Engagement and Two Forms of Social Change

Engagement, especially when qualified with words like community, public, or civic, shows up in a lot of contexts. I recently wrote a post about librarians as engagement leaders, and in this post I want to follow up a bit further regarding my current thinking about the purpose of engagement. In a 2012 paper about community-based research, Randy Stoecker describes two forms of social change that I think apply more broadly than just the academic setting. First, there is the need for action to address specific issues — a group’s need or opportunity. But when done using a fully-participatory process, a second form of social change is achieved that transforms the social relations of knowledge production. A liberative form of community engagement is done in ways that both address a specific issue and also increase the capacity of those with whom we are engaging to become knowledge producers so that their own knowledge can inform group action and build group power.

LiberativeCommunityEngagementThe diagram on the left is my visualization of these two forms of social change. At the center, the central goal of liberative community engagement is to bring about social change. The outer circle represents the community inquiry and inquiry-based learning as described by Chip Bruce — “inquiry conducted of, for, and by communities as living social organisms.” The outer circle could as easily have been comprised of the community-based research steps of diagnosis, prescription, implementation, and evaluation as described by Stoecker. Indeed, there are a number of useful models for participatory action leading towards addressing a specific issue. The two mentioned are also examples of methods whose underlying objective is the inner circle of social change, that of building community power by fostering community’s increasing role in information gathering, knowledge creation, transformative action, and ultimately community power.

It is right to recognize that sometimes any aspect of these cycles may require a significantly specialized expertise. Engagement may thus include our providing services to the community in support of their social change projects to meet these specialized needs. But an ally approach to engagement requires that we are very careful to first critically consider such a step in light of the differences in power and privilege that exist. Anne Bishop notes

Allies are people who recognize the unearned privilege they receive from society’s patterns of injustice and take responsibility for changing these patterns.

Who is driving the decision to provide a service to the process instead of working to transform the nature of knowledge production by working with people to advance their own ability to accomplish the service? “Expediency” and “efficiency” can as easily be buzzwords for maintaining the status quo of power differences.

Engagement as I am increasingly thinking of it is a process of deep, critical, difficult dialog. A presentation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium recently by Emerge Solutions, Inc. introduced me to the concept of the groan zone. As with normal brainstorming, ideas are brought to the table to expand our consideration of how to proceed. But unlike brainstorming that is working to achieve a certain goal, the divergent phase doesn’t pretend to know what the end point is or what it means. The divergent phase is instead about simply about idea generation. Along the way, the conversations may and often do become uncomfortable. The process may be terminated too soon to really work through these discomforts. But by continuing the process through the groan zone and to the divergent phase, new, often truly important, ideas come because of the difficult conversations.

Maria deBruijn of Emerge Solutions suggested in their presentation at the Engagement Scholarship Consortium that too often consultants work to minimize the discomfort and to “facilitate” the process by putting the groan zone into a black box because it is such difficult work. But in keeping this work hidden, consultants ultimately limit or eliminate the opportunity for deeper community building. Digital technologies further hide the difficult work in many cases, which is why Emerge Solutions carefully consider if, when, and which digital technologies to incorporate into the dialog processes on which they are consulting.

I think this is a great example of liberative community engagement! From their website, deBruijn writes about her experiences leading to the formation of Emerge Solutions:

Over the years, she noticed that clarity (a strong vision), cohesion (relationships) and resilient communities (the ability to adapt together) emerge when people invoke leadership and actively engage others to plan and make decisions.

She also noticed that leadership and engagement can come from any place in a community and organization, and that it stands up even in the face of complexity, polarities, and the chaotic conditions that tend to plague progress and sustainable courses of development.

A number of interesting articles are surfacing with regard to the role of public libraries in community in response to the radical hospitality the Ferguson Public Library demonstrated following the shooting of Michael Brown and again after the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. A 2012 blog post by R. David Lankes was revisited in the midst of the conversation. In that post, Lankes clarifies:

You see a good library sees the collection as a service and therefore monitors and plans for its use. A great library sees the collection as only a tool to push a community forward, and more than that, they see the library itself as a platform for the community to produce as well as consume. The library member co-owns the collection and all the other services offered by the librarians. The library services are part of a larger knowledge “eco-system” where members are consuming information yes (a user), but also producing, working, dreaming, and playing. That is the focus of a great library. They understand that the materials a library houses and acquires is not the true collection of a library – the community is.

