I have recently read Ethiopian kids hack OLPCs in 5 months with zero instruction which claims that children who never saw a book before and didn't know how to speak English learned how to use an Android phone and hacked it.

Is this true? The article simply states that they have enabled the camera on the tablet which was previously disabled. Would what the children did really be considered hacking?

The article also states that they began learning English. If someone could verify what is meant by that it would be great.

  • 5
    It seems to me that you've simply not read the article properly. You can also look up the definition of hack in a dictionary. While the article doesn't state exactly what kind of "hack" it was, it could also be a hard-hack (or a hardware hack). Negroponte might have also used the term relatively loosely. IOW, there really is nothing here to be sceptical about ...
    – user7920
    Nov 14, 2012 at 7:44

2 Answers 2


The source MIT Technology Review article seems to answer your questions

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”

So, learning English consisted, at least, of learning to sing the Alphabet song.

The hacking consisted of working around an OEM attempt to limit the settings. Whether you consider discovering and using a bug to unlock existing functionality to be "hacking" depends entirely on your definition of "hacking". It is quite different from, say, developing a technique to "jail-break" an iPhone or rebuilding a kernel.

  • 2
    They made it do something that it was intended not to be able to do that is a hack.
    – Chad
    Nov 14, 2012 at 14:52
  • 15
    well, from above it seems more like they "hacked" lame OLPC's customization, rather than operating system itself.
    – vartec
    Nov 14, 2012 at 16:29
  • ~Somehow~ 9 years later the link to the article is not working anymore. I found the article via this link: technologyreview.com/2012/10/29/84908/…
    – deflomu
    Sep 6, 2021 at 13:05

Others, including Negroponte's own associate, have disputed the factual accuracy of his explanation.

At an OLPC summit [and] in conversations with Negroponte’s collaborator Maryanne Wolf ... I heard a quite different story about this experiment. ... Children did exhibit some preliteracy skills (recognizing letters) before the experiment ended, although the hacking that Negroponte referenced was finding the configuration menu and turning on the camera.

Morgan G. Ames. The Charisma Machine : The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child. The MIT Press; 2019

The configuration menu was easily accessible from a large icon in the center of the laptop's home screen, as shown here.

home screen

So this is not "hacking" by most definitions of the term. Also, the laptops were taken away before the children were actually able to acquire English; the OLPC project was only implemented at large scale in South America, not in Africa.

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