Technology in, for, and with community 1 | Fab Ateneus, Barcelona

Being based at a university, and working within the cooperative extension system, I’m always looking for models of community/university collaboration that exemplify a participatory engagement with citizens (Or, as some would put it- “stakeholder” engagement). And in our current era of makers and making, examples that integrate technology are especially of interest. And I always mean to preserve examples when I find them, but hardly ever do…until now. Going to make a real effort to post them here starting now.

Fab Ateneus, in Barcelona, is my first stop. First brought to my awareness by this great article in the Guardian back in April, it has obviously been lurking about in the recesses of my mind influencing my thoughts about making and civic engagement.

There are more examples, programs, place and people working on technology in, with and for community – likely many more than I am aware of – that I’ll try to highlight as time goes on.

‘Making” in public


Making in public, with littleBits
Making in public, with littleBits

Last week I was able to spend 2 days at the New York State Fair as part of our attempt to get the Civic Makers program up and running. A large part of our time at the fair was spent talking and tinkering with passersby. Curiosity, and the opportunity to interact with technologies in a non-threatening and no-risk way, lead to a lot of experimentation and a fair number of questions.

And, in reflecting on this experience, I was struck by the fact that people really do want to tinker with, and understand, technology. It’s just that the opportunities to do so – for many people- are limited, at best. The fair was a fairly diverse audience and the curiosity and desire to play was not age dependent. And even though technologies such as 3d printing are becoming more pervasive, access to the technology – access to seeing and being able to ask questions – is limited.

I am beginning to think it is incumbent upon us – technologists, geeks, nerds, makers, et. al.- to do much much more making in public. And we need to bring the necessary patience and compassion in order to engage effectively with people and communities that may be curious but inexperienced. Democratizing technology is only an aspiration until we begin to do this work.

Civic makers

IMG_0115Civics, for some of us of a certain age, might call up memories of somewhat musty school books, droning teachers and student councils. It is one of those terms that can seem endearingly dated in our ironic (or are we post-ironic yet?), cynical post-democratic ( we sure seem to be hitting the mark on that one) age. But it is far past time for us to reclaim civics, to reclaim the commons that we as citizens share. Some attempts are being made, some alternative pathways to a new civics are trying to be born, but it is an uphill (which in not to say sisyphean) slog.

But the systems that interlock and compose the civic sphere are not completely gone. And they are systems and networks and linkages – discernable even under the dust and corruption of non-use – which brings me to my reason for this post. The development of civic makers.

The use of our ability to teach others (especially, but not exclusively, youth) how to use technology to make things that exist, interface with, rebuild and/or reinforce civic structures and networks should be a primary focus of our work. This does not mean that we use civics, or making for good, or communities as workshops, as a bludgeon but that those elements of community and citizenship are present in our work and teaching. We must use our time to teach both the technology and an understanding of systems, of logic and processes that is transferable beyond the realm of technology.

Understanding technology and  using it to create can be a liberating experience. And in the past I have facilitated sessions where it was just that. And it is a wonderful thing to accompany youth on this journey – without a doubt. But leaving it there, as an experience that exists somewhere beyond the ‘harsh’ realities of the tangible world, is a kind of disservice. I say this as someone who believes deeply in the power of Minecraft as a tool, a hook, to bring youth into the world of coding and crafting. The ever-present challenge, as I perceive it now, is to use tools such as Minecraft with clearer focus and intent. Structuring learning opportunities such that we are very clearly teaching comprehension of systems and processes. Not in a lifeless and pedantic way and not even in any blatant way but as co-learners and co-teachers with our participants, discovering systems and networks and processes together as we use the tools at hand to craft and make.




Snap together solutions

Modeling a solar panel control using littleBits
Modeling a solar panel control using littleBits

Last week we ran our first code to craft workshop with 20 youth from across New York state. They formed 5 teams and set about using the available technologies (Scratch, littleBits, Arduino and more) to develop solutions to a community issue or problem. This is the first workshop I’ve facilitated that began with an introduction to community. We front loaded the workshop with information gathered from specific communities and a session on understanding communities, and stakeholders. We ran the first third of the workshop without the kids touching technology. We learned and brainstormed and develop an understanding that technology as a solution has impacts well beyond the narrow focus of a designer or developer working alone to solve a problem.

There was, of course, not enough time to do justice to the challenge, but it was a beginning. And as the kids talked about their projects at various points there was always a concrete (in the abstract) user for their end products. I’m still reading through the session evaluations, but I think we’re on to something here. I’m sure it is not all that novel out in the big world but for us, for this session it is a new way of teaching coding and development with youth, and it was invigorating.

From computer code to code of law: Enlarging the concept of procedural literacy beyond computing.

IMG_0436In planning for an upcoming workshop with youth I’ve been thinking more deeply about the meaning of digital literacy. Like any literacy, there are layers of ability that can be developed. And there are orientations to the teaching of these literacies – social contexts and goals (whether stated or implicit) – that can lead to greater or lesser freedoms when it comes to ‘reading and writing the world’.

