Is 'Responsible Computing' an Oxymoron?

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about "responsible computing," to put one label on it. Last week my editor, David Nagel, suggested that the phrase might be an oxymoron. He asked me this question: "Is there any such thing as responsible computing?" That's an interesting thought, and I'm disgruntled that I didn't think of it on my own. After all, aren't personal computers inherently revolutionary? Doesn't the power they represent, in the hands of individuals, threaten just about every form of authority?

He remembers "back in the mid-'80s, as modems and bulletin boards became accessible, thinking, 'I should enjoy this while it lasts. The government is going to shut this down any minute.' It very easily could have happened. PCs were used for so many illicit activities in the olden days that manufacturers could have been shut down as easily as Napster was, especially back before PCs had any economic significance."

So, is the world really ready for tens of millions of impoverished kids to have nifty laptops, which automatically connect them with each other and with the Internet? Are we ready to put that kind of power in their hands? Some people see problems arising from those newly empowered kids, if it happens. More below, for now, read the latest about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project here.  I hope you get as excited about it as I am.

Back to David's observation for a moment: When he was seeing the power of personal computing and wondering if it was going to be even allowed, or shut down when those in power understood it, I didn't even see that as an issue. And that irks me. I have an excuse, though. Even though I learned Fortran and Cobol in the '70s, sent one of the earliest e-mails (I think) from the Defense Special Research Projects Group (DSRPG) at the Naval Observatory, and even though I ran batch cards with statistical analyses of fossil pre-human skeletons through mainframes, my earliest uses of personal computers (PCs) were strictly for word processing and desktop publishing.

While David was connecting with others in the early versions of "online," I was laying out books and producing resumes and cover letters for about-to-be college grads. I realized the larger power of PCs, but by the time I did, they were already so ubiquitous that there never seemed to be a question about whether or not they and the connectivity would be "allowed," except for the "thin client" scare. Whew. We dodged a bullet on that one. As a user, the very concept offended me!

Some of the reading I have been doing has made me wonder if I am missing another "issue" That is: What kinds of bad things could all of those kids in the developing countries do once they start getting their hands on the One Laptop Per Child's (OLPC) 2B1 product, starting later this year?

Here I've got to admit to naivete and starry-eyed thinking. I love the OLPC project. I think Negroponte is a genius, and I have been following it from its early days. I am eager to hear stories about those kids getting in touch with the broader world and proving once and for all that all kids are bright kids. Aren't you? Sure, there have been some issues in the development of the product and in getting the various government agencies to pledge to purchase and distribute the 2B1s, but those have all been things that were getting in the way of it happening, not things that pointed to problems the kids might cause once they had their laptops.

John Dvorak doesn't care much for the project, as he elucidates in an essay in Marketwatch titled (and subtitled) "The $100 Laptop: What Went Wrong: Assessing the true cost of a futile effort to equip the Third World." His argument is subheaded: "Slick Looks, but High Prices," "Electricity First, Laptops Second?" and "Dangerous Distraction." I hope (and think) that he's wrong: For example, he cites "Stanford journalism lecturer and Africa watcher G. Pascal Zachary" as saying: "The real problem is lost mind share. The people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful."

Me, I think the mind share being wasted is those of the kids and can't wait until they get their hands on these things.

But other see larger dangers in the OLPC project. Here's the "takeaway" from an article on engadget:
The One Laptop Per Child Project aims to distribute as many as 100 million $100 laptops to kids around the world in its first year alone. That's heartwarming--and extremely dangerous. To achieve the economies of scale necessary to meet that price point, the devices will be identical, a situation that is rife with potential security issues. If the machines can be hacked, a huge botnet army may be created. At the Toorcon conference this month, hackers were asked to break the 2B1 laptop that will be used. In addition to the identical innards, the machines will transmit code in a mesh configuration from one machine to another and serve as each others' backups. This approach will make the distribution of the malware easier for hackers.
Interestingly, in the short discussion thread following the lead to this article, as many people seen interested in getting their hands on a 2B1 machine as in discussing the dangers. If you want to read more about the security on the 2B1 machines, you can read about "Bitfrost" here.

One poster did have a science fiction view of a potentially bad future from the OLCP project. "Russ" wrote:
Flash forward to a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-styled era: Botnetted OLPCs litter the landscape trying to push advertising for pig-manure fuel and death-battle arenas down your throat.

Please, please don't put hovering or lasers into the OLPC: It might seem like a nice thing to do for the third world, but I'm sure this is how Skynet [from the Terminator series] is going to start.
(The quotation above was cleaned up for grammar and style.)

Like all technologies, good things and bad things will happen. I think the poster, above, was either being humnorously sarcastic or has talked to too many neocons recently. (My vote’s on the former.) Sure, bad things can happen with technologies: For example, the e-mail scams we all see are apparently Nigeria’s fifth-largest revenue producing industry!

But there are lots of bright young kids out there waiting to contribute their brainshare to the world. Take China, for example:  China’s got a subpopulation of “bright” kids larger than the population of all of our kids; add in all those African kids, and those kids from Brazil, and wow, this observer of the technology scene sees mostly good things coming. Let’s get that mindshare connected with the rest of us! If the project can get those laptops out there and in use by the children (the technology being the easy part), we are indeed going to see the positive power of this technology.
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