Almost a year ago, on my old blog, I responded to Alex Reid’s post about the ontology of composition as it might apply to One Laptop Per Child, the XO Computer, and/or the Sugar operating system (“objectified” as Sugar on a Stick). Having just read Alex’s keynote address at Computers and Writing, Composing objects: prospects for a digital rhetoric, I find myself revisitng this same issue: is Object Oriented Ontology (and/or rhetoric) a productive framework and language for thinking about OLPC, the XO, and Sugar on a Stick?
As often as OPLC repeats “It’s an education project, not a laptop project,” the laptop and Sugar exert considerable pressure on any project. As often as we in Sugar Labs @ NDSU ask “what do we want to do with our after school program?” we are forced to engage with the activities available to us. To say “I would like the tomato soup,” as Alex points out using an restaurant analogy, is to suggest a simplistic or overly autonomous view of agency. Our agency is significantly shaped by the objects in our environment. “However, since humans do not exist in a vacuum, at least not for very long, human thought and agency is almost always produced out of the capacities that we develop in relation to other objects.” The medium is the massage? I’m not sure OOO adds much there.
We could chose to work with different objects in pursuit of our goal–teaching procedural literacy–and that may very well be a route we pursue at some point. In composition, we are often switching tools–conceptual tools (tagmemics anyone?) and practices (peer review strategies), compositional tools (pen and paper, word processors, blogs, wikis, video editing), even system-level tools like programs and curriculums–in order to try and reach that elusive goals of increasing our students literacy. If we have more or less wanted to keep those tools invisible, Alex’s conclusion could be helpful: “From living and learning in digital communities to facing up to climate change, we must now compose rhetorics that incorporate technoscientific objects and build a future that includes them rather than divides them from us.” But isn’t this what Greg Ulmer has been doing for 30 years: building a future with rhetorics that incorporate the emerging social and technological apparatus/ objects (including avatars) in order to produce electrate subjects?
In terms of OLPC, the XO, and Sugar, I wonder if Negroponte et al have already composed this rhetoric of objects that builds a future that does not divide us from our technoscientific objects: Being digital. Negroponte’s OLPC rhetoric is generally dismissed as unrealistic and post human (where are the teachers? what do you mean drop laptops from a helicopter?). He assigns a mythical agency to children, who are often in popular culture depicted as being at one with technology (Digimon!). His critics often call for a cheaper and more human-centered enterprise. Sugar Labs calls for a sense of community that includes the technology, but also kids, parents, teachers, developers, and others. Maybe what Alex (through Latour) is calling for is a sweet spot of the natural, the social, and discursive that we should be aiming for.
For Latour, however, the modern emphasis on the future was always formed by looking backward, as an escape from the past. As such, he seeks a different kind of invention, one that is made facing forward, looking at the object to be composed, but more importantly a composition that recognizes its hybridity, its intermixing of the natural, social, and discursive.
Like last year’s post, I find myself starting out skeptical, coming around to the value of using OOO to describe OLPC, the XO, and Sugar, but then wondering what I really gain from this vocabulary that seems to just describe what’s already going on. And of course I can’t help hearing all the McLuhan echoes, not only in “the medium is the massage” but Latour’s McLuhanesque phrasing that modernists approach the future by looking in the rearview mirror AND what’s needed instead is the seldom noted “feed forward” McLuhan called for towards the end of his career and life.
I hate that I’m stuck in this McLuhan-Ulmer loop (talk about a glitch in my system), but I’m not seeing OOO jump my shark, and Alex seems to be calling for a rhetoric that is already in use. Undoubtedly still work to be done on that front (the long revolution) but it is hard to get that work done if we keep re-inventing our way of talking.