Perils of funding!

Into the breach of the DARPA/MAKE debate!

Our systems are broken. I don’t feel it’s enough to explore how broken they are, but that we must also actively work on solutions. My way of doing this is through the creation of educational spaces and experiences via School Factory. I support spaces however I can and also organize and facilitate events. After talking with Dale, I do think his heart is in the right place. He wants kids who are being left in the cold right now to have access to a better education so they can be more empowered. He *wants* them to move on to the local independent spaces due to their exposure to this environment in school.
The only acceptable place for military and religion in school is in the study of history and social construction. So how visible is DARPA’s involvement with this program to the students? I asked Dale, and the answer is — not at all. MAKE is running as a buffer between the funding and the military ideals. That’s the only thing that makes me ok with this project, and the only thing. The benefits would not be worth the detriments otherwise. It is not ROTC reincarnated. The comradere that kids felt and associated with military ideals via that program would be instead associated with maker spaces in this one. And, for the standard recruiting that happens at high schools across this country, hopefully the kids will be a bit more equipped for examining systems and their consequences.
edit: stated methods often vary from praxis, in all interactions and within all ideals. Your Mileage may vary.

My question to the various continued points about idealism and being co-opted: what do we propose to do about it instead? How many of us actively reach out to local schools already? There’s a vacuum of need here, and MAKE is currently offering to fill it, using DARPA funding. *Something* will fill this gap. How about it be the grassroots maker movement? The Department of Education certainly doesn’t have much money, and what they do have is arguably being spent in ineffectual/immoral ways (hey, just like our military dollars!).

I would sadly have to hazard that most of us aren’t up to the task. We can rally to change the spending of tax dollars (because that’s been super effective. Most people of my generation and/or subculture don’t give a fig about politics due to the long-standing ineffectual connection between citizen and representative). Or we can become those teachers. Children need more stability in their lives than most of the people in this community are able to give. Workshops and Faires are a great introduction, a way to wet the pallet. But they are not enough, it has to be at least a semester’s worth of effort, preferably several contiguous years. I’d love for people to prove me wrong about this dedication to involvement, to have that sort of dedication in the face of the incredibly frustrating education system. While the one shared trait of all hackers is frustration (to quote a dear friend), we also tend to rage quit broken systems. I bet no more than 20 people in our American community would be willing to take on the role of middle- or high school instructor who aren’t already in that role. I know I’m not planning to become an instructor in a midwestern community for another 15 years. There are huge gaps between being a hobbiest, living a lifestyle, and giving up your lifestyle to ensure others have access to it.
Edit: Why is it important that we work with the existing school system? Because we’re not done building the new one yet, and neglecting an entire generation while we sort that out is far worse than associating with the military.

In short, this is not the solution I would like best. But it’s an acceptable stop gap which will hopefully also drive us to create a better solution. And it makes far more sense for us to work together as a community to create that better solution and to make the best out of this stopgap in the meantime.

More reading:
Mitch’s opposition
Library Cult parts 1 and 2
Dale’s post on MAKE
OpenBuddha post
(and more, curated by Library Cult — thank you)

I occasionally write for MAKEzine, but am not under any contractual agreement with them. I participate heavily in Maker Faires. I am one of two employees of School Factory, in my role as director of Geeks Without Bounds. I am anti-military. I am pro-consensual-governance models. I grew up in a socialist/anarchistic, non-pacifist, anti-war home. After examining that upbringing, I stand by it.

Comments will be moderated, as that is the norm for this blog. You can hit up my e-mail if it doesn’t appear within 4 hours. I will have a discussion with you offline if you prefer, and will ensure that points are valid (even if I disagree with them) before posting them. No straw men here, please.

15 thoughts on “Perils of funding!

  1. First of all, thanks for the write up :). My main question to Dale if you have him in communication distance is: Can he or the Mentor team share the details of the contract? The lack of full disclosure as to how the program will play out between Mentor, schools, and DARPA is what gives me the most concern. Thanks!

  2. @fbz Sho nuff. I asked him about this, too. It’s fairly standard in current set ups to not be able to discuss contracts until they’re complete (not in fulfillment but in negotiation). Dale is excited to share all the bit of this one.. after all the necessary signatures are in place.

    I prefer to have open discussion about potential contracts with my community, but that’s one more thing to work towards..

  3. @Al yes, have added that into the “More Reading” area. I had read yours, and believe I address your points. Do you have a response?

  4. I would have a response but I’m talking on this issue elsewhere with other parties.

    When it comes down to it, just about everyone but you and Dale has a day job that isn’t within the hackerspace movement. That means we can’t run full school programs because, well, we already have jobs.

    That said, the need for school programs is not necessarily the need for DARPA money. It isn’t like we only have a choice between DARPA money or no school programs ever.

    For myself, I’m not willing to take military money into educational institutions when it can be avoided, especially when it involves minors.