Engagement isn’t simply providing services. When a library develops a strong collection of books, this often is a valuable service to the community, especially when done strategically. But such a community service is not engagement. When a school makes available classes to the broader community at no cost, this is potentially a valuable outreach service to the community. But outreach isn’t engagement, either. Doug Borwick’s does clarify that such outreach could be thought of as audience engagement, where the goal is increasing the “number of butts-in-seats/eyes-on-walls”. But this remains a service to rather engagement with. Hildy Gottlieb compares this to the “‘Tell and Hope’ method of communications: I tell you my story, and I hope you will do what I want you to do.” Generalizing from the Tufts distinction of outreach vs. engagement for the university, outreach expands the reach of programs, services, activities, or expertise, but it is one-way, with the organization providing contact or a service to the non-traditional audience for the contact or service.

Real engagement is difficult. Real engagement expects conflict and embraces it as important in coming to understand the other side of the story. Steve Sullivan, who runs a network of counseling and crisis centers called Provident in the St. Louis area, was recently interviewed on the National Public Radio program morning edition following the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case. In the interview, Sullivan stresses the importance of working to understand each other. But in being open to conversation, we need to embrace “being uncomfortable in your conversation. You know, going somewhere to sit down and talk to people that you would have never thought about before.”

Returning to the diagram, then, when we ask questions, we need to ask in ways that also help us to address critical questions about privilege and ways to change the system, not just the superficial questions regarding a symptom of the problem. This is radical in the original sense of forming the root. When we investigate, we need to be expansive in those investigations to seek the emergent understandings, not just the easily accessible information. Later, our discussions need to include people we would never have thought about before so that we can understand the many different sides of view of the investigation and action/creation. This is a very different kind of knowledge creation and transformative action that supports creation of knowledge power. And it leads to new cycles of information gathering, knowledge creation, and transformative action.

Engagement has often been described as mutually beneficial as opposed to services that are designed to flow from the giver to the receiver. But mutually beneficial is a complicated concept, especially when we recognize engagement is often performed between groups with different intersections of privilege and power. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Perhaps a more helpful way to understand mutually beneficial, then, is to recognize that social change that transforms the social relations of knowledge production by changing society’s patterns of injustice, we all benefit because of the more just society. This isn’t a product, it’s a process. This form of social change isn’t delivery of a thing, it’s the liberative dialog between people. And it changes everyone and everything.

Posted in Community Engagement, Social Justice | Leave a comment

EVERYONE is a Technology Expert

I appreciate Virginia Eubanks’ expansion of information technology expertise outlined in her 2011 book Digital Dead End. This is not to say that everyone has the same expertise, by any means. But it is to challenge the primacy of those whose expertise is in the physical or software domains. A recent post touched on the concept of critical sociotechnical systems approach to digital literacy. This post builds upon this concept, expanding upon some ideas my colleague Colin Rhinesmith and I presented at the 2014 Community Informatics Research Network Conference. I’d like to put forward four ways in which I think we need to better hear/liberate people’s expert knowledge regarding information technology:

  1. Sociotechnical Framework = physical + software + human + social;
  2. Co-creation of technology — innovation is never static but always being co-created by users to fit the context;
  3. Real-world, everyday technologies — not just the high-tech innovation, and not just the artifact but also the practice;
  4. Given the technical artifact is socially shaped, the dominant narratives and social practices within society become embedded within the artifacts and their use practices, potentially reifying unjust social systems. Some especially experience and are thereby experts in the oppressive nature of technologies.

Let’s explore each of these in turn a little further.

Sociotechnical Framework: a holistic understanding of the technical (physical and software) and social (human and societal) layers of digital technology. We need a more nuanced, complex understanding of the social influences that shape the design, production, distribution, use-policies, co-creation, and end-of-life decisions of a technical artifact. And we need a more nuanced, complex understanding of the emergent properties that result when the social and technical come together, and how those emergent properties shape our social systems.

