Demystifying Technology · Education · Reflections · Social Justice

Demystifying What???

Collaborative reflections on field notes, data, and experiences within our research team the last couple of weeks have been immensely helpful in bringing to light some key ideas regarding our approach to digital literacy. We refer to the general approach as Demystifying Technology. Demystifying technology is a method that seeks to encourage movement from passive use to co-creation of innovations-in-use by community, in community, for community. It is being implemented both in digital literacy workshops and one-on-one technical support sessions with community members, and also in graduate level courses. And it readily adapts to those interacting directly with digital technologies for the first time, and those who have years of experience with the nuts and bolts.

The approach has been most associated with demystifying computer hardware, but it applies equally well to software and networks. By disassembling and reassembling computers, software, and networks, the black box of technology is opened. The goal isn’t to develop an army of technicians who work daily at the nuts and bolts level of technology. Rather, as highlighted in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition’s list of principles:

Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.

Indeed, if we are to achieve goals of co-creation and informed decision making, we need to demystify the mutual shaping of technology and society as much and more than we do the physical aspects of technology. 

What are we demystifying?

Technology both shapes and is shaped by society. People bring specific histories, cultures, and ways of knowing to their work. These influence what they prioritize as opportunities and problems. Histories, cultures, and ways of knowing also influence how people move forward to understand and tackle opportunities and problems. An organic farmer may see a plant restoring the soil while an industrial farmer may see a weed. The organic farmer may ask what deficiencies are indicated because the plant is growing there and not elsewhere, and seek to complement that plant with others in a more complex intercropping or rotation cycle to facilitate the work of the plant and thereby bring the soil microbiome to better health. An industrial farmer may ask which herbicide and fertilizer combination will remove the plant and improve the soil as growing substrate to increase yields. Both may use state-of-the-art digital data collection and analysis technologies to inform their decision-making processes. But those collection and analysis technologies may have worked better out-of-the-box, and there may be a much larger support network, for the industrial farmers than for the organic farmers.

Demystifying social<->technology not only makes the hardware and software more approachable by opening up the black box, it also helps to open the OTHER black box, the social and its tight interaction with the technology. Let’s take as an example demystifying the digital data collection and analysis tools used by farmers today.

Today, the predominant funding of agricultural research comes from sources that prioritize industrial farming practices. Government policies prioritize industrial farming practices. Bank policies prioritize industrial farming practices. Transportation and sales prioritize industrial farming practices. And so engineers and computer scientists prioritize industrial farming practices.

But further, science that seeks to reduce complex systems to their smallest discrete part in order to discover regularities and causal laws is very different from science that assumes reality is an irreducibly complex, fluid, and fragile system that can only be understood through ongoing interaction and can never be fully predicted and controlled. If engineers and computer scientists build tools for the industrial farmer based on the first type of science listed above so that the tool works to reduce down components of the complex whole to its most essential part, it may not fit the second type of science the organic farmers pursues. Rather, they need tools that help them understand the complex and dynamic whole of billions of organisms below ground and a rich diversity of plants and animals above ground, as a living, fluid ecosystem.

The data collection and analysis tools used by farmers have been developed with a set of economic, political, and scientific values developed to fit specific cultural, historical, and current contexts. Understanding these values helps to understand — to demystify — how those values are embedded within the physical and software components of the technology. In turn, that helps to begin demystifying how use of the value-laden technology may subsequently shape us in ways that are consistent with, or counter to, our own values and the values of our community.

Ultimately, demystifying social<->technology is not only to demystify the social and to demystify the technical, but it is to demystify the bi-directional arrow that binds these two inextricably together as mutually shaping forces.

Why demystify social<->technology?

How often do we find ourselves frustrated by a technology, wondering why it works for everyone else, but not for us? I’ll readily admit, in spite of my deep knowledge of the nuts and bolts of technology, that I regularly am frustrated by technology. But rather than questioning myself, I recognize the likely influencing factors that have led to technology that works better for others than for me. Touch screens have much to like about them as an input+output mechanism, designed to the advantage of many. But my fatter-than-normal fingers combined with a lack of binocular depth perception means that I consistently struggle with the interface. Iconography that has replaced the written word can serve well a multi-lingual nation, but I often find the images confusing. The image telling me which way to swipe cards seems backwards to me, and so I often get it wrong. The old floppy disk icon that means save in much software means open to me, because I used to use floppy disks to open programs back in the old days. On the other hand, the manilla folder that means open in much software to me means save, because I generally only use manilla folders when a project is completed and I’m archiving old papers, hopefully never to be needed again.

When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to fight the urge to blame myself and instead to gain agency to consider ways to move forward. Maybe I just laugh at the silliness of it all and try again. Maybe I move back to traditional technologies like pen and paper for some things. Maybe I buy a smartphone with traditional keyboard. Maybe I find software that gives me more control over iconography. Or maybe I just allow myself to be angry that there are no good solutions because current social structures limit choice, and then show myself grace that I need to get by as best I can within those limited choices.