    I also strongly don’t like the idea of leigitimizing DARPA’s involvement with the grassroots hackerspace movement or otherwise allowing ourselves to be co-opted for someone else’s agenda. The military’s agenda, at the end of the day, is not that of hackerspaces (or kids) except as much as what they produce or do can be used for military ends. DARPA is not a civilian program or agency. That makes it “full stop” for me.

  5. Thanks for posting this and sharing about your conversation with Dale. The overall lack of funding makes grants like this necessary, especially given the apparent lack of strings on this one.

    I participated in a session with their pilot class in Sebastopol and the kids were clearly flourishing in such an encouraging environment where they can explore making.

  6. @Al
    1) My time dedicated to hackerspaces is all volunteer. There are a number of people who are paid via membership dues for the spaces they support – I am not one of them. I do work with humanitarian response via GWOB. But you bring up a good point, of how to exist within this current system while we build a new one. A clearly made point is that we would have to potentially give up our lifestyles if we want to DIY this as well – which I’m open to.
    2) I am not saying that we have to choose DARPA or nothing else. I’m saying this is an acceptable option of the (abysmally) few offered. This entire post is asking how we can do it differently, and if we’re willing to. I even state that I have plans to do that.. after I get some other stuff out of the way, including helping to build this new system.
    3) Empowered citizens make a robust nation, and those informed citizens get to decide what that nation represents – violent or not. If what you mean by “military ends” here is exclusively violence, then we disagree – military deployments are some of the most successful in reducing suffering in disaster response. The blanket-likeness of your closing statement lacks inclusion of nuances such as these.

    In the end, I don’t like it either, but that’s what this post is about – HOW can WE do it better? And will we?

  7. Why doesn’t dale ask the doubters for the money? Are we a do ocracy or what? Put your money where your mouth is and lets raise an equal or greater amount than DARPA. No one ever asked us for money to expand makes reach in schools…

  8. @Jacob – incredibly good point. I’m hoping this will be an upcoming phase for School Factory.

  9. I don’t believe that “empowerment” is a sufficient ward against co-option. There are exactly two reasons for DARPA to be offering this money: the development of technology which will aid existing military research programs, and to win support for DARPA and the military at large within the community. You can be as empowered as you like, but when your entire community and “movement” have been heavily funded by the US military, you’re going to be very hard pressed to see them in a negative light.

    To say that the (very real, very important) humanitarian response work that the military does means that the US military is not an institution of violence is an unbecoming degree of naivety. We don’t call the CIA a cornerstone of the kink community just because they annaly rape grandmothers with broomsticks, right? ( While there is real intent to do good in humanitarian deployments, the good image of the US military and the US state is always kept firmly in mind. I don’t believe that drawing a firm line that says “institutions whose primary purpose is war-making are not welcome to fund children’s education” misses any nuance; it is a considered opinion on the basis of the facts on the ground.

    Saying “well, if this is a problem, how are you going to functionally replace the funding power of the US DoD” is a straw man at best. We can’t, and while some interesting things might come from a challenge like that, it’s not the point. Yes, there is an unmet need. Millions of people a year die of poverty — why doesn’t the DoD solve that? Oh, right, not in line with mission goals. Which means that this must, one way or another, be in line with them.

    Are there places where DoD money is acceptable? Maybe. Paying for liberation tech tools that undermine the violent goals of the DoD without giving them any advantage seems like a reasonable bet. Research projects that you were going to do anyway that they just happen to want to fund? Probably, although even this strays pretty readily into co-option via good PR in the community for DARPA. Robotics projects you hadn’t previously planned which play into long-term research goals for DARPA? Nice work, but you wouldn’t see me touching it.

    If nothing else, I’m thankful to DARPA for showing us who in our community falls where on these lines. With an increasingly fascist state, it’s good to know who has your back.

  10. @Ella
    Good points. I then ask: education is clearly an optimal fulcrum for social change. Why are we letting this happen if that’s the case? Rage quitting all things MAKE doesn’t matter much – this initiative would still move forward.
    I know we couldn’t match DoD funding. But we’ve done some pretty epic things without it so far – why not this? Education has also shown to be one of the few factors you can *really* change which effects people’s quality of life. It’s even more important to indoctrinate parents, but that’s an even more touchy system to tweak.

    MAKE is running mediary. DARPA would not have a direct presence in this program. It’s something MAKE was aiming to do anyway, and then found funding for.
    I understand the point about humanitarian response very deeply. I’m not saying they don’t have motive in those situations – I’m saying those actions can be used for furthering other causes beyond the military.

    Now I’m wondering about transition. If we’re building new systems, how do we get from our current to that one, with the least damage as possible? I <3 the flames of revolution as much as the next person, but you've still got to address the causes of the vacuum that those burning things were "solving". Is there a way to transition *without* being co-opted? How?

