This is about 3 times too long, and definitely too waxing-poetic to be my statement of objective for grad school applications. But I’m proud of having written it, and wanted to share.
Back in 2006, I was discovering my first ever capital-F Future. A class at Indiana University called Religion, Ethics, and the Environment took a couple weeks to explore transhumanism. As a superhero-apathetic comics nerd, I had known about weird futures, but had never quite understood that I could have a role in building them. Suddenly, here was a route to building a better world, rather than failing into another stopgap of less-wrong. I was set on a path of not only understanding, but intentionally building a world in which our constructed technologies meant making it easier to be a Good Person connected to other Good People.
A year later, having completed a Bachelor’s in Sociology and an honors thesis, I landed on my feet in Seattle. I was ready to go to one of the law schools I’d been accepted to, around the overly specific topic of the meeting of organic and digital in prosthetics. Who would own the data going through your cochlear implant? Could you opt into a more dexterous mechanical hand if you still had a healthy biological one? Continuing on with the transhumanist discussion groups I had been organizing and moderating in Bloomington, Indiana, a new community of Future-thinkers began to form in Seattle, from all sorts of backgrounds and disciplines. Upon discovering the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I suddenly had the freedom to build those strange Futures alongside the likes of those in the discussion group, those I would have dedicated my life to defend.
But in building those strange Futures in hackerspaces, -camps, and -conferences, I started to be unable to ignore a concerning trend: these were event and physical spaces for those already self-aware- and resource-enabled-enough to participate. Where were those who were less advantaged? The appalling narrative of “they’re just not trying hard enough” made me reconsider the groups I had come to call family. The lack of historical awareness in the entire community was in myself only mitigated by an acceptance that the world was full of things I had not yet learned. Focusing on spawning our future family, I turned attention to establishing Jigsaw Renaissance in 2009, one of the first makerspaces.
Makerspaces are schools of the future, intergenerational and transdiciplinary project-focused communities. They are extroverted versions of necessarily-introverted hackerspaces. I spent another two years focused not only on Jigsaw, but also on Space Federation, a way to link together spaces, to share non profit status, tax processing, zoning negotiation, etcetera in the same way we geographically shared milling machines. We were more frightened of papercuts than of laser cutters, and making do in the existing world while building a new one was no small task. Again, we intentionally built the Future we wished to see. But this time, the arc matched that of my (arguably onging) goth and cyberpunk days. The idea was so good and accessible that everyone wanted a piece of it, at least for a moment. We fought internally about who we were and what was worth negotiating. The clear paths to legibility which would make rent easy to pay also made us less of what we were. We had been a new Future, but slowly changed instead into blocks filling gaps in understood structures. Shop class returned to high school, but what made makerspaces what they were (and some still are) – the wide open space of possibility and innovation – instead stifled in the inorganic and proscribed state that also made your insurance agent know what box to tick.
As this happened, before it was a clear pattern, I had also started building Geeks Without Bounds. The same primordial ooze of possibility and energy in hacker- and makerspaces was also in digital humanitarian and disaster response space. They made things, but they also made them with purpose, many focused on not leaving populations affected by horrible situations dependent upon the aid sent to them. This was it for me – all of the starry eyes, coupled with an ability to get hands dirty, and the clear intention based on historical awareness of including all parties in the process. I still travel the globe helping people from San Francisco, to Port-au-Prince, to DC, to Nairobi, to Berlin understand just how much they have to learn from each other. Unsurprisingly, the formal sectors in this space care to learn from the informal and disruptive – but many of us on the informal side have gone through the co-option cycle at least once, and are wary of how to interact. In part due to this, no one benefits from the experience and ability of the other.
The same tensions from hacker- and makerspaces exist here, manifest most clearly in hackathons. Born from hacker-spaces and -cons, adopted by open source and commercial endeavors, now taken up by entrepreneurship initiatives and my own response and social good space, these events have the promise of actual revolutionary innovation in the same shallow breath as being mere publicity stunts. Digital response groups struggle with, I kid you not, nearly the *exact* same issues that hacker and makerspaces have as they gain traction. This is most clearly an issue of how to standardize and transmit history in an agressively informal space. I simply cannot stand by and watch these trends happen again, especially not in such a promising endeavor. With the clear understanding and credibility a Master’s degree would provide, this is a trend that can go less wrong this time with the right sort of guidance, and even better in the future. We can have that capital-F future, but it’s not just about building another technological advancement.
At first we spoke of a gleaming future, but didn’t know how to build it. Then, we could build things, but didn’t understand to what purpose. Now, snuggled (or forced?) down into this niche, any lesson learned is necessary to extrapolate by setting it up to be translated and universal. This is not a universal-design approach, this is a self-examining and correcting social script. First, we reach the people building things with purpose and awareness, to make their lives and their interactions building that Future easier. From there, we will mentor those building things, but lacking awareness. Then we can move to those who wish to build but also need context. These are social constructs which can be built with the same intent as our well-designed technologies and transmitted via workshops and comics. More than a possibilty, though – this is an imperative.
These trends are so clear cut as to be glaring. And the solution is not more technology, it is stronger social fabric through intentional building. If the distributed, adaptive, aware systems we build truly are to make humanity better off, humanity itself must also be tended to.
In the same way I used to shake my cyberpunk fist at my steampunk friends, the issue is this: to act upon, rather than bemoan an incomprehensible system does not mean recreating steam engines so you can see where the gearing is warped, it means learning how to solder. In this moment, we cannot blame socioeconomic differences, atrocities, and low adoption rates on failing computer technology, we must start to look instead at understanding human connections in the new digital age, and constructing that with even more intent than with which we lay out a new circuit board design.