Engineering isn’t about doing things right, its about doing it just right enough (that statement was made recently on the PBS Nova episode “The Great Math Mystery“). To make things right is to reach for the unattainable. To make it right enough is to recognize tradeoffs always have to be made. But what does right enough mean. For instance, eliminating replaceable batteries on a smartphone may result in a more durable product in the immediate, but one that has a shorter lifespan in the longterm. Which choice is right enough? As another example, allowing phone calls over wifi using Skype or Google Hangout could reduce the demand for unlimited cell minutes, but that would reduce revenues for cell companies, decreasing investment and potentially research and development funding. Which choice is right enough?

When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to choose a phone without a replaceable battery to benefit from the durability. But I also selected one with an extra large battery so that even several years down the line that battery should still have enough juice after a day of use to keep it usable beyond the 2-year standard replacement cycle. When the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to understand for what it is the “innovation” T-Mobile announced recently that now allows customers to make Skype and Google Hangout calls on wifi, which is not really an innovation but a removal of a restrictive policy. It is to recognize that some models of smartphones on the Verizon network enforce this policy, while others don’t, and any one of them can change that policy without my consent during the next software upgrade, which means maybe I upgrade less if it’s working as I want it to.

Returning to the example above related to soil data collection and analysis tools, when the social<->technology is demystified, it helps me to begin to situate the struggles of the organic farmer within a larger set of economic, political, cultural, and scientific values. Perhaps these values contributed to the development of the best model of farming, and organic farming is struggling not just because it is counter to these values but because it is inferior overall. But perhaps these values are right enough for a few but are suboptimal for many, and organic farming is struggling specifically because it is counter to the social values that benefit the few. Or perhaps the answer is somewhere between the two.

In opening up the black box of both the social and the technical, we don’t get a definitive answer, but a richer information base within which to have dialog and to build knowledge about what it is that is right enough to achieve our personal and community valued beings and doings. 

How can we demystify social<->technology?

Paulo Freire was an adult educator from Brazil, who in the 1960’s worked to develop educational projects that not only taught reading and writing to the illiterate, but at the same time worked to help raise awareness of the agency people had to bring a new reality into existence. He used techniques that would be familiar to us today — show a picture, show a word, help people to pronounce the word and associate it with the picture, connect the syllables of the word with specific sounds, generalize to other words. But as Freire went through these steps, he also encouraged learners to combine syllables in unique ways to create new words. And he encouraged them to see how the old word was often associated with objects that served to oppress the learner (for instance, a brick that perhaps they manufactured for elites who paid them a sub-living wage and then used the brick to build walled fortresses that kept wealth in and others out). At the same time they made connections of syllable sounds with new words, they also made connections between creating their own new words with creating new, more just realities — the social<->technology was demystified.

Here’s an example of how we’ve applied this to a digital technology workshop on hardware.

  1. Icebreaker:
    1. As you enter, please take a moment to draw a picture of an innovator innovating.
    2. Introduce yourself and describe one way you’ve taken something you have and used it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used to solve a problem. Then tell us about the picture you drew [most people draw a white male working alone doing something they deem innovative].
    3. Discussion: How does the pictures we each drew compare to our descriptions of ways that we’ve innovatively repurposed somethign we have?
  2. Hands-on Activity:
    1. Disassemble a computer, highlighting the main parts as we go.
    2. Imagine the flow of a keystroke as it travels from the keyboard input port to controller to CPU to memory and storage and back to the CPU to the video controller and out to the video display
    3. Disassemble other devices like a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Note that the flow of the keystroke passes through the same general parts.
  3. Discussion:
    1. What makes a desktop computer different from a laptop computer or a tablet or a smartphone if they use the same general parts?
    2. What values may have gone into the different ways the parts are put together?
    3. How might choosing one format over another benefit certain values and goals over others? Which is the best device? How might you redesign the device if you could to better fit your values, goals, and context?
    4. What is it? [Place a smartphone on the table, turned off. As suggestions come in, challenge participants to think expansively across different contexts. Also challenge them to consider what it can’t be because of policy or economic restrictions.]

As noted earlier, our demystifying technology approach has been generalized to a wide range of contexts, from the workshop example given above to short one-on-one sessions. It’s been applied to software and networks, not just hardware. It’s an approach just as at home in a library, church, or school as it is in a Makerspace or Fab Lab.

Importantly, we’re coming to realize demystifying technology isn’t about creating different curriculum, but it’s rather what is transformative is the way the curriculum is integrated together with other curriculum, icebreakers, and reflective discussion. In other words, it’s the programming that is built around the curriculum that matters more than the curriculum itself.

And most importantly, it’s the values that inform the programming that makes all the difference (covered in more depth in the post Technology Education and Social Justice):

  • that technology is both shaped by and shapes society;
  • that our most important work is to humanize others and help each person have the capability to flourish;
  • that resilient, just community is the essential outcome goal of our work;
  • that hardware and software expertise is but one of many expertise needed if we are to build and effectively use tools that help us achieve broader human and community development goals;
  • that difference is not just a nicety, but a desperately needed resource; and
  • that there are exclusionary social structures, some of which we actively — even if unintentionally — reinforce through our choices and actions, and that must be countered if we are to achieve these broader goals.

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