    I'm reminded of the conversations at Unciv about Luddites. I still stand by my point that destroying the manifestations of a system you disagree with is not sufficient. What are we doing to create an alternate "solution" or to address that there is even a need? Only providing safehaven for those who "get it" is not sufficient.

    I'm also remembering this: Is revolution more successful in the long term in a larger culture of ambivalence or of suppression? Show your work. (cc @dymaxion)!/willowbl00/status/54745803717222400
    Maybe we should include “co-option” in there as well.

  11. On the specifically educational side of things, the reason why people like Mitch are saying “I won’t be part of this” very publicly is to apply pressure to get MAKE to back down. I mean, if everyone in the community said “this is abhorrent, stop or we’ll never talk to you again”, it obviously would not go forward — we, not MAKE, are the movement, and it cannot stand without our support. And yes, I know we can do a lot of epic things without DARPA funding, and we’re going to keep doing them. That said, what Al said above about us all having separate day jobs still applies — some of us have our project bandwidth taken up with educational projects, but there are a lot of us who have different goals right now, and although it’s tragic to see a really important arena being taken over, we aren’t in a position to drop everything and go rescue it. Too many stranded whales to unbeach them all at once. I’m actually more worried about the wholesale cooption of the entire community, which is already honestly a pretty friendly place for *any* player who shows up with cash and shiny toys, than I am about the specifically education projects. That’s a problem, but the DoD has been taking every avenue it can find into the educational system for ages.

    Re: the intermediary phase, a) I’ll buy it when I can see a contract — previous projects, like MENTOR, have been pretty muddy to my understanding. It’s not clear how purely intermediated this funding will be, and influence can still pass through even if the DARPA brand never shows up in a high school shop.

    I’m all for using the DoD to accomplish your ends when it’s doable (as I think you’ve probably heard me say, when talking about the DoD and large-scale green engineering work), but there is a very important distinction between the things which one can use the DoD to accomplish and the goals of the DoD, even in the accomplishing of those things; confusing these two will get you in trouble fast.

    I don’t really have a good answer right now on the transitional question. It feels like we’re stuck in a very nasty place where anything short of a total revolution is immediately coopted, and the level of disruption and human suffering that revolutionary change, even if it were in reach, would bring about, is still unacceptable, with every week bringing fresh horrors and a raising of the stakes. I don’t know what you do there.

  12. I am an anarchist. I believe the best form of government would be no/self government. The reality is, however, such a system wouldn’t work as long as humans are involved. With all of our good intentions, we are still far too self centered, frail and weak. The ideal & reality are incompatible. What to do, then? Work toward the best compromise of those ideals and the reality.

    The future world without a need for the military is nice but likely also not a reality in our lifetimes, if ever. If you entertain the thought that the military is actually serving some beneficial purpose (disaster preparedness & response, defense against hostile entities, etc), refusing to deal with it and remaining isolated from it isn’t necessarily the best course. You’ve likely heard ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. I prefer the option of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them and corrupt from within’. Raise the children of today with your outlook & morals. Show them the military and their arguments, tools and ideas. Let them become enilghtened and wise. Then, if they choose the gun, they will be doing it for the right reasons and can influence those around them.

    I highly recommend listening to Peter van Uhm at TED.

    Perhaps Ella, you are correct that DARPA has shown us who falls where on these lines. At the moment though, it seems like DARPA is the only ‘side’ reaching out to the other.

  13. I ought to write up a full blog post of my own on this subject. Maybe two. But I’ll weigh in here in short form first.

    Military funding is used for many things that we all care for an approve of. In some cases the military funding came in the past, but the advantages of it continue now. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to see military money diverted from the act of making war into the act of creating new things with fantastic peacetime utility. Well educated kids is a good investment.

    As for your generation getting involved in teaching, this isn’t so far fetched an idea. Hacker and Maker spaces really need to look at the example of the 826 model for teaching writing to kids. We don’t need young techies to devote 15 years to a school in the midwest. We need them to volunteer a couple of hours a week at an after-school program, one week a year to an in-school workshop, or a single semester of 1hr a day, in-class outreach for one classroom at a local school. You can take it in small bites.

  14. A bit late weighing in here, but …
    I too have some concerns about the DARPA funding, but those are answered by Dale’s comments (personal and public) as well as my prior (and continuing) work on DARPA contracts. I am the lead on the Hackerspace Space Program, which was recently selected for a $500k grant from DARPA (see for more info.)

    I initially got into the DARPA game when a company that did military training sims wanted to build a civilian VR game – way back in early 90s. DARPA was the other side of their biz and I wound up doing a lot of work on that side too. My experience was that many (sadly not all) of the Officers I dealt with had strong morals and ethics and believed in standing up to bullies and fascists around the world.

    Eleanor Saitta claims there are