Laptops in Limbo - towards a coinage of impasse

This paper was presented at the DASTS 2012 conference.

Lars Bo Andersen
Conference paper
Danish Association of Science and Technology Studies
Laptops in Limbo - a mode of existence

The XO laptop in limbo

This presentation is about impasse in technological projects and how to describe these within Actor-Network Theory (ANT).

I am conducting a multi-sited, qualitative study of a laptop project in Nigeria. The project is a partnership between Christian missionaries from Denmark, a church in Nigeria, a technological consultancy, pedagogical researchers, and many others. In short, the project is about bringing laptops from the American One Laptop per Child (OLPC) organisation into use at the project school, and by doing so, create better opportunities for the students.

I have followed this project from when it began in 2008, and I am analysing it as a series of ANT-inspired translations. One of the things I have learned so far, and this is what I would like to talk about today, is that while these laptops have gained and lost existence for four years now, they have never really achieved stabilised existence.

Many ANT inspired studies follow a trajectory ranging from loose gatherings of actors to fully stabilised entities like black boxes. ANT takes interest in emergence, and works within this tradition have taught us that even the hardest of facts and the most singular of objects in fact rest upon collective achievements (see e.g. Latour, 2005). ANT analysis have also taught us that facts and objects are in fact both volatile and fragile – especially when they are yet to be stabilised (see e.g. Callon, 1986).

More recently post-ANT has introduced alternative understandings of the way phenomena can become ontologically stable. Annemarie Mol and Marianne de Laet have described how the Zimbabwe Bush Pump is stable because it has a fluid character (de Laet & Mol, 2000). The bush pump is highly malleable, like a fluid, and this makes it stronger, more stable, than had it been firm and bounded. In a similar fashion, John Law describes how alcoholic liver disease jumps around between locations like a bush fire making it hard to “manage” by the healthcare system (Law, 2005). These notions have contributed greatly to our understanding of the way in which phenomena exists, but I also think that they have a bias towards more or less durable states of existence. Although hard to bound, bush pumps and liver disease exist in stable ways.

My problem in describing the laptops is that they are not stable in their existence. They are similar to bush pumps and bush fires in many ways, but sadly they don't share the same stability. In their mode of existence, they are more like Bruno Latour's Aramis before it got cancelled: fluctuating somewhere between stabilisation and disassociation. It remains uncertain what kind of laptop will emerge: a great beneficiary of children, a white elephant, or something entirely different.

The term I have found most fitting to describe the laptops is limbo. Limbo has multiple origins and is not easy to define homogeneously. In Catholic mythology limbo is a realm on the outskirts of hell reserved for those who are not entirely condemned, but who are not entirely fit for heaven either (see e.g. Alighieri, 1306). But in true ANT spirit, limbo has to be recognized as multiple. It is, as you properly know, also a dance that in at least one version, symbolises slaves being forced down the hull of slave ships. While limbo the dance is different from Christian limbo, it still depicts an unfulfilled and unpleasant stage from which you can only hope to escape.

Let me return to the project in Nigeria. In a classical ANT sense, the many different actors involved in bringing laptops to the school all had their own way of translating into the project. I will mention a few examples. A pedagogical workshop arranged by Danish researchers had introduced a more open and explorative pedagogy doubted the “open-open” approach by Nigerian teachers. And in combination with the promise for development installed in the laptop when it was launched (Andersen, 2011, p. 42), this made possible a translation of the laptop as a powerful developmental device. Volunteer workers from Denmark would visit Nigeria and return to report that the laptops were doing away with the so called “black school” of physical punishment and rote learning.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, teachers did not know that they were doing away with any black school. What really mattered for the Nigerians – for the teachers, students, and parents – was the prospect of becoming IT-literate, of learning how to use the technology of tomorrow. I want to stress that this was not just a discourse of digital divides or global villages. With the introduction of the project, a great deal of parents started to transfer their children to the project school in spite of being challenged by high tuition. They acted on a hope of the laptops being able to make a difference for their children.

