By Allison Bland
Speaking at the graduation exercises of Hampton University over the weekend, President Obama delivered an important message about the role of technology in our lives. He cautioned the soon to be grads: “With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations, — none of which I know how to work — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.” In other words, these students should steer towards being producers of technology, rather than consumers of technology.
This passionate charge comes from a President who wants to see the best from promising young adults, reminding them to continue navigating intelligently and to share their skills with those who have not experienced the privileges of a great education. I can’t help but to also locate a similar point in the 1994 book The Bell Curve by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray when they describe the effect of technology on two groups:
In the first group, “Technology works in their behalf, expanding their options and their freedom, putting unprecedented resources at their command, enhancing their ability to do what they enjoy doing. And as these good things happen to them, they gravitate to one another, increasingly enabled by their affluence and by technology to work and live in one another’s company – and in isolation from everybody else.”
In the second group, “Life gets worse, and its members collect at the bottom of society. Poverty is severe, drugs and crime rampant, and the traditional family all but disappears. Economic growth passes them by. Technology is not a partner in their lives but an electronic opiate. They live together in urban centers or scattered in rural backwaters.”
Obama’s point is clear – just as the American process must be participatory to work, engaging with technology must also be participatory. So here are 5 uses of technology that can empower and emancipate:
- Immerse yourself within the flow of information. Identify a few news websites and blogs you like and visit them regularly. You might like to subscribe to their RSS feeds and access them in Google Reader. When you see a story that interests you, by all means share it. I watched Obama’s speech on YouTube and noticed that the young man sitting directly behind Obama’s left shoulder was recording the speech with his phone. Your perspective is important – capture news as you witness it.
- Broaden your social networks. Just as you shouldn’t feel obligated to stay in “your part of town,” don’t just stay in “your part of the net.” Have you ever noticed how easy it is in Foursquare to become Mayor of places in Black neighborhoods? That means we need to start checking in and earning some badges. On Twitter, follow diverse people and groups. Don’t be afraid to @reply them.
- Get to know your hardware. Obama joked that he didn’t know how to use iPods, iPads, Xboxes, and Playstations. But we all remember his insistence to keep his Blackberry with him throughout the campaign trail. When new devices come out, investigate them and see if they would have any utility in your life. George Washington Carver used to tour the south in his “Jesus Wagon,” explaining how various agricultural tools worked. Fulfill this role in your community.
- Load up on valuable software. The president quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.” That is surely true, but people in our nation can expect to be uplifted from ignorance through free software. There are tons of enriching and interesting software applications that are of no cost to the eager user but can provide unlimited mental stimulation, a new hobby, or even steps towards a new career. Try graphic manipulation programs like Gimp and Inkscape, fun introductory programming tools like Scratch and Etoys, and a whole host of linux based programs.
- Produce, produce, produce. When you combine being informed and connected with software skills and capable hardware, the results are likely to be amazing. The entryway might be in your own community if you care to look. In Boston, one of the most dynamic creation experiences you can have is with the Fab Lab at the South End Technology Center. The Fab Lab is just a room of eight machines – but through them you can churn out almost anything you dream up. The center, founded by African-American activist and retired MIT professor Mel King, offers education and the right tools. What will you engineer to emancipate yourself?
Allison Bland enjoys exploring emerging technologies and writing about them. She lives in Boston. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org