Developing digital literacies that move beyond the surface, literacies that empower the learner to do more than just use a web browser or an office suite, lay the foundation for computational thinking. In this movement into a deeper understanding of not just how but how-to there is a transition from ‘reading the world’ to ‘writing the world’. In other words, computational thinking moves the process of coding from an isolated activity devoid of social meaning into the context of humans actively building the world (Vee 2013).

When you start looking into computational thinking you encounter the idea of procedural literacy (Mateas 2005). The original framing of procedural literacy has its roots firmly in new media studies. But I’d like to expand the idea of procedural literacy- maintaining its roots and ties to computational thinking but expanding its domain outward to embrace more of the world.

The impetus for making this move is tied to the very fuzzy thought I had recently about modeling political, legal, governmental processes using things like littleBits and Arduinos. As we have been discussing the upcoming youth workshop, and integrating a more clearly articulated framework of computational thinking, I keep coming back to the basics of logic – both computational and social (or human). Fundamentally I believe that:

By developing an understanding of code, and coding practices, participants will develop a procedural literacy that can then be used to understand, re-create and build a diverse range of systems, including technological, legal, governmental and social systems.

or, in plainer English:

Learning to read and write computer code can foster the growth of literacies across a range of systems.

So there is a skills development pathway that is a movement through digital literacy to computational thinking and ending in procedural Literacy.


References and readings

Brennan, Karen, and Mitchel Resnick. “New Frameworks for Studying and Assessing the Development of Computational Thinking.” Annual American Educational Research Association meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada (2012): 1–25.

Freire, P., & Macedo, D. (2013). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. Routledge

Ingerman, A., & Collier-Reed, B. (2011). Technological literacy reconsidered: A model for enactment. International Journal of Technology and Design Education, 21(2), 137–148.

Mateas, M. (2005). Procedural literacy: educating the new media practitioner.On the Horizon, 13(2), 101-111.

Stevens Jr, E. W. Literacy, Law, and Social Order.

Street, B. V. (1984). Literacy in theory and practice (Vol. 9). Cambridge University Press.

Vee, A. (2013). Understanding Computer Programming as a Literacy. Literacy in Composition Studies, 1(2), 42-64.

Literacy, Law, and Social Order

Book by Stevens Jr., Edward W.
New From: $40.08 USD In Stock

From Code to Craft – Open, appropriate, technology and the design of a new world – part 3

10900111_343478819172598_193884582881854888_oInformation and communications technologies (ICT’s) continue to change and develop at a rapid pace. Increasingly pervasive and networked (both socially and ‘physically’) ICT’s are largely black boxes. While there are indications of movements and trends that attempt to plumb the depths of these black boxes, by and large, most people remain unaware of the ‘mystery in the box’. Digital literacies, hard and soft, offer a way into understanding ICT’s.

The development of a robust understanding of ICT’s leads to an ability to deconstruct, reimagine, and innovate beyond the original boundaries of any given tool or technology. It is possible to see this process at work in communities surrounding the sandbox game, Minecraft. There are ways of seeing the world building, mod creating, and sharing within the Minecraft community as analogs for other processes that can/could have tangible real world impacts. The challenge is in moving from code to craft.

While there is value in knowing how to use software to build vivid and impactful worlds online, the end goal should be to teach literacies that help learners emerge into the world and enact change there. Building the world we want is an exercise in shaping tangible realities. Crafting a more just and equitable world may seem outside the direct goals of any digital literacy learning, but all learning should orient itself towards that goal. The tools and technologies of ICT can be powerful agents acting towards sustainability, creativity, free expression and on and on.

This movement from understanding to intervention informs the Maker and DIY movements, to a degree. But it is time to think about harnessing the energy of such movements towards concrete and meaningful impacts in the world. This is not to say that all activities must be socially useful, just that an articulated goal should include utility towards a more just and equitable world.



We have continually expanding access to new technologies. And yet the issues, problems and plagues that have been with us for decades still endure. And what is even more troubling is that we have largely surrendered the dreams and visions that have the power to animate our work for a better world. This is, of course, not universally true – there are dreamers and visionaries at work today. What we have lost, largely, is the ability to dream as a community or society. The energy of dreams and visions has been transformed into the power that animates fear and loathing. And too many people now cling to fears for lack of any other better emotion to attach themselves to. Because, in truth, what hope is there when we see increasing disparity, increasing selfishness, increasing poverty with no solution, with no path out?

But there are movements and motions that are at work now that could counter this lack of larger vision and hope. Open source, peer movements, plentitude economics are several points of light. But if we are daring to dream again on a larger (some might say grander) scale lets include autonomous technologies, an intelligent world built of objects that speaks to us in multiples of voices and space.

But so long as money is the measure of wealth we will be on the short end of that equation. We need to include, within our new dreams, an alternative measure(s) of wealth. How do we address the fundamental problems of health, nutrition, housing, human rights within a system that is not dependent on money as a measure? To eliminate money, to redistribute the wealth seems impossible but to ignore it – to use it when needed but not let it be the measure of wealth – is that possible? There are so many more of us who are not million(and billion)aires, surely we can come up with something?

