The Charisma Machine

The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child

328 pages

English language

Published Jan. 18, 2019 by MIT Press.


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5 stars (2 reviews)

A fascinating examination of technological utopianism and its complicated consequences.

In The Charisma Machine, Morgan Ames chronicles the life and legacy of the One Laptop per Child project and explains why—despite its failures—the same utopian visions that inspired OLPC still motivate other projects trying to use technology to “disrupt” education and development.

Announced in 2005 by MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte, One Laptop per Child promised to transform the lives of children across the Global South with a small, sturdy, and cheap laptop computer, powered by a hand crank. In reality, the project fell short in many ways—starting with the hand crank, which never materialized. Yet the project remained charismatic to many who were captivated by its claims of access to educational opportunities previously out of reach. Behind its promises, OLPC, like many technology projects that make similarly grand claims, had a fundamentally flawed vision of who the computer …

3 editions

Must read for CS people

4 stars

Two prominent subcultures within computer science academe and practice are "Free and Open Source Software" and "Startup Culture". This book made me think (uncomfortably) about the connections and commonalities of the two. Some of the most cringe-worthy moments from tech people come from someone thinking that a certain amount of skill at e.g. computer programming makes them an expert in a completely unrelated topic. This is a kind of anti-intellectualism; maybe it is sometimes needed, but it seems more often harmful than helpful.

From Man-boy Dreams to Broken Screens

5 stars

This book was a surprise to me. I knew very little about the "One Laptop Per Child" programme, and never really set out to learn more. I also did not expect a book about such a niche topic to be interesting enough for a duration. But Morgan G. Ames' brilliant critical analysis is about far more than that programme. It is about techno-utopic dreams and how they get inflated by the charisma of those who come up with them. OLPC was the brainchild of some of the founding members of the MIT Media Lab, and was put forward as a scheme that would empower poor children into becoming keen technologists in the future.

Ames' anthropological writing is sharp and often funny, her analysis is bulletproof, and her conclusions are damning. The programme was a complete failure: The machines were expensive, prone to breaking, under-used, poorly designed for purpose and unpopular …