Neighborhood Gardening

Recently I posted about urban farming as civic duty. Today in my email one of the aggregator lists I subscribe to sent me a link to this article about Neighborhood Gardening in Mother Earth News. This is a great example of how reconnecting with the earth and our food system can also be an act of community building. Note that neighborhood gardening is different from a community garden, although it might include a community garden. Neighborhood gardening is neighbors cooperating to maximize what each can produce on their own yards and as a neighborhood to meet their food needs.

Who’s working in your neighborhood to do neighborhood gardening? How can you help build community in your own “hamlet”?

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The Making of a Savior

The raw materials are slowly extracted from the ground – silicon, copper, gold, palladium, platinum, yttrium, scandium, the lanthanides, alumina, borax, feldspar, nepheline syenite, magnesite, silica sand, limestone, soda ash, kaolin clay. Some workers run heavy equipment to strip the resources from the top of the earth, while other workers descend deep into the earth to extract out the resources. Still other workers use mineral processing is used to break down the extracted material and separate out the pure metals. Still others work in factories to turn these minerals into the printed circuit boards and integrated circuits that are at the heart of every electronic device on our desk, in our pocket, on the kitchen counter, embedded in our vehicles, in our medical devices, and flashing on information kiosks.

The income earned by the workers mining the materials and producing the electronics is used to feed, clothe, house, and educate families. Sometimes the very cell phones built with these raw materials are used today to transfer funds from the distant mine and factory workers back home to the families in a new form of banking where trustworthy bankers don’t exist. But mines and factories are sometimes run with minimal safety standards leading to severe health risks for the workers. In other cases wars break out over the mines hurting or killing not only the workers but residents who live near the mines but might not even benefit from the minerals in their backyards. Run off and smoke wage a war impacting human and environment unless careful measures are taken. Cost and benefit is complicated as we consider the everyday worker who gives up some or all of their own life to support more life through wages and perhaps a new useful electronic device.

Meanwhile, engineers, computer scientists, behavioral scientists, information scientists, and others work separately and together to develop  ways to engineer the materials to meet new design specifications, to write programming code to address old problems and add new features,  to improve the user experience and performance, and overall to advance participation in the information society. At the same time, market analysts, business administrators, accountants, advertising agents, and others in the companies working to turn scientific advances into marketable products determine existing or potential niches, the costs and benefits of production using different design specifications, design branding, and a range of other choices that further influence what is ultimately distributed to the market.

The choices made by the different participants in this creation process will subtly and not so subtly leave a mark in the technical artifact in much the same way that an artist leaves their mark on their canvas. It will reflect the beliefs and visions about the world held by those who participate in the design. Certainly the work of the engineer seems strictly technical and not artistic. But the engineers design to design specifications, and the design specifications reflect many different economic, social, and political priorities. Will the design specifications list materials readily available from mines that have good environmental and human rights records, or from those only found in contested regions, or from mines that have bad safety records? Will design specifications encourage production practices that encourage friendly work environments, or those that prioritize profit over human rights? Will design specifications include extended product life, or limited useful life with few repairable or upgradable parts? Will the design specifications allow for reinvention to enable users customizability to fit new contexts, or will it be a closed box physically or through legal restrictions keeping users from modifying the product? Will the design specifications consider the many different cultures and ways of accomplishing daily tasks, or will other cultures be expected to adapt their way of doing things to the design of the product? Will design specifications consider the many different physical and intellectual characteristics of potential users, or will it designed for mass production to meet the narrow specifications of the “normal” user represented by the limited diversity of those participating in the design process? Will design specifications minimize the environmental footprint during use and will it include consideration of recycling upfront so as to decrease the environmental impact upon end-of-life?