The laptop enacted in Nigeria was thus not a replacer-of-a-black-school. Rather it was more like a Dell. In spite of the fisherprice appearance and constructivist linux software, the laptop was first and foremost enacted as a Computer.

This was a few years ago. Everyone were investing themselves into the project and a multiple laptop seemed to be emerging. After my first visit to Nigeria I too could go back and describe the laptops as post-ANT entities capable of being enacted in different variants without falling apart (Andersen, 2011).

But then some translations became strained. A good portion of the teachers lost motivation. Like their colleagues all over the world, many of the teachers were challenged by doing IT based lessons, and since the school has a designated computer teacher, they started to consider the project as his responsibility. And for reasons of hierarchy, nobody at the school was willing or able to do anything about the unmotivated staff. To put it short, the principal did not have much authority while upper management was in conflict with itself, and since there was no parental body at the school, dissatisfied parents reacted by silently withdrawing their children.

Then about a year ago the Internet became too costly, and the school gave up subscription. Unused by teachers and without internet the laptops no longer seemed credible providers of IT-literacy. All that was left was linux software which did not help much in making it a “real” computer. Later, also wireless and batteries started to fail, and with management in conflict, these were left unrepaired.

The project had developed a limb. Only few teachers utilised the laptops, the technical installations were faulty, and the dream of a place in the future job marked lost momentum.

With some delay the Danish version of the laptop started to suffer as well. Although mainly constituted by pictures, stories, and documents, the laptop-as-developmental device could not retain an unused laptop in Nigeria without beginning to unravel as well.

But this was not the end, the construction did not unravel entirely. After a year or so school management agreed with itself to resume internet subscription, I fixed the wireless during my second field visit, and talks were made for more teachers training. Things got going again. And in order to ensure a continued momentum, the principal made sure to schedule special computer lessons for each class each week, so that the children would use the laptops for a minimum of 45 minutes a week.

But the laptops had reached limbo, and the problems were not easily overcome. The teachers were still not motivated, and the one having been made responsible for the scheduled lessons did not always show up for his job. Adding to this the batteries had not been repaired, and even though money was promised by Danish missionaries, school management was unable to decide who should pay or what should be done.

But in limbo there is also hope. Yet another enactment started to emerge. Preparations are now made to shift focus from classroom use of laptops to specially arranged afternoon activities. A kind of cybercafe is envisioned, which could also generate income for internet subscription by also allowing access for paying adults. This could satisfy the IT-literacy ambition and, to some degree, also the developmentalist ambition of constructivist learning.

The future of this third enactment is uncertain. Currently the power supply is still out of order, but the school is constructing a new building in which the cybercafe can be situated, quotes have been made from contractors, and the Danish missionaries have given their support to this new direction.

So this is the limbo in which the laptops are stuck. After four years at the school they have no strong existence. I do not know what to make of this limbo. I don't think it is unique for this project, that a technology remains only halfway constructed, uncertain whether it is on its way for heaven or hell. Surely, most of us can name similar projects. For instance, one could use the new IC4 trains in Denmark as a prominent example .

If I had critical ambitions I could properly scold technological determinism for producing what might end up yet another white elephant. But the project has had, and still have, existence, real existence. At least, it has a name, it has both humans and non-humans working for it. Parents, teachers, children, solar panels, batteries, and volunteers all invested themselves into constructing these laptops. But it never became a black box, a fluid, or a bush fire.

In suggesting limbo as a notion to describe the state of these laptops I want to point to a painful mode of existence which may extend for many years. As a tempo-spatial envelope, limbo is full of hope, fear, and uncertainties about duration and outcome. This, I think, makes it a good notion for those technologies somehow stuck in an impasse, for suffering as well as for hope, and especially for describing the current state of affairs in the laptop project.


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