thinking about this stuff makes me dizzy with a sense of frustration and hopelessness, warping my brain. Clearly, the issues facing the children of indigenous (and/or "underdeveloped") peoples are indeed some of the most complex issues faced by anyone in the world today. It might surprise you to learn that I have no solutions to offer (aside from the one about improving the economic conditions of impoverished and exploited peoples generally). The situations faced by these children are indeed dire. These are just some of the excruciatingly complex problems that Peter Jones is routinely struggling with on his Indigenous Issues Today blog, and I admire his courage and intelligence in discussing them with such compassion, wisdom, insight, knowledge and fairness. I also offer him my sympathy, because he has a truly daunting task before him.

As for me, all I can do at this point is return to the principal matter at hand in this blog, the issue of cultural survival, which is thankfully, by comparison, far simpler to evaluate -- and rectify.


David Merrill said...

This post reminds me of an old saying: something along the lines of "you can tell the pioneers because they are the ones with arrows in their backs!" While the context of that saying may be problematic, I think it's relevant here - Nicholas Negroponte is getting a lot of arrows slung his way these days.

In fact, Negroponte agrees with the reality that improving the economic condition for kids in impoverished areas of the world (and by extension, making sure they have access to food, clean water, shelter, etc) is of utmost importance. Those things are obviously necessary. But to think of the project as a "laptop project" misses the point - it's really an education project, embodying a generation of thinking in educational constructivism. Would anyone argue that improving education for these children is not important? Also, the introduction of the XO laptop doesn't preclude other organizations from providing other forms of aid - aid is not mutually exclusive. The ~$100 laptop an attempt to give kids access to the information world that most of us take for granted - since MIT's specialty is technology, that's how they can contribute best.

I see your point about the propensity of the internet to homogenize culture, and that it is often used as a sales channel. But I think your strong concern may not give due credit to the resilience of cultures. I spent last weekend on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, a place where the decent economy makes for relatively universal access to the internet. Interestingly, there has been a surge of renewed interest in traditional Celtic folk music among the young people on the island. They are taking up guitars, harps, piano, etc - and learning to play traditional songs.

Although it has its detractors, the Internet is still today's number-one source for all kinds of information, and I think that the benefits for these kids of having access to this information outweigh the costs.

DocG said...

Thanks for your comments, David. You make some excellent points. Negroponte's project certainly deserves more consideration than I gave it in my last post, which was perhaps overly harsh. The whole issue of the role of computers and the Internet with respect to indigenous issues and the survival of indigenous cultures is very interesting for sure, and I haven't as yet made up my mind about it. I'd like to take up this thread in a future post and would like to quote you, if you don't mind. If you do, please let me know, and I won't quote you directly or by name.