Brian Whitworth, in his 2009 chapter “A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems“, highlights how technical artifacts improved in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s as engineers working on the physical layer and computer scientists working on the software layer began collaborating more closely. Then, beginning in the 90’s another leap forward was made when behavioral scientists joined the group, bringing in the human layer as part of Human Computer Interaction and Computer Supported Collaborative Work research, and later Human-centered Design approaches.

But still missing all too often is expertise at the societal layer, or what Whitworth calls the sociotechnical gap. As a result, the technical artifact is developed in ways that are inconsistent with the social values and goals of those working to achieve transformative action and social change. As Fisher and Herrmann point out in their 2014 chapter “Meta-Design: Transforming and Enriching the Design and Use of Socio-Technical Systems”, user-centered design doesn’t go far enough in incorporating everyone’s expertise in design, explored further in the next section.

The need for equal or even priority valuing of the social expertise that each person contributes to a sociotechnical artifact brings us to the second point.

Co-Creation of Technology: Fisher and Herrman go on to argue that we need a new approach to the initial design of the technical artifact. Starting with a user-centered design approach that incorporates user representatives into the initial design process, the technical artifacts are intentionally under-designed. This is not to suggest it is a half-finished product in an inferior sort of way. Rather, it is designed with an understanding that each user will further co-create the artifact. Back in 2004, Ron Eglash described a normal process of appropriation that happens with technology, in which people take the stuff they have and use it in ways and to achieve goals not conceived of by the designers/producers. I now start many of my computer/digital literacy classes with an icebreaker question asking to describe one such way they’ve used the stuff they have in a way it wasn’t intended to address an immediate need. Without fail, everyone has a story. Bruce, Rubens, and An (2009) proposed we call the technical artifacts “innovations-in-use” as people continuously co-create the technologies.

Observe the setup and use of two smartphones, or compare the setup and use of same smartphone in two different contexts. Indeed, note just how infrequently it actually is used as a traditional voice communication device. Users configure their smartphones to serve as a tool for a variety of different activities, depending on the context. My personal smartphone, then, can only be described at the time of this writing as the November 24, 2014, 3pm, in-wait-mode smartphone. At 7pm when I attend my next meeting, it may become a note-taking, live-tweeting smartphone. Later this evening it might become the who’s-that-actor-research smartphone, or the I-want-to-learn-more smartphone as I move towards a more active TV watcher.

An innovation-in-use framework also pushes us towards new, situated evaluation approaches for evaluating a sociotechnical system (Bruce, Ruben, and An, 2009, page 687). Instead of asking “What can an innovation do?”, we ask “What do people do as they use the innovation?”. Instead of “To what extent are the innovation’s goals achieved”, we ask “How do social practices change, in whatever direction?”. Instead of asking “How should people or the context of use change in order to use the innovation most effectively?”, we ask “How should the innovation be changed and how can people interact differently with it in order to achieve community goals?”. Instead of asking “How does the innovation change the people using it?”, we ask “How does the community fit the innovation into its ongoing history?”.

These questions generally, and the last question in particular, begin to touch on the third point.

Real-world, everyday technologies: It can be argued that human history is the story of tool design and implementation. We build tools to manipulate our environment, creating a new environment. This new environment shapes us and leads towards new tools. For instance, in their presentation to the 2014 Engagement Scholarship Consortium, Maria deBruijn and Lisa Grotkowski of Emerge Solutions, Inc. noted that in our early history we learned to intentionally create fire. We then began gathering in a circle around the fire. This contributed eventually to inner and outer circles and began to further shape our social order, which required new systems to be developed. Their presentation went on to helpfully describe the need to demystify the community development process and better engage between the rings of the circle — what they refer to as the groan zone — and to also be much more flexible in our selection of tools to support such development and engagement work so as to better build community.