As the product comes to market, business professionals, medical professionals, teachers and librarians, public sector workers, those from the non-profit sector, and individual early adopters get their first look at the new product. Business leaders consider how they might use this new product to increase profits, reduce costs, build new services, and otherwise gain a competitive advantage or serve the interests of their stakeholders. Medical professionals consider how they might use the product to improve care and decrease costs. Teachers, librarians, and public and non-profit sector workers consider how they might integrate the new product into their practices to meet individual and community learning and development goals. All are working to build what they understand to be stronger communities.

Each of the innovators and early adopters in these communities of practice tinker and explore, tweaking and reinventing. Slowly the product diffuses as what the engineers, scientists, and those working in product development and distribution initially innovated is appropriated for new uses within a cornucopia of contexts. But who participates in the appropriation process, and for what ends? Will the product be used by people in the community to build new collaborations, or will it be used to gain a competitive advantage? Will creative reinvention and use of this product by people in community allow others to more fully participate in society? Might limits in understanding of the social system result in those appropriating the technology to unintentionally exclude others from full participation in community life?

Hundreds and thousands of people contributed to the design, production, and appropriation of the product, a product that is not just comprised of minerals but also embeds human ingenuity and aspirations, and thereby inherits social, economic, and political qualities. Might it be that we sometimes loose site of the people behind and in front of the product and instead fixate on the product itself and the potential profit from its distribution and use in ways that dehumanize both [re]-innovators and users of the product?

And thus it came to pass that a savior was born into this world, and the savior was called Technology. It came to give hope to the hopeless and voice to the voiceless. For Technology inspires us and takes us to places humans could only dream about. Or so the myth goes.

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Dehumanizing or Empowering?

I saw this commercial on TV a couple of times this weekend. I’ve decided it is dehumanizing, defined as “deprive of positive human qualities”. Why do I say this? Because I see many images presented that show remarkable humans doing fantastic things, with a voice-over stating “technology has the power…” or “technology has taken us…” or “it [technology] gives hope …” To me, this is depriving us of positive human qualities, for in each case it was humans designing, producing, reinventing, and creating, with technology as one building block in a much larger effort. It is dehumanizing.

The title of the YouTube video: “Microsoft 2014 Super Bowl Commercial: Empowering”

What do you think – Dehumanizing or Empowering?

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Creation Science?

The debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye has stirred up some interesting discussion by some of the bloggers I follow. After posting one of those on Facebook, it started a followup dialog with a friend, which subsequently included another post I found valuable. The questions go beyond who is the better debater. Instead, I think at the core is the question, is the insistence upon a literal reading of the Bible that the earth was created in 6 24-hour days appropriate scientific skepticism or is it denial?

I found a statement made by Neil deGrasse Tyson in an interview with Bill Moyer interesting along those lines. He suggested that to the extent a person’s faith is dependent on God being the sole explanation for all things unknown, then scientific findings that explain those mysteries through natural processes becomes a challenge of God. Every scientific discovery pushes back the reaches of the unknown. The reaction must then be to 1) deny or bastardize scientific findings by undercutting its processes; 2) reject God because science undercuts our reason for believing; or 3) use science to understand God in new ways.

I think it is to this third point that C.S. Lewis spoke when he said:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Christianity is the lens through which we view science to understand the natural world.

I’ve been reading the works of creation scientists and those who analyze creation science for some years. I do not see their work as a whole as one of using Christianity to inform their scientific work to do better science*. That is, I do not see it as practicing healthy skepticism to challenge the underlying scientific premises and methodologies to arrive at better science. I see it as denying good science and the knowledge that has come from it.

The best analogy that comes to mind for me is to think about an oil painter trying to use their paint brushes to do fine woodworking, or a fine woodworking to try to do an oil painting using a saw instead of a brush. Carpentry Oil Painting is a bad mix just as Creation Science is a bad mix. Rather, the oil painter and the fine woodworker create art best when they use their distinct tools with the appropriate medium. Theology and philosophy are excellent and necessary tools that too often are under-appreciated and underutilized. But that doesn’t mean they should subsume the excellent and necessary tool of science. Instead, they should work in harmony to give us a richer way to see EVERYTHING.

