Performing Success: When mythologies about a technology dominate first impressions

Morgan Ames

 Editor’s Note: We are lucky to have Morgan G. Ames @morgangames back from her fieldwork in South America to contribute a post to March edition of Stories to Action. Morgan gives us an insider’s view of a One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) project in Paraguay. Her insights reveal how ethnographic work creates a critical eye to reveal the truth behind what she calls “performing success.”  Her story helps us see how the real benefits that users experience with a technology are often covered up with mythologies that we tell about the device. The result of her work provides invaluable insights for OLPC.

Morgan shared this story below at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk. After her presentation, Morgan also hosted the geek version of My Little Pony or Porn Star (take the test if you haven’t yet!)  in having us guess the technology referred to in overly optimistic quotes about new technologies. You can play along by watching the video of Morgan hosting the game with the conference attendees. Morgan created a tumblr, Techutopianism, dedicated to tracking technology utopian quotes!

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This vignette problematizes the value of first impressions by illustrating an example of participants’ desire to perform success to visitors, especially high-profile ones. In the process, it shows the value of ethnographies, as more sustained research initiatives which ideally last long after the novelty effect of the visitor and of the (techno-)social interactions they are studying have worn off.

The day started like many schooldays in Paraguay. It was a Tuesday in late October, 2010, well into spring, and several months into my fieldwork studying the medium-size One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project there. The sun was beating down and temperatures had already climbed into the high 20s C when we rolled up to the school at 8am with our visitor in tow, just in time for the start of classes.

The visitor, one of OLPC’s founding members and chief software architects, was in the country for a whirlwind five-day visit. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, Paraguay Educa, had carefully filled his itinerary with meetings with high-ranking officials they hoped to convince to support the project as well a visit to Itaipu Dam, one of its most high-profile donors – and this school visit.

I was excited and intrigued that this visitor was going to actually visit a school and spend time in a classroom. After several months of fieldwork, I had noted a number of positive aspects about the project, especially due to the sustained efforts the NGO had been putting into teacher training, community outreach, and laptop maintenance, but I had also noted a number of troubling issues, some of them caused by OLPC’s design or support choices. Would he see these issues, and if so, would he act on making them better?

Ames-Paraguay

A few minutes after our arrival, the school director circulated among the students who were chatting or roughhousing in the school’s tiered cement courtyard, ringing a large brass bell overhead. Around one hundred students in white shirts and dark pants or skirts gathered under the eaves of the school building or in the shade of trees and turned their attention toward her. She led them in a school-wide morning song, and then launched into a speech.

“Students, listen to everything this man has to say. He is a visitor from the United States and came all the way here to help you discover new things. This is a huge opportunity for a group of you – if you are in the club and want to learn from him, come up here. These students are going to participate.”

The students clapped. The visitor stood with the director, smiling blankly. He didn’t speak or understand Spanish.

Thirteen children detached from the crowd and gathered where the director had indicated. I noticed that some of children were wearing uniforms for different schools or everyday clothes. Why were they here? Then I recognized a few of the students and it dawned on me: these were the students who joined a district-wide after-school club that focused on the program that this visitor developed, and a number of them were missing classes at their own schools to be here. Several teachers flanked them, proudly beaming.

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The visitor was ushered over to stand with these students, and teachers and staff of the NGO took advantage of the photo opportunity. Then these students, along with teachers, NGO employees, and the visitor, converged on a spare classroom next to the principal’s office, where the visitor set up a projector and started a presentation.

No fewer than seven support staff helped the visitor give his presentation. Two NGO employees from Asunción translated the visitor’s English to Spanish, and two local staff members and three teachers helped children throughout the classroom. The ratio of students to adults in the room was approximately two to one. Typically it is fifteen or twenty-five to one.

By the 9:30 recess, after about an hour of presenting, the visitor wrapped up. We packed up and left. This was the extent of his real-world experience of this school.

I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that the visitor’s morning in the event was so staged, so far from an everyday experience in the school. Could the visitor tell it was staged, that the whole project mobilized to perform ‘success’ to him? It was clear for someone who had been spending a lot of time day-to-day in these classrooms, but to him it might well have looked completely natural. It might, in fact, have just confirmed everything he was hoping to see.