Given this history of humans and tools, why is it that today technology experts are only defined within a very narrow window, primarily of things currently or recently developed by engineers and scientists. Before asking people at the beginning of a digital literacy workshop to describe a way they’ve used stuff they have in a way it wasn’t intended to be used, I ask them to first draw a picture of an innovator innovating. Almost universally, while everyone describes a way they’ve reinvented something they have, they draw and describe a white male innovator working alone on an innovation.

Judy Wacjman, in her 2009 overview “Feminist Theories of Technology” traces the history of how technologies came to be defined as those things engineers and computer scientists do. By challenging this viewpoint, we move from seeing attendees of computer/digital literacy classes as non-technology people to people who have expertise in different technologies. Not only does this give us a starting point for transferring skills from one sphere of technology expertise to another, but it also opens up opportunities to consider what’s gained and lost by choosing to use one technology over another.

Learning to identify what’s gained and lost by choosing to use one technology of another is a very difficult process, especially when the gains and losses are not universally shared. It is to this point that I believe Virginia Eubanks was especially referring in her book Digital Dead End.

Experience and expertise in the oppressive nature of technologies: Virginia Eubanks describes the example of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; previously referred to as food stamps) recipient whose pattern of use of their electronic debit card to buy food is called into question by a social worker. The SNAP recipient may never have used a keyboard and mouse, or a word-processor, but they are very familiar with the intrusive and judging aspects of technology in a way that those of us in a more privileged class can’t even imagine. It’s easy to dismiss or explain away such “judging” as holding accountable a government support recipient. But corporate and government corruption, misuse of funds, and other large dollar mismanagement of government support programs are far more costly than the smaller misuse of funds to programs like SNAP by the recipient — if it really even is misuse. It may have been the very best use given the context within the recipient is forced to live. But we do not put the same onerous, intrusive, judging systems on a CEO. In a culture where wealth is correlated with initiative, sound judgement, and trustworthiness our sociotechnical artifacts and practices have embedded within them a trust of the CEO and distrust the SNAP recipient. Only by listening to the expert in the oppressive nature of technologies will we learn to champion, design, and co-create more just sociotechnical artifacts and practices.

Too often when referring to new technologies we hear arguments regarding how we need to get onboard or get left behind. We hear about those who have been left behind. When we become frustrated because we find the technology using our time or taking us places inconsistent with our values and goals, we’re told that there’s no going back. This is the myth of technological determinism, and it pervades the very core of our culture. Further, it’s combined with technocentrism — the deep abiding belief that technological solutions will fix our environmental and social problems. This, too, pervades the very core of our culture.

Colin Rhinesmith has explored the ways in which external stakeholder demands and internal organizational needs sometimes come into conflict when social service computing systems are implemented by an organization to meet funder demands. Design inspirations based on limited awareness of a local context, on false assumptions, and on funding agency demands may expose hidden work done by a social service agency to meet their responsibilities to service recipients. Consistent with technological determinism and technocentrism, external stakeholders may believe outcomes-based reporting software will make funded agencies more efficient. But embedded within such a consideration are beliefs about efficiency and scalability that may at best be inconsistent with the local context and at worst may be based on unconsidered and oppressive ways of thinking perpetuated through systemic injustice. Rhinesmith’s work helps us further see how not just the aid recipient but also the social service worker can bring expertise to the table regarding the oppressive nature of sociotechnical artifacts and practices. And we also begin to appreciate how software and computer systems can be designed, or under-designed using the terminology introduced by Fisher and Hermann, in ways that allow innovation-in-use to contextualize and hopefully challenge the oppressive nature of these systems.

Ultimately, these four different types of expertise are mutually supporting. When effective dialog brings all experts to the table, software and computer systems have the potential to better address societal values and goals based on inclusion and social justice for all.

Posted in Community Informatics, Social Justice, Technology and Society | Leave a comment

Librarians as Engagement Leaders

A number of past American Library Association (ALA) presidents have had initiatives related in some way to libraries and community/civic engagement. The 2012 ALA president, Maureen Sullivan, helped to lead a successful Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant proposal to work with the Harwood Institute to advance library-led community engagement. I strongly agree the library is an essential community-based resource helping to transform communities, and that this requires more than just service to the community, but engagement with the community. The full ethos of the library should be centered upon engagement, especially focused around its core of information and knowledge power, something that only is developed through transformative action within community.

