Digital white elephants



Close to my house in Tambaong, Togo–where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer 25 years ago–was the remains of a large fish pond, a development project of the past. Nobody I knew could even identify the Non-Governmental Organization that had built it–nor could anyone remember having eaten fish from it. West Africa is littered with the carcasses of such white elephants, projects once lauded as the answers to African economic problems, health problems, education problems… whatever.

The warning provided wasn’t lost on most of us in Peace Corps–not that it mattered. We hadn’t the money for projects of any size, anyhow, and had to work on a much smaller level. What it did teach us was the value of sustainability, something that most of us brought back home and into our American careers. It made me leery, for example, of Nicholas Negroponte’s much ballyhooed One Laptop Per Child project when it was announced a decade ago. It also made me listen to claims about how Second Life would change the landscape of higher education with something less than complete enthusiasm. Neither OLPC nor Second Life is necessarily bad, but even a fish pond is not necessarily the right answer in all situations–not even when people are hungry.

Interest in OLPC has pretty well tanked, and Second Life seems headed toward ghost-town status–according to Patrick Hogan, at least. Hogan is a writer for the Fusion website. Recently, he explored “abandoned” college-campus “islands” on Second Life. Even though they cost some $300 per month to maintain, some of these are still around:

They mostly are laid out in a way to evoke stereotypes of how college campuses should look, but mixed in is a streak of absurd choices, like classrooms in tree houses and pirate ships. These decisions might have seemed whimsical at the time, but with the dated graphics, they just look weird.

Hogan concludes:

I actually like how most of these islands represent an attempt by education institutions to embrace the weirdness of the web. The current crop of education startups seem bland and antiseptic in comparison to these virtual worlds. I can’t take a Coursera class on a pirate ship, or attend office hours in front of an edX campfire. And honestly, that’s probably a good thing. But it makes the web slightly less interesting.

I guess I could say the same of Africa and the white-elephant carcasses still littering the landscape.