* There are many wonderful Christians who do wonderful science. And there are certainly  excellent scientist who are doing solid science to explore weaknesses in evolutionary theory.

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Finding the Right Word

Throughout my life I’ve regular found myself struggling to find the right word (or name) because of a bad memory — I was destined to be an absent minded professor. But at other times I struggle to find the right word because completely different ways of understanding underlie so many of our words.
This is where I find myself today as I think about think about ethical behavior that is exercised in the midst of unethical behavior. This recently came to the fore again with Soda Stream, and Israeli owned company that leveraged incentives from the Israeli government to locate one of their factories in an abandoned building in the disputed West Bank. For me, this is unethical. But then Soda Stream does something from what I understand is rare, and they provide a fair wage for the Palestinians they employ (which make up a sizable percentage of their employees) that is equal to what they provide their Israeli workers. They also provide a Muslim prayer room. To me, this is ethical.
What is the right word for that ethical behavior? Empowerment? But is it right to call it empowerment when someone first seizes power and then re-gifts a small token of resources back? Granted, the Palestinians gain much needed resources, like money and a work environment that enables them to maintain their faith. And these resources can then be used to not only meet basic needs but to meet higher order needs, perhaps even using them to move themselves or their children into greater opportunities. But no, this is not empowering, nor is it emancipating.
Then again, empowerment is what we often call our programs and services to the Native American nations found within the broader United States boarders, land that we re-gifted to those nations after first seizing the rest of their land. Would restoration be a better term?
Restoration is the term we regularly use to speak of our care of the earth. It is what we do when we first pollute, tap out prized resources, and exercise practices that destroy the earth’s naturally healing system of organisms and organic matter. We then restore the prairies, or the woodlands, or the wetlands when we see the land can’t do it itself.
Perhaps the problem isn’t finding the right word. It’s that each word has come to hide the initial seizure of power and subsequent dehumanization/destruction. Instead we use the word in a way that comes to redefine the problem as a deficit of the victim. We coopt the words in such a way as to dismiss the unethical victimization and to humbly make of the victimizer a savior.
Something that I heard or read, perhaps in Holmgren’s updated book on Permaculture Design, was that if we look at how we treat the earth, we will see how we also treat our fellow humans. And how we treat our fellow humans is how we treat the earth.
Another lesson I’ve been learning from Permaculture is that these are complex problems. They require good top-down principles to guide our solutions. But they will only be solved in any given local context through a recurring cycle of small, slow, participatory observation, discussion, planning, action, and reflection, each cycle leading towards a slightly broader grassroots situated understanding.
Next time you hear someone use a word like empowerment, or emancipation, or restoration, don’t jump to conclusions that you know what they are actually doing or saying. Have a conversation, or a series of conversations, or even better enter into a community of inquiry to explore through reflective action together what you think and mean, and whether it is consistent with what you want it to mean. Only in this way can we work towards a more just exercise of people care and earth care.

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Changing the Unhealthy Way We Look at Technology

Do a search on the term Internet, and you find a wealth of business ads and news stories. Do a search on the term capitalism and you find a wealth of books and news articles. Do a search on the term social entrepreneurship and you find articles, grants, and jobs. Do a search on sociotechnical system and you find scholarly works. It is not a term that has ignited popular thinking, but I have increasingly become impressed that our society’s unhealthy approach to technology is the result.

Sociotechnical systems refers to the emergent properties that come from the tight interactions between the social and the technical that create a singular whole instead of two side-by-side systems. Further, sociotechnical systems privilege the social as the guiding component for development of the whole. Community goals and needs, human rights, and ethics are no longer afterthoughts in the design of technical artifacts, but guiding principles.

