One Laptop Per Child Foundation No Longer a Disruptive Force, Bender Fears; Q&A on His Plans for “Sugar” Interface

4/24/08Follow @wroush

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every computer was going to be connected to every other. Therefore I said, let’s take advantage of that in the interface. That was driven by the pedagogy and was a core feature of the interface.

The third thing had to do with making Sugar be discoverable. We’re dealing with a wide variety of users, with different levels of skill in terms of reading, language, and different levels of experience with computing. So I wanted to make everything easy to approach, and at the same time have no floor and no ceiling. The best example of that in the current laptop is the music software. You go from something that a two-year-old can use to the same tools they use in Hollywood for musical effects. You can peel away layers and go deeper and deeper, with no restrictions.

Part that that was introducing into the hardware a key called the resource key. It’s a little gear on the space bar. If you hit “function-gear” you can pop right into the source code of whatever you are working on. That is layered as well. If you are on a Web page, first you go to the HTML. But you could literally browse the code of the Web browser, if you wanted. You can drill down as far as you want. One of the reasons we based Sugar on Python is that it is an interpreted language instead of a compiled language. The executable code is the source code. That means it’s a language allowing the appropriation of ideas. Whether what they are drilling down to is music software, a browser, reading, writing, graphics, the idea is that they are not going to hit a wall.

X: So Sugar is going to become an open-source project in its own right. Do you have any thoughts yet about how you’ll organize it?

WB: I had a student named Cameron Marlow, who was at Yahoo last I knew. [He's now at Facebook. --eds.] His thesis was about the “rule of many.” You have this Gaussian distribution of efficiency, where after 150 people or so, an organization gets too big and you peak in terms of the most efficient size. What Cameron studied was what happens if you follow the tail out really far [to larger and larger numbers]. Sometimes you get a lift again–a new kind of efficiency. That’s the rule of many. He studied it in the context of the blogosphere, but there are lots of examples—Wikipedia is probably the poster child. But he didn’t just observe the rule of many; he tried to understand what are the mechanisms that determine whether the rule of many is going to be applicable. He didn’t come up with a definitive list, but he did identify certain criteria. One is obviously that you have a large number of people. Second is that these people share a common goal. And a third is maintaining independence, so that each agent has the ability to act independently.

I think in the case of Sugar and support for Sugar, I want to use this rule of many approach. And part of that is ensuring this freedom of agency on behalf of the participants. You don’t want to try to control it. You want to build the discussion around common goals, but not be deterministic in terms of needs. You have to let the independent agents determine their own needs. Exactly how this will manifest itself, I don’t know. But I do know that part of it has to do with being open about communication, and letting the community engage in the dialogue. Transparency is also really important.

X: But aren’t some of the most successful open source projects actually very dictatorial at their core? Witness Linux, where Linus Torvalds is still the one making the final decisions.

WB: You need to have leadership, you need to be driving what the goals are, and you need to have clear decision-making processes. But at the same time you need to have transparency. It isn’t necessarily easy, and it’s certainly outside the natural instincts and comfort zone of most industries. But when you get it right, it’s really powerful. And I’m determined to get it right.

X: If it turns out that the biggest legacy of the One Laptop Per Child foundation was not that it got hundreds of thousands of laptops out to kids, but that it spawned all of these other efforts that perhaps will yield advances along many fronts of educational computing, is that such a bad thing?

WB: That’s not a bad thing at all. And the little green-and-white laptop is not bad either. Getting more of those out into the world is not a bad thing.

X: But for a long time, outsiders have gauged the success or failure of the One Laptop project mainly whether, or how many, laptops were getting out into the hands of kids.

WB: I would challenge that as being the critical dependency. I think doing it was critical, because it’s not real until you do it. We’ve demonstrated that this can be done. We’ve gotten the world to be interested in doing it. Now we have to let more people participate in the doing and not try to control it and own it.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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