But as I continue to reflect upon the extreme challenges of technology and digital literacy development fostering on social justice within such a profoundly and thoroughly thing- and individual-centered culture, I’m coming to appreciate the considerable danger such a library-focused framing brings. Could it be that within the context of a thing-oriented culture, this statement can be mistaken with the statement made within the Microsoft Empowerment commercial (38 seconds in) “Technology has taken us places we only dream.” — Libraries take us places we only dream. No, no, no!

People dream, and people work to achieve those dreams. Along the way they create, re-create, and co-create technologies to use as tools to help people carry out their initiatives. In that vein, the library should be an essential tool, regularly re- and co-created, to help community carry out their initiatives for transformative action and community power through information gathering and knowledge creation.

The ALA presidents understand quite well that the library doesn’t magically do this, but that it is the librarians, library staff, friends of the library, the library board, and the broader citizenry that make up the library and see to it that the library-as-people engage so as to transform communities. But in a tech-centric culture, it’s too easy to have the phrase library-led community engagement be mistaken for the need to prioritize the infrastructure and not the people.

So I am starting to instead think about librarian engagement leaders. Admittedly, the danger then becomes an individual focus instead of a community focus. So at the outset, let me clarify that while there is real value in having librarians embedded within non-library organizations, I am talking here about librarian engagement leaders working within a library that has an institutional focus of engagement because of the shared value placed upon engagement by the librarians, staff, friends, trustees, and patrons of the library.

EngagementLeadershipRolesForTheEngagedLibraryI appreciate a recent conversation with Kirstin Phelps regarding leader vs. leadership role. Rather than focusing on the “born leader”, we can consider ways in which everyone can and should play a leadership role in building and transforming community to be inclusive, empowering, and just (my understanding of her words). Bringing in work by David Weerts and Lorilee Sandmann (2010) regarding engaged universities and boundary spanning, the engagement leadership role of some librarians will be more community focused, while for others it will be more library focused, some more technical/practical, and some more socio-emotional. The figure to the right is my mapping of engagement leadership roles for the engaged library onto Weerts and Sandmann’s figure they developed for the engaged university.

Often times, and perhaps primarily, the librarian engagement leadership role is to build the leadership roles of others. Librarians, staff, volunteers, board members, friends of the library, and the patrons of the library, together as “the library”, don’t take direct, primary/exclusive responsibility for all aspects of building and transforming community. Rather, the people who function as the library provide critical services to facilitate those who are working in various ways to exercise their leadership roles to build and transform communities. Reflecting on this further, I’m coming to appreciate that even then, these other leadership roles are really just further examples of supporting the leadership roles of still others.

For instance, consider a community group who regularly uses the library to organize around a development goal, investigate that goal, and use the resources of the library to implement components of that goal. A librarian may practice their engagement leadership role to support some or all of these different community activities, and in so doing foster the ability for the members of the community group to achieve their leadership roles. But it’s easy to imagine that one common development goal of community groups might be to help support the leadership roles of others in the community, say for instance when teachers, parents, local business owners, and concerned citizens come together to champion new in- and after-school programming to foster student leadership roles.

This leads to one other important consideration — with whom does engagement occur? In “Confronting the Future: Strategic visions for the 21st century public library” a policy brief published by the ALA Office for Information Technology, author Levien helpfully distinguishes the individual- vs community-focused library. Services to, or engagement with, individuals is not community engagement. In the community library, the “physical library becomes, even more than is the case today, a center for a wide range of community activities…In addition to these basic facilities, a physical library focused on the local community would offer a range of other services, depending on the community’s desires [emphasis added].”

However, even here we must be careful because too often community is used too loosely or broadly. As Randy Stoecker states in his 2014 article “What If?“:

The word community has been misused to the point where it means everything—a workplace can be a community, a city can be a community, an interest group can be a community, even the whole world can be a community. When a word is used to refer to everything, it no longer means anything.

