Viewing entries tagged
communications for development


thoughts iconic

Sticking my head above water here for a few minutes to note a particularly interesting initiative that came across my desk: The Noun Project.

As far as I can tell*, The Noun Project is a sort of marketplace where anyone can access and upload icons from designers around the world. And they do appear to be limited only by the imagination: in a one-minute scan of the site, I saw icons for hand dryers, a man summiting a mountain, needle-nose pliers, and a "paleo muffin." 

For the most part, this strikes me as an advancement for humanity, and one with particular relevance to development, where we're often dealing with language and/or literacy barriers. There's no guarantee, of course, that these symbols will be universal (as anyone who has ever tried to Pictionary their way through a foreign market can attest), but they obviously have a lot more potential to be understood. For the most part, a person looks like a person looks like one of those bathroom door icons. 

What might be more interesting in the long term, however, is the impact of this communication shift on our actual thought processes. These icons have the potential to turn our brains lazy, I'm afraid, with the shorthand that they provide - but they also provide semiotic layers that words can't necessarily. (To cite one example, some friends and I have lately become fascinated with a particular set of "stickers" on Facebook that features the incredibly strange Sunny Eggy,** which is a character with a fried egg for a head. Somehow, the exuberance of an egg yelling "Good Morning" sometimes conveys my feelings better than the words themselves. And yes, I am being totally serious.)

For a glimpse into this future, I suggest you watch this video. Note: a brief part of it is mildly NSFW, but nothing serious.

Eventually, perhaps we will all find that the English language is no longer sufficient to express the complexities of our thoughts. Just like Gina. Now that is a consequence worth assessing.

(H/t An Xiao Mina for the Noun Project link.)


*Note to site designers: the "About" page is pretty difficult to find. I did, but it took some effort.

**Fun fact: I was discussing these stickers with a friend who's based abroad, and she expressed fondness for them too. Subsequent discussion revealed that we were actually talking about two DIFFERENT sets of stickers featuring eggs, which is either a testament to human ingenuity or a sign that we need to destroy the Internet.



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


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. 



I hear America singing

Here's your daily dose of cultural diplomacy: an American diplomat singing on Pakistan Idol.

This is the sort of development story that often gets relegated to feature/"human-interest" status: look how cute it is that they're all singing together! Look, they have a television show just like we do! Consider the fact that I learned about the story of Philip Assis, Cultural Affairs Officer in Karachi, through BuzzFeed - a site that is also currently featuring the stories "17 Celebrity Hookup Confessions" and "Facts All French Fry Fanatics Should Know." (I'm not clicking on that until they tell me how many facts.)

Which is a damn shame. Because people watch Pakistan Idol, just like they read BuzzFeed. America needs all the positive publicity it can get, particularly in a country where our relations remain somewhat dicey. If this is where the kids who will someday be Pakistan's soldiers and diplomats see that some Americans are trying to build bridges, so what if it's silly?

And, by extension, I'm actually sort of glad that this appeared on the site it did. Okay, BuzzFeed isn't the Economist. But that means that people who don't usually have a reason to think about Pakistan have now learned a few useful things - how US diplomacy is implemented, for example, and that Pakistanis (just like their American counterparts) enjoy watching people make fools of themselves on live television. It's not much, maybe, but we have to start somewhere. And maybe the set of a television show isn't a bad place to start.