I 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.