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the culture of encounter

(In which I give in and write more about SketchFactor.)

How supremely perfect it is that the SketchFactor app debuted at the same time as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. On the SketchFactor scale of 1-5, where 1 is "kind of quirky" and 5 is "could be dangerous," Ferguson probably ranks at about a 30 right now, what with the rioting and the wooden bullets and all. According to these metrics, at least, it's a place to be avoided.

But is it, really? Because avoidance, at least of the mental kind, might be how we got here in the first place.

My man Pope Francis has been on a tear lately talking about the "culture of encounter," the idea that we learn and grow when we interact with people different from ourselves. In one letter of which I'm particularly fond, he talks about the role that communications and technology can play in fostering greater human dignity:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. 

The essential problem with apps like SketchFactor is that they don't break down these walls. They build them by specifying where we shouldn't walk, literally dividing us and our environs into safe and unsafe, worthy and unworthy. In its own way, this discourse is violent and destructive - not just to those it victimizes, but to our connections to each other as well.

Walls like these are what allow those of us who are not regularly harassed for our race or class to turn a blind eye to the killing, by police, of young, unarmed persons of color; they block out the protests, the riots, the sound of sirens. They let us believe it doesn't happen that often. Walls like these give us an excuse to make assumptions, because we've never learned that a "gang sign" is actually a symbol of peace. Walls like these prevent the large-scale catalyzing of public opinion against procedures that are fundamentally unjust. And walls like these allow us to avoid imagining ourselves, as individuals, in the same situation.

Elsewhere in that letter, the Pope invokes the parable of the Good Samaritan and its call for us to view ourselves as "neighbors" to all of humanity:

Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  ...(I)t is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God... 

Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  

It's hard to be someone's neighbor, though, if you won't even go near their neighborhood. Is this the world we want? Full of strangers, kept at a distance? 

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wrong on the Internet, wrong for America

Lately, I am trying to make more of an effort to avoid reading things that make me want to punch my computer screen. It's not because I want to avoid conflict or The Big Issues; to the contrary, actually. It's just that sometimes these things are better dealt with offline, particularly if I'm just saying/thinking the same thing that a bunch of other people have already said.

And so we have SketchFactor, the app that allows young people convinced of their own innocence to avoid "sketchy" areas. It's already received pushback on the Internet for all the reasons you think it has, and, if you're a regular reader, you can probably name all of my objections without me even having to write a post about it. (Here's your word bank: "privilege," "'universal' values," "empathy," "total lack of self-awareness," "cultural exchange," "headdesk.")

Why am I writing about it, then? Mostly because I want to highlight this comment:

(mic drop)

 

PS: I do actually have thoughts about the idea that everybody's neighborhood is somebody's neighborhood, etc., and it's possible that I'll revisit this app later through that lens. Right now, though, I think it would probably give me an ulcer.

PPS: Please do not come back at me with some retort about how its crowdsourcing makes it non-discriminatory. Who do you think owns those iPhones?

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an "appropriate technology" manifesto

(Cross-posted from H+M. I promise I will get back to child quotes and life analysis here soon enough.)

This "love-fueled rant" from Aspiration Tech should be required reading for anyone who has ever worked with technology and/or nonprofits. A few highlights:

...Technology discussions and planning should remain firmly rooted in the language of the end user. Vocabulary is a powerful barrier to organizational autonomy and empowerment.

...What has worked offline for generations still deeply informs what works best overall. Technology has not changed the game so much as it has changed the process of winning the same. The game is the same as it has been since before anyone walking today on this earth was alive: build power in movements to catalyze social change and justice, and hold corporations, governments, and random controlling parties accountable for the leverage they exert and maintain. Tech fetishism is never a substitute for great organizing. Technology will not set you free, in fact quite the opposite.

