[Squeakland] Tracing the Dynabook: A Dissertation

John Maxwell jmax at sfu.ca
Mon Jan 22 15:27:39 PST 2007

On Jan 19, 2007, at 12:00 PM, bert at freudenbergs.de wrote:

> Sounds very interesting :) I of course searched the PDF for
> "OLPC" (being one of the guys who puts Etoys onto the OLPC machine),
> but it only has a brief mention. I'd be interested in your take on  
> that.

I wrote the bulk of this thing before the OLPC project had gotten  
very far (which made it much easier to write! :-) and so there is  
just one footnote near the end.

But I did address the OLPC issue in my thesis defense. While I'm  
eagerly watching the project, and have great optimism for it, I also  
think that it's a grand risk -- one of the biggest shots in the dark  
in recent history actually.

My reason for this assessment has everything to do with the analysis  
of "computing cultures" that I talk about in the dissertation. There,  
I look at Squeak in the light of the incredible weight of accumulted  
Unix and Microsoft culture, which is shot through just about  
everything we do on the Internet these days. With such a culture  
(Eric Raymond's Art of Unix Programmming is a good ethnography), we  
have (more or less) a shared worldview, vocabularly, set of virtues,  
and benchmarks for what is good and what isn't.

In light of that, what Squeak is or isn't able to accomplish in the  
'developed world' is in response to or contrast to that dominant  
culture. It's an uphill battle some of the time (as we all know), but  
it also provides people at least a background against which Squeak's  
vision of the world can be seen/compared/evaluated. But... take it to  
Africa or wherever, and give it to kids who've never even been  
exposed to Microsoft culture, let alone Unix, let alone PARC/ 
Smalltalk/etc., and who knows how they will make sense of any of it.  
Maybe the lack of cultural baggage is a good thing, because there's  
less unlearning of the Unix way needed; EToys can be taken at "face  
value". Or maybe it makes it even more alien and remote and  

In sum, I guess my "take on it" is that to focus on the technological  
achievements of OLPC (as the blogs are so fond of doing) vastly  
underestimates the amount of cultural context required to make sense  
of those achievements. We can take that context mostly for granted.  
Without the cultural background, however, it seems like a major shot  
in the dark. May it bring forth great and unseen things!

  - John Maxwell
    Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing
    Simon Fraser University
    jmax at sfu.ca

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