My notes and other stuff

2024/06/03

Paper: Charismatic Technology

A cool paper I've read recently is Morgan G. Ames' Charismatic Technology. In this one, she proposes the concept of Charismatic Technology as an explanation for the holding power that some technologies exhibit for long periods of times, even if they fail to deliver on their promises time and time again. The paper is written with a focus on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which had the XO laptop as a figurehead:

Figure 1. A promotional picture of the XO in standard laptop configuration, showing the first-generation Sugar interface

The idea behind the project was that you would have this very promising laptop, with very promising features, such as:

The laptop meeting none of these objectives didn't matter. In fact, the media even added more to it, with stories of the laptop screen being the only light in a village (even though it functioned on AC power). So the author—who also spent 7 months of field work for an OLPC project—basically asks why is it that technologies like these keep captivating their users and admirers for decades, even when they never deliver on their promises?

That's where the idea of charismatic technology comes in:

[...] a charismatic object derives its power experientially and symbolically through the possibility or promise of action: what is important is not what the object is but what it promises to do. Thus, the material form of a charismatic technology is less important than how it invokes the imagination. [...] A charismatic technology’s promises are likewise uncannily compelling, evoking feelings of awe, transcendence, and connection to a greater purpose.

[...] Charisma moreover implies a persistence of this compelling force even when an object’s actions do not match its promises – hence the magical element of charisma.

[...]

In their often utopian promises of action, charismatic technologies are deceptive: they make both technological adoption and social change appear straightforward instead of a difficult process fraught with choices and politics. This gives charismatic technologies a determinist spirit, where technological progress appears natural, even inevitable.

This is a bit of an abstract definition (and the paper goes to greater length to couch it in literature), but clear enough for its purposes. Ames then dives into a deeper analysis that points out that even though charismatic technology promises to change its users' sociotechnical experience for the better, it always remains fundamentally conservative as a technology. Do note here that the author means conservative in terms of "maintaining existing values" rather than the political movement in the US:

a charismatic technology’s appeal is built on existing systems of meaning-making and largely confirms the value of existing stereotypes, institutions, and power relations. This unchallenging familiarity is what makes a charismatic technology alluring to its target audience: even as it promises certain benefits, it simultaneously confirms that the worldview of its audience is already ‘right’ and that, moreover, they are even savvier to have this technology bolster it.

This brings the concept into the ideological realm, which tends to ignore all contingencies and historical context, which makes whatever the ideology is about look like it stands outside of history, both inevitable and natural.

For the OLPC project, Negroponte and Papert are pointed out as leaders:

Both Negroponte and Papert are themselves charismatic, and both used it to build the charisma of the OLPC project and the XO laptop. While Negroponte has been the public face of the project, glibly flinging XOs across stages at world summits to demonstrate their ruggedness and talking about “helicopter deployments” of laptops to remote areas, Papert was the project’s intellectual father. His whole career focused on the idea of computers for children, leading to the development of LOGO, Turtle Graphics, Lego Mindstorms, and, finally, One Laptop per Child. [...] Papert is still often considered a central figure in education and design, and his books remain foundational to the curriculum at the MIT Media Lab.

The paper points out both leaders had the dream to change the world, to make it better, but also—as the author asserts—to make it in their image. This is based on three elements: childhood, schools, and computers.

For childhood, the OLPC project buys into the idea that children are born curious and only need the right context (eg. a laptop) to keep it going. This, however, assumes that engineering-oriented tinkering is a natural inclination, a common pattern in the history of American toy-making, along with ideas of healthy rebellion particularly in males ("boys will be boys"), which many features of the laptop reflected. The author mentions that this point of view tended to neglect other parts of childhood that are significant, such as household instability or food insecurity, and ignored these complex elements by universalizing children as 'yearners'.

Basically, project members assumed that their own childhoods were generalizable, and that the traits they showed in their largely white middle-class Americans, would show up in other 'intellectually interesting' children.