I want to contrast this visit to that of another visitor, two months earlier.

This visitor, an editor of an independently-run blog on OLPC, asked us to let him see what the deployment was really like, and shadowed me in a school visit where I was taking fieldnotes on classroom laptop use. He had lived in Peru previously and spoke Spanish very well.

We discreetly slipped into a third-grade classroom and asked the teacher if she minded if we watched her class for a while. The teacher already recognized me and welcomed the additional visitor with no problems. We sat at the back of the room, where we could watch the whole class. Our entrance had provoked some interest among students, but they recognized me and we weren’t using any laptops or other cool technology that would draw their curiosity, so they soon turned back to the front of the room.

The teacher was fortunate that day: she had the help of the teacher trainer, who was employed by the NGO to work full-time in the school helping teachers use OLPC’s XO laptops in class. Still, two adults managing twenty-five students was pretty different from seven adults managing thirteen students.

The teacher and teacher trainer asked students to take out their laptops and start up the Paint program. However, six students didn’t have laptops with them – some were broken, others left at home. The teacher had chosen a lesson that could be easily done on the laptop or with a pencil and notebook, so she asked these students to finish the assignment by drawing in their notebooks instead.

The trainer had been charging all the remaining laptops during the beginning of class when students were working in their notebooks, so this session did not have problems of low batteries which often plagued classroom laptop use. With only one plug, installed specifically for this project, and many broken chargers, powering the laptops was often a headache without forethought like this trainer had.

The teacher began to describe the project: to draw the Paraguayan flag to help celebrate the upcoming bicentennial. As we watched, the student right in front of us started up WINE, a Windows emulator, and began to play Super Mario Brothers.

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This visitor’s time in Paraguay was limited, like the previous visitor’s was. However, his openness to taking a back seat and just observing rather than being the center of attention allowed him to get a glimpse of what real classroom laptop use was like. In short, it interrupted the possibility of performing success.

These contrasting vignettes make apparent the problems with first impressions and staged events by providing evidence of participants’ desires to perform success to visitors and outside observers. This desire in part stems from the pressure on development projects to reach unrealistically high, even utopian, goals. As I write up my research findings, my writing often necessarily takes the form of a cautionary tale of entering into an education or development project like OLPC’s with too much hubris – of the consequences of over-promising. Unfortunately, OLPC and Paraguay Educa both, along with many NGOs and nonprofits, are caught in a catch-22 of project funding: they must set lofty goals and to attract the interest of investors, and then they must follow through and show (or at least suggest) great results, even though showing great results could also lead investors to conclude that the project is “done” and doesn’t need more funding. Showy but myopic projects are rewarded either way, while those that make a sustained investment in the local community and the ongoing success of the project – as Paraguay Educa actually is – are not.

Finally, these vignettes demonstrate the benefit of sustained and embedded observations of development projects, as can be provided by ethnographic inquiry, in overcoming these performances. The visitor in the second vignette was able to see more realistic classroom laptop use because he was willing to become a shadow-ethnographer, even though his visit was relatively short. He was also willing to honestly report his findings, good or bad (which are posted here). Careful, critical ethnographies are one of the few ways to overcome performances of success to witness the real benefits – and challenges – of development projects such as OLPC.

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ALSO IN THE STORIES TO ACTION EDITION:

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Categories: Dissertation, Ethnographies, Field updates, Guest posts, Stories to Action Edition

Author:morganya

http://morganya.org

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4 Comments on “Performing Success: When mythologies about a technology dominate first impressions”

  1. Aidnography
    March 19, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    This is a great vignette from the field and I particularly enjoyed the idea of ‘performing success’!
    I wrote about OLPC in Ethiopia last year (‘The thin line between digital innovation, cargo cult and peoples on parade’
    http://aidnography.blogspot.ca/2012/11/olpc-in-ethiopia-thin-line-between.html) and in the end came to a similar conclusion: Development ICT StartUps need anthropological/ethnographic advise!

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