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appropriate technology

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an "appropriate technology" manifesto

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. 

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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love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

Transient

Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 

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