...And last, but perhaps most important: nonprofits should never forget who technology leaves out, and what it leaves undone. A number of those most in need of the social justice impact that nonprofits strive to realize exist beyond the reach of the latest shiny internet fad. Technology is a powerful, seductive and essential vehicle for communicating vision, winning campaigns, buttressing programs and supporting operations. But technology doesn't make a better world, people working for positive social change make that better world. (Editor's note: THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS THIS)

The only things I would add are that:

  • These ideas apply to the philanthropic arms of for-profit groups as well as nonprofits, and
  • We're not dealing with just nonprofit employees here - we also need to think about external stakeholders, including the target audiences of these projects. There's tech to improve internal function, and tech as a part of outward-facing initiatives, and most of these apply to both.

But still. It's good to remind ourselves of these things. (H/t Sean Martin McDonald.)

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integrating empathy into the Maker movement

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire.

At the 2014 DC Mini Maker Faire.

(Cross-posted from H+M.)

I think I've finally figured out my problem with the mantra "Fail fast, fail often."

This week/end, I had the opportunity to attend two "Maker" related-events - the DC Mini Maker Faire on Sunday, and an AAAS/MakerEd-hosted conference, "Making Education Great: Expanding Support to Broaden Access and Participation in STEM Education Through Making," on Monday. Since, of course, I have an affinity for both nonformal ed and user-centered program design more generally, I jumped at the chance. Besides, they sounded like fun.

And they were fun - interesting, thought-provoking, engaging, with lots of Legos and wire for me to play with as I listened. If you're not familiar with the Maker movement, it refers broadly to "the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers" - in other words, DIY, with a heavy focus on creation and/or technology. (This post is largely focused on the domestic community, but there is certainly a push to export these ideas to encourage entrepreneurship and the acceleration of tech innovation as well.) It's a movement that, in theory, has the potential to be radically inclusive; when you make stuff, after all, you're no longer bound in the same way by what you can buy. In theory, it should lead you to the idea that institutions and rules are mutable and breakable, that you have the power to invent things and to change them and to take them apart. In theory, "making" and "hustle" aren't so far apart in spirit. In theory.

But theory is one thing, and practice is another. In practice, inclusivity remains a huge issue, which is why everyone was gathered at that conference. (Tellingly, the vast majority of participants were highly educated, although there was a lot more racial and gender diversity than I was expecting, which was cool.) So-called "maker spaces," labs with materials where anyone can play and create, are one of the linchpins of this movement, but they're also far more common in well-off communities; low-income schools often struggle to support quality STEM education at all, much less innovation in science teaching. But I think one of the biggest reasons - certainly the biggest reason we're not talking about - is this: in America, when you're poor, and when you lack privilege, the consequences of failure are different. 

Think about it. When you give yourself permission to fail, the implicit assumption is that you have the resources - materials, time, reputation/social capital - to try again. That's a pretty damn privileged assumption to make. When you're poor, you don't have resources. That's what being poor means. Furthermore, mainstream American society is not exactly set up to reward experimentation among underserved groups; when you're on welfare, and being derided for your life choices by people who don't even know you, it doesn't exactly put you in a head space where you can be like, "You know what I want to do? Experiment!" It's more like, "You know what I want to do today? MAXIMIZE MY CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WITH EVERY CHOICE I MAKE." Risk aversion is often ultimately the more practical option.

Unfortunately, "fail fast, fail often" is a common mantra among Makers and the subcultures it overlaps - design thinkers, "innovators," etc. The idea is that you want to iterate, to improve, to fix things, that failure is how you learn. And it's not a bad idea, per se. But it's also not an idea that we can just assume is natural in every community. Because failure is for those who have resources and chances, who can make a mistake and not have to worry that it will reflect poorly on their entire race or ethnic group or neighborhood. And if we assume that an aversion to failure is some sort of flaw, rather than a natural reaction to circumstance, we're just flaunting our own privilege and the fact that we don't have to worry, at least not in the same way.

So what's the answer? I'm not totally sure. To its credit, the Maker movement - which is very new, at least in its current form - is grappling with these questions, using discussions like yesterday's to figure them out. But I think we might ultimately need to change the way we talk about these things a little bit. Rather than just talking about placing Maker Spaces into communities, we need to address the experience we hope to co-create, to actively work with the community to understand what they want and need (which is to say, ask them). We need to understand that these kinds of spaces might look different in different places, that they might involve car mechanics or Instagram apps instead of 3D printers (which are cool, but come on guys, we need something else). We need to understand that they have an intimidation factor, and that intimidation factor needs to be dealt with. (And, for the record, I think these are lessons that can be applied to ICT4D more broadly as well.)