To be honest, this is something I’m still working out in my own mind. But for now there are certain key components that I am finding from my range of readings on the topic regarding community:

  • Intentionality: Just happening to end up together in a space doesn’t make community. Rather, community comes into being because people continuously work at building it, and only lasts as long as people are willing to continue to invest in it.
  • Mutual interdependence: Reciprocal services, for instance through bartering or exchange of money, doesn’t make community. Rather, members of a community invest in that community because of an awareness that when others benefit, the individual benefits, too.
  • Interconnecting and overlapping roles: Coming together for a single purpose or within a single role is an association. Rather, when we are members of a community we interact with each other while serving in multiple roles, such as workers, students, parents, hobbyists, club members, etc. We get to know each other in a variety of ways and thereby learn about each other’s diverse backgrounds, skills, and interests.
  • Sense of belonging: A statement of belonging to a community is also to define an identity in a deeper sense, along the lines of an amputated hand no longer is part of my body’s community.

Within this framing, I take to heart something Randy Stoecker said during his presentation at the 2014 Engagement Scholarship Consortium annual conference. Rather than thinking of community as the starting point of engagement, it is better to see it as the outcome goal. In this way, we begin to consider whether the layout of the space, the types of available services, the choices of particular technologies, and the types of programming within the library are the best possible for helping each of the communities-in-becoming to increase their intentionality, mutual interdependence, interconnectedness, and sense of belonging.

The best computers and software, the fastest Internet service, the newest books, the shiniest space, the friendliest library staff will do nothing to build a library organization that instills a culture of community engagement if they are implemented in ways that lead towards individual activities for individual gain.

If I reflect honestly and critically on my own community engagement leadership role as a library and information science professional, far too many of my own initiatives have ultimately been less than they could/should because I haven’t yet spent the needed time to problematize the concepts of community and engagement given our dominant culture of individualism. A decade ago Junghyun An helpfully pointed out that my initiatives were less than the could/should because I didn’t aggressively and continuously work to clarify how technocentrism and technological determinism are frameworks intentionally championed to reify systems of privilege within our technical artifacts. A decade later I’m hopeful I have a reasonable handle on this. May my next decade be as fruitful in grappling with community engagement!

Posted in Community Engagement, Community Informatics, Libraries, Technology and Society | 1 Comment

Technology Education and Social Justice

The following represents my current thinking regarding the need for a revolutionary shift in the way we approach technology education at all levels if we are to achieve social justice outcomes of social change and transformative action. Please take a few minutes to read through it and to provide comments to help us think through further these challenging issues.

Technology education at all levels is inherently political. Feminist writing has strongly influenced the “social shaping of technology” literature within the field of science and technology studies, and argues that technology both shapes and is shaped by society. The feminist perspective on technology has worked to challenge our deterministic understanding of technology merely as artifact neutral and separate from the social, developed by rational, independent technical imperatives (Wajcman, 2009). From the perspective of technological determinism, the independent evolution of technology leads to the immutable molding of society to fit its patterns and efficiencies through a natural selection of social processes that integrate the technology (Ellul, 1954; McKenzie and Wajcman, 1999; Winner, 1986). Technological determinism is closely related to technocentrism, an unwavering faith and focus on technology as the means to resolve social problems. Papert (1987) likens technocentrism to Piaget’s egocentric stage of child development, whereby centrality is given to a technical object in the same way a child has difficulty understanding anything independent of self. These concepts were brought together with individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and neoliberal capitalism in a “Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age” (Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, and Toffler, 1994) and distributed by the political think tank The Progress and Freedom Foundation. The magna carta was subsequently formalized in the conceptual framework of cyberlibertarianism (Winner, 1997). Kincheloe and McLaren (2009) state that knowledge of the world is socially constructed within specific historical and social contexts that are fundamentally mediated by power relations. Facts are always determined by some degree of ideological inscription. Cyberlibertarianism and its underlying foundational frameworks can be understood, then, as a pivotal factor mediating political relations by becoming a core foundational design inspiration for, and means for reifying neoliberal influences and power relations through, our technologies (Golumbia, 2013). “Where the system of oppression has become institutionalized it is unnecessary for the people to be oppressive (Kennedy, 1970).” Technology education that does not challenge embedded values within technology serves to reinforce those values – it is political either way (An, 2008).