This article (Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production) by Adrian Smith began some of my thinking on this. And this (Why communists need moon bases, or in other words, a vision for post-capitalism) added a bit, among other things.

Coming up next…desktop manufactories, surplus workers and space colonies.

Design and Technology Session with Teens – from 2003

Just a bit of archival preservation here. In 2003 we did a 4-H Career Explorations session on Design and Technology. In the past few years I have looked for, but been unable to find, the documents related to this event. Today I did stumble on them and so thought I would preserve the content here.

Session description:

In this program we will explore and re-design common technology tools including cell phones, gps devices, and hand held computing devices.  We will also take a look at the design process and the impact of users on design evolution. Maximum number of students:  15

Wednesday June 25

2-4:30  Information in the Palm of your hand: Exploring the design rationale for mobile information devices. During this period we will look at the evolution of hand held devices and explore evolution of their current design. Issues of form and function and the design decision process will be explored. Design teams will be formed to begin the preliminary design process for a new device. Design materials for this session will include paper, pencils and markers.

Thursday, June 26

8:30 – 4:00

Morning will begin with presentation by the design teams and discussion of their previous afternoon’s design work.  Changes in the design requirements will be made and a re-design session will begin. This will end at approximately 11am.

11-12 short presentation of redesigns and distribution of materials for the afternoon session.

1-4 transfer of paper based design to 3 dimensional model using clay and other materials.

Friday, June 27

8:30 – 12:00 Presentation of design by teams and preparation for closing ceremony presentation

Usage Scenarios:


| A mobile information device that connects you with your friends. This device would have the ability to communicate with multiple people at the same time and might have the ability to locate them, geographically. Communication could be textual, voice or video.

Scenario 1:

Susie, Luis, Emily, Alex and Phil are going to the mall. Susie needs to go to the Gap, Luis to Zumiez, Emily wants to Best Buy and Alex is going to T.J.’s. Phil is just along for the ride. While at the Gap Susie spots a pair of printed side zip capri’s that she just isn’t sure about:Susie wishes that Emily was here to help her make up her mind. How would ConX be useful here?

Scenario 2:

Wanda, Ray, Roberto, Dexter and Mitzi are visiting New York City. After breakfast at the hotel Wanda, Roberto and Dexter head off to Central Park. Mitzi and Ray hop on the subway and head down to the village. While wandering the streets of the village Mitzi and Ray get separated. Wanda and Roberto head into the central park zoo. Dexter is distracted by the game of 3 card monte taking place on 5th avenue.

Ray turns down Bleeker street and finds a perfect café. He wishes Mitzi were with him…..

Dexter realizes he has lost Wanda and Roberto……

How can ConX help?


Open, appropriate, technology and the design of a new world – Version 0, part1.

lb2I recently returned from two weeks in Nicaragua. During my time there we conducted some tech workshops with kids using littleBits (more about that in a future post). While I was there I began to think more closely about the relationship between things like open source, cultural and economic constraints, and so on. I’ve worked with kids and young adults around tech issues for a long time now – sometimes here in New York and sometimes in Nicaragua. I still harbor the firm conviction that tech literacy is now a fundamental need if one is going to take part in shaping a new world, the world we want.

But what became startlingly clear to me (perhaps I am a slow learner?) this time around was the basic powerlessness of teaching tech, so long as it is disconnected from a political orientation, or a political platform. This is perhaps a troublesome thought and possibly poorly articulated. But what I’m trying to get at is something about the point of using technology as a toolkit to build a better, new world, necessitates that tech itself is politicized, contextualized within an operating framework that engages not just tech but the whole social/economic/cultural ecosystem. Because I don’t think it’s possible to build a new world using the constraints of our current system.

Open source is a great concept, but in the context of the political systems we currently work within it is a privileged concept. Access to tools, supplies, even knowledge is unevenly distributed due to a particular system(s) – to enact open source as a robust technology system demands it be a part of a new ecosystem that includes the social, political and economic workings (inner-workings, networkings) across the board.

All of this arises from thoughts about free association and knowledge sharing that I began to put down on January 2nd while in Managua. It was deepened as I moved to the Atlantic coast and began working with kids there. Thoughts of open educational resources, open systems, and networks soon became mired in the realities of daily life – which I only experienced as a spectator. But it rapidly became obvious that the untidy, sometimes ugly, nest of interrelationships between economics, politics, culture and technology cannot be sectioned off and dealt with as autonomous entities.

Each bit of tech we carry, each new thing we teach about, carries with it this intertwined web of economics, politics and culture. The challenge is to be able to use this tangled tool as a lever opening the door to another possibility. Add to that the additional difficulty of respecting difference and diversity and culture and it becomes daunting. But not impossible. I keep coming back to the image of handshaking (in the IT sense of the term). There has to be a negotiated connection that can establish common boundaries and parameters, that does not overwhelm one side of the connection but finds an equilibrium that allows participants to move forward together.