Rather than saying "Fail fast, fail often," I think we might need to say, "I'm scared sometimes, but here is a place where it's safe for me to try things and fail. How can we make it a space where you feel the same way? How can we fail together?" We all want to pull back the curtain on Oz, to learn how to build our own worlds. But we have to understand that we haven't made it easy for people to get started on that journey, and to get anywhere, we're going to have to learn what failure means for each other.

(HUGE thanks to Danielle Martin, who told me about this event and encouraged me to come, and to the amazing Dorothy Jones-Davis and Kipp Bradford, who organized the event with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)

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me and you and everyone we know

Transient

I recently came across this speech from Sumana Harihareswara, an exec at the Wikimedia Foundation, about how user experience (UX) is, at is heart, a social justice issue. It's great, particularly for techies, because (hey, EMPATHY) it puts it in very tech-friendly terms:

Let's look at what it takes to do user experience work. You have to look at your service from the point of view of someone who knows a lot less than you, and see where they're coming from. You have to imagine the reasons why they want what they want. Seeing that causation, seeing the connection between what someone's doing now and all the causation that went before it, is empathy. It's a little like reverse engineering; you're trying to unlock the DRM that's stopping them from getting what they need. Which is a really cool hack, actually.

We need to to exercise a disciplined empathy. It's an empathy that includes qualitative thinking, like interviews and watching people use stuff to see where the snags are, and quantitative thinking, like A/B testing and heatmaps.

But the tech industry is pretty crappy at empathy. And I'm speaking from my experience here - I know library tech is its own field - but in my experience of our industry, we just drop the ball on empathy and hospitality, a lot.

This issue is SO IMPORTANT, for the ICT4D community in particular. I feel like I'm beating my head against a wall sometimes when I write about empathy, because it's hard to say anything new when it feels like nothing ever changes.

But - and here, of course, I can add my own experience to the mix - she's right. Because empathy is hard. If you have not spent a lot of time with Burmese refugees who have literally never seen a computer before, it's hard to imagine what their user experience might be like. Not impossible, but certainly not intuitive. And yet the experience is the gate; it's the X in "If X, then Y." Which means that if we want to use technology - any kind of technology, from radio to broadband - to give people more options and choices in their lives, we have to get imagining. We don't really have a choice.

(Side note: if you are at all interested in technology and its potential, particularly from this angle, I really can't recommend enough that you subscribe to Sumana's blog. I learned about it from Brendan, the King of the Internet, who never updates his own blog anymore but is also worth following on Twitter for the same kind of content and much, much more.)

 

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some recommendations

Because I have GOT to close these tabs, and I need a break from the other thing that I'm doing. I have to post this now so that I can go hang out with my dog, who is looking at me plaintively because no one else is home and I'm not playing with him.  

  • More on how the Internet is irrevocably and terrifyingly changing human behavior.  Particularly interesting read in conjunction with this Wired article about gangs and social media usage and the coverage of al-Shabab's usage of Twitter. Neither of the latter articles goes into the actual impact of these technologies on behavioral choices to my satisfaction (though the Wired one touches on it), but this is still such a new area that I suppose it's excusable.*
  • This article on the impact of outside factors on crack addiction manages to be counterintuitive and totally logical at the same time. On the one hand: crack is wack, and also there are a million well-publicized examples of seemingly fine lives totally derailed by addiction. On the other, though, of course a person's environment has an influence on whether or not they want and need a distraction, even if that distraction is pipe-based. I think there's a lot to explore w/r/t what factors actually prevent this sort of behavior - I wonder if they're not as obvious as they look.
  • Finally, if you haven't jumped out a window yet, Hook Theory provides a fun way to look at how songs are related from a music theory perspective.

*File under "Sentences That Will Be Quaint." 


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