When I suggest society has an unhealthy approach to technology, what I mean is that we often elevate technology to one of artificial significance. From the Industrial Revolution to the Internet and Digital Revolutions, our language animates technology and technical systems, suggesting they are doing the heavy lifting of changing society. Or take for instance the subtitle of the book “Twitter Revolution: How Social Media and Mobile Marketing is Changing the Way We Do Business & Market Online”.  How small a role humans must have to not even get subtitle billing.

The lenses through which we see the world shape our understanding of it. Someone who grows up in the country sees and interprets an event differently than someone who grew up in the center of a city. Someone who grows up in an economically wealthy family likewise has a different lens than someone from an economically poor family.  Our geographic, cultural, and other historical contexts shape our understanding of the world and the events around us.

So too our philosophical framings impact our views of the world, whether they have been formally developed or informally modeled through our communities. We all have some sense of why we exist as individuals and a species, of how we know and what is valid knowledge, of what is ethical and true.  Our actions and interpretations are based on these philosophical lenses. I propose that our approach to technology has been dominated by a lens of technocentrism. Whether formally considered or not, our language and actions reflect a value system that is centered on technology and its ability to control, protect, and build a better society.

I literally grew up in the wood business, taking my first steps around and in the family sawmill right next to our house. So when I search for an analogy, my thoughts often turn to something wood related. So let’s consider a wood-centric approach to home building. We make many choices in building homes that are not the most efficient use of wood. We could use far less wood if we increased the spacing between the studs in walls, if we stopped putting hardwood flooring on top of the subfloor, but just left the subfloor show. And why put siding on top of the wood that covers the studs on the walls. We could just go with the siding to protect the studs. Granted, our homes wouldn’t stand up to storms or furniture bumping against them as well, but with the savings in wood we could just plan on regularly rebuilding. And the homes would certainly not be as warm, but why not just keep that coat on when you get home. We certainly understand this to be just plain silly. Human comfort, safety, and aesthetics are critical considerations that go into the building of a home.

But lets think about our approach to digital technologies. How often do we compromise the user or the community for the efficiency of the technology? So I become frustrated not at myself but at the company that produces the software if I find I need to relearn how to use a package when it is not clear to me that I will see any benefits from an upgrade. Indeed, that upgrade may be be part of a larger corporate policy of planned obsolescence.  And I certainly am frustrated when the timing of an upgrade comes at the most inconvenient time for me. On the other hand, I also recognize that my use of a program that has defects potentially leading to a security compromise impacting others means I have an ethical responsibility to upgrade to avoid those negative impacts.

Let’s return to the analogy of our home. The home, at least in urban and suburban areas, exists within a neighborhood. How it is built impacts the homes around. There are therefore codes and policies developed by engineers, architects, and urban planners put in place by municipalities through the consent of the electorate. In the technical realm, then, we need to likewise begin to stop giving sole privilege to the expertise of the engineer and computer scientist. Instead, within a sociotechnical systems approach, we begin to seek the equivalent of the urban planner to inform codes and policies. Indeed, I’ve come to appreciate just how well suited the library and information science professional is to lead in this process.

For me, the checkout line has become one way to put into action my ethics regarding a sociotechnical system. We see an increasing number of stores that now provide self-checkout lanes. From the website of one self-checkout systems manufacturer, they state that self-checkout lanes provide the shopping convenience consumers want, greatly enhancing the shopping experience. Further, self-checkout lanes allow personnel to be redeployed for in-aisle functions, increasing overall revenue for labor hour.

Ultimately, self-checkouts are supposed to be a model of modern efficiency and convenience. But do we see more sales staff in the aisles? Or do we just see a decrease in labor costs through layoffs to maximize profit. We can also ask if the self-checkout process leads to a time savings in most cases, or increased frustration when items don’t scan well, special codes are unknown when trying to scan fruits and vegetables, and coupons aren’t processed. But we might also ask how many people whose cashier positions were eliminated are now on unemployment? Still further, we can ask how our community is built by greeting and having a conversation with the automated machine instead of a person at the register? For me, the sociotechnical system of the marketplace that includes the checkout process leads me to choose to use a staffed checkout lane. Indeed, I look forward to the friendly banter when I see the same person each week. Shopping and checking out is no longer just about me, but about community.