A sociotechnical systems approach brings the social and technical into relationship, emphasizing a connectedness in all phases of the technology lifecycle (Wajcman, 2009; Whitworth, 2009). As such, we shift from thinking about technology as a thing to thinking about technology as a social process (Rhinesmith and Wolske, 2014). For example, Whitworth (2009) explained, “sociotechnical systems are systems of people communicating with people that arise through interactions mediated by technology rather than the natural world” (p. 395). While a focus on technical systems seeks to achieve predictability and control, a focus on sociotechnical systems calls for approaches that identify emergent changes and behavior (Fisher and Herrmann, 2014). Users are seen as co-creators or innovators-in-use, appropriating technologies to fit local contexts, values, and goals (Eglash, 2004; Bruce, Rubin, and An, 2009).

While a sociotechnical systems framework is an important, necessary step in challenging the dominant cyberlibertarian narrative, it is not sufficient. A critical lens complements a sociotechnical systems approach by exposing ways in which technology artifacts are socially constructed, intentionally and unintentionally, to reinforce exploitation, marginalization, and cultural imperialism (Eubanks, 2011; McKenzie and Wajcman, 1999; Wajcman, 2009; Winner, 1986). Critical awareness of the relationship between the social and the technical opens up selection of technical systems that more closely align with personal and community epistemology and ethics (Eubanks, 2011; Zheng and Stahl, 2011). By advancing agency and challenging the exclusive role of the expert professional within the technology lifecycle, it also opens up opportunities to critically consider ways in which the role of women and minorities in technology have historically been hidden or excluded, even challenging the definition of technology as only that created by engineers and computer scientists (Sinclair, 2004; Wajcman, 2009; Eubanks 2011).

Technology education, whether in a pre-professional Library and Information Science (LIS) program, or as part of digital literacy program within a LIS organization such as a library, will reinforce the dominant narrative unless it intentionally and consistently challenges technology as neutral and separate from social influences. An isolated session or occasional reflection question incorporated into an otherwise technical-oriented course, even when incorporating solid progressive and service-learning pedagogy, is inadequate (An, 2008). Consideration of the essential building blocks of technology must be complimented with critical consideration of why those building blocks might be assembled in the way they are because of the cultural, philosophical, political, and economic influences that underlie the design, production, distribution, acceptable use policies, and end-of-life considerations for the given specimen artifact.

In his introduction to sociotechnical systems, Whitworth (2009) describes the evolution in the effective design of innovations that first began when engineers and computer scientists entered into deeper collaborations, and later when behavioral scientists were brought into the conversation. But importantly he points to the sociotechnical gap that exists “between what computers do and what society wants (pg. 395).” The critical sociotechnical systems approach to technology education uniquely prepares people to work within this sociotechnical gap. As libraries increasingly host creative activities such as Makerspaces and Fab Labs, a critical sociotechnical systems approach helps everyday innovators to transform their communities as part of social justice programs. But such a pedagogical approach not only has value for people working in traditional libraries. As corporations move from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism – thereby advancing the interests of multiple stakeholders including consumers, employees, suppliers, investors, society, and the environment (Mackey, 2011) – people filling the sociotechnical gap by employing a critical sociotechnical systems approach can have a major social justice impact in the corporate realm as well.


An, J. (2008). Service learning in postsecondary technology education: educational promises and challenges in student values development. Ph.D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bruce, B. C., Rubin, A. D., & An, J. (2009). Situated evaluation of socio-technical systems. In B. Whitworth & A. de Moor (Eds.), handbook of research on socio-technical design and social networking systems (pp. 685-698). Hershey: IGI Group.

Dyson, E., & Gilder, G. (1994). Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age. Retrieved November 4, 2014, from http://www.pff.org/issues-pubs/futureinsights/fi1.2magnacarta.html

Eglash, R. (2004). Appropriating technology: An introduction. In R. Eglash, J. L. Croissant, G. Di Chiro, & R. Fouche, (Eds.), Appropriating technol- ogy: Vernacular science and social power, (pp. vii–xxi). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Available at: http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eg- lash.dir/at/intro.htm

Ellul, J. (1954). The Technological Society. Vintage Books.

Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital dead end: fighting for social justice in the information age. MIT.

Golumbia, D. (2013). Cyberlibertarians’ Digital Deletion of the Left. Retrieved November 4, 2014, from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/cyberlibertarians-digital-deletion-of-the-left/

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On being a step builder

I’ve had many stimulating conversations at the workshops held the last several days at the Engagement Scholarship Conference. But the really mind blowing realization over the last two days is that I am seeing things in my discipline unseeable by my strongest mentors. I am questioning their insights and I am realizing they fall short of where we need to be if we together are to achieve human flourishing. But I am seeing these things because of the wonderful job they did building the step on which I stand. And in seeing these things, I now realize in a new way my life’s work — to quickly shore up the tentative step I now am on. Even as I do so, my students are already using it to see things I cannot. As my mentors did, I need to encourage my students to begin constructing the next tread in our stairway. This is a good thing. This is a thing worth giving one’s life for.

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Printing a fabric poster

A colleague, Aiko Takazawa, was telling me about a wonderful new services she had discovered — printing posters on fabric. In researching it further, I came across a post regarding different fabric poster options on the American Society for Cell Biology website.

MentoringFutureEngagementLeadersPosterFollowing their recommendations, I placed my order with Spoonflower.com September 10th. The poster arrived today, September 22, and I’m very pleased with the results, especially given the price of $21.60 (I also paid $15 for express shipping since I wanted leeway in case it didn’t work out well).

The performance knit option is very pleasant to the touch in addition to being very functional. Given Spoonflower is a fabric shop more generally, perhaps next time I’ll get extra in a repeating pattern so that I can also wear my poster. But for this coming month, I’m very glad I don’t have to carry a poster tube with me as I travel internationally to present.

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Labor Day and Digital Literacy for ALL Learners

The following is a post I just made to our project page for a project I am leading called “Digital Literacy for ALL Learners, funded by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity through their Eliminate the Digital Divide program. We are working at five public computing centers to teach basic computer and digital literacy skills by doing projects that matter to the community.  While the post was written for that specific project, I share it broadly in hopes that it will inspire reflection to all who work to build stronger communities, one aspect of which today usually includes working with digital technologies.


In honor of Labor Day, we shall not labor but take time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of workers everywhere. In Lieu of our meeting, here’s a reflection regarding the holiday and the parallels with today, but also my thoughts on what it means for our activities through this project this year.

CNN posted a helpful reflection on the history behind the holiday back in 2011 that’s a good starting point for the reflection:


Since its writing in which the author notes the lack of violence in our own time, we have seen more action in the streets, some of it seemingly unrelated to labor, such as in Ferguson, but perhaps less removed than we might at first imagine. Without reform, I wonder if we might see more?

Today and next week as you engage with community coming to your sites, pause for a minute and know that for many, they, their parents, or their close friends and family may be working 12 hour days 6 and 7 days a week with no holidays or benefits, as they cobble together multiple jobs to just eke out a living wage.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, labor reform champions like Jane Addams worked with people where they were at in their neighborhoods to learn, build relationships, and meet immediate needs. But they also worked to leverage their broader connections to champion systemic change for all people. Our approach is inspired by many of these historical leaders but also by our contemporaries like Virginia Eubanks who has been likened to a modern-day Jane Addams.

Take a minute over the Labor Day holiday to read through the article and to reflect on what our role might be this year through this project. I just came from Kenwood where I spoke in part about the amazing things they are doing because of their vision: technology and literacy for the community.

Let’s hold each other accountable to assure we never get this backwards. For as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

And let’s remember, too, Florynce R. Kennedy’s caution:

“Where the system of oppression has become institutionalized it is unnecessary for the people to be oppressive.”

I would argue our thing-oriented approach to technology specifically and our economic drivers broadly have become institutionalized. Therefore, how can we approach our activities every day as a people-oriented counter-hegemony, not just in honor of Labor Day but as leaders championing a new approach that others can also implement in their own activities?

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