This extended with schooling. Papert, for example, was pretty clear when calling schools 'an artificial and inefficient learning environment' with 'no intrinsic value' meant to mold children in a socially more desirable form. These criticisms were also frequently repeated by OLPC who could also publish about how boring, stifling, and unfulfilling education could be:

These narratives resonated in the technology community as well as across American culture more broadly, where it is common, and even encouraged, to disparage public education and recount tales of terrible teachers (while excellent ones are often forgotten, and the role of school as a social leveler or cultural enricher are similarly unmentioned). In this way, the anti-charisma of school has become a common cultural trope [...] For OLPC [...] it aligned the project with this broader backlash against public school [and] it provided a rhetorical foil to ideologies of childhood – an opportunity to reinforce the importance of individualism, (technically-inclined) play, and rebellion important to the idea of childhood OLPC relies on.

Finally, computers have their own charisma. As a sort of contradictory points, they are seen as the universal machine, one that can help with self-governance, invert social institutions (the people good at computers would now be on top of the pyramid, however), ending geographic inequity, even "resetting" history; in practice however computers mostly entrenched existing power structures. The wide web had appearances of a wild west, touching libertarian sensibilities while in fact relying on large amounts of infrastructure. In the case of OLPC, the author states that "imbued with this infinite potential, laptops could take priority over teachers, healthcare, even food and water."

At the junction of all three elements, we find narratives of self-taught hackers and developers, which many of OLPC actors self-identified with. The author adds:

But as I dug deeper into how this self-learning worked, I found that in all cases they benefited from many often-unacknowledged resources. This included a stable home environment that supported creative (even rebellious) play, middle-class resources and cultural expectations, and often (though not always) a father who was a computer programmer or engineer.

This sort of connection doesn't seem to have been discussed by Negroponte nor Papert, and neither does it look like they often discussed sociotechnical infrastructure required. OLPC supporters instead seemed to focus on a few engaged children as emblems of success (in which they'd recognize themselves) and downplayed reports from the field that would contradict it.

Taking a step back, Ames says the pattern repeats itself with various technologies: the steamboat, canals, bridges, dams, skyscrapers, the telegraph, electricity, the telephone, radio, cars, tv, and airplanes. Most came with promises of peace, the elimination of manual labor, of democracy, equality, and freedom:

today’s charismatic technologies are neither natural nor inevitable, but are ideologically conservative: even as they promise revolution, they repeat the charisma of past technologies and ultimately reinforce the status quo. This, in turn, allows us to better identify new charismatic technologies and to understand charisma’s consequences.

The paper then draws more in depth on the history of radio, its initial lack of regulation, who it attracted, and how it still eventually failed to deliver. The paper agues that:

we actually prevent these technologies from having their full effect as long as we remain enthralled by their charisma. It was not until they recede into the ‘mundane’ and we understand how they could fit into the messy realities of daily life, rather than making us somehow transcend it, that they have the potential to become a strong social force.

In the case of education technology, charismatic technologies have to make big promises to secure funding, which means they are setting themselves up for failure and short lives. Some technologies like chalkboards, cheap paper, projectors have had lasting effects on school whereas charismatic technologies often did not.

Lack of understanding of the day-to-day social, cultural, and organizational roles of people involved in education led to overpromising:

When the messy, expensive, time-consuming realities of using technology in the classroom inevitably clashed with hyperbolic promises, disillusioned innovators, along with the media and the general public, would often blame schools and especially teachers for not solving problems with technological adoption that were, in reality, beyond their reach.

Change that is often piecemeal and inadequate but applied over a long time with continuous local adaptation is more effective, as it preserves what is valuable and sheds what isn't.

The author concludes:

as long as we are enthralled by charisma we might actually prevent these technologies from becoming part of the messy reality of our lives, rather than helping us transcend it. We must remember that charisma is ultimately a conservative social force. Even when charismatic technologies promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, they appeal precisely because they echo existing stereotypes, confirm the value of existing power relations, and reinforce existing ideologies. Meanwhile, they may divert attention and resources from more complicated, expensive, or politically charged reforms that do not promise a quick fix and are thus less ‘charismatic.’

She adds that the point is not to prove charisma wrong; it can play a useful role of smoothing out contradictions and inefficiencies. The key point is to get a better understanding of when charisma is at play, to understand if technology is actually serving its purposes.