If we move from a techno-centric consideration of computers, programs, and networks, to a sociotechnical systems approach, we start looking at both the social and technical aspects that lead to the system before us. We begin to appreciate that from design to mining of minerals to production to use and on to disposal, choices are made that have positive and negative impacts on individuals and communities. We start to dig deeper to understand the mix of social, economic, political, and technical choices and constraints found at each point in the lifecycle of a given technical artifact. And we try to predict and strategically influence the emergent properties that result when this mix of choices and constraints come together, giving rise to the technical artifact as a piece of a larger sociotechnical system.

In opposition to technological determinism, then, we come to appreciate that the choices and constraints surrounding an innovation are not predetermined or irrevocable, but that individuals and communities can have agency in the process. We stop seeing the technical artifact as a universal and singular thing, but something that is defined only once it is put to use within a given context. There is not a singular Internet, but an Internet as I use it, or you use it. An Internet as it is used in a school, or in a state, or in a nation. In each case, different social, economic, political, and technical choices and constraints impact what “THE INTERNET” is in use. We realize that this innovation-in-use is defined differently in every different context.

From here, we can begin a more holistic consideration of who benefits and who is harmed through the sociotechnical system. In what ways does the particular innovation-in-use reinforce existing power structures and privileges, and in what ways does it challenge those structures? In what ways does a particular innovation-in-use lead towards community goals, and in what ways does it come into opposition with those goals, not just in relation to a specific technical artifact, but as a piece of a sociotechnical system, intentionally designed and harnessed by the community of users, as craftsmen, to create a more inclusive community.

We will spend this semester considering a variety of different technical and social building blocks underlying our information technologies today. But instead of seeing them as two side-by-side systems, with the priority ultimately being given to the technical system, I am putting forward a different lens, a sociotechnical systems lens. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and as long as we have a sociotechnical gap in our approach to innovations, we default to a thing-oriented instead of a people-oriented society, thereby missing opportunities to build a more just society.

(Originally recorded as a podcast for my students at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, January 28, 2014. Creative Commons License
Changing the Unhealthy Way We Look at Technology by Martin Wolske is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at…-at-technology/.)

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Urban farming as civic duty

Our new rabbit hutchesAs we prepare for our first backyard chickens and experience our first winter with backyard meat rabbits, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to ease into urban farming. There is the personal gains of having close at hand quality nutritious food and coming to see the interconnectedness of life more closely than I could ever imagine. There is the environmental impact when we move from the lawns that, square foot to square foot, take far more petrochemical inputs and release far more run off than any farm.

But today I think especially of the civic duty. I wonder if the victory gardens should not have stopped at the end of World War II but continued and expanded globally. Even if each of us produced only a portion of our own fruit, vegetables, and meat, how much would that decrease the need for unsustainably large industrial and family farms and the government subsidies that support them? Could the savings be used to invest in other ways to fight poverty? Could the surplus from our gardens likewise be used to fight hunger, for instance, by leaving a corner of our gardens for community harvest? Could sharing ideas, labor, seeds, and pollen (by planting different varieties when cross-pollination is needed) serve to build stronger neighborhoods? Could contributions to community gardens serve to expand the impact community-wide?

That leads me to wonder, when I think about expansive lawns, whether our choice of quality urban living is really a choice to take goods and services without giving back, without thinking about the common good and fair share?

So today I think about personal gain and minimized environmental impact not as the end-points, but merely the starting points in a broader action of civic duty. Earth Care, People Care, Fair Share is not a permaculture motto of inward individualism, but outward common good that includes people and environment.

Today I think about Pete Seeger singing all the verses to Woody Guthrie’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land”* and I recognize again that this land, starting with my yard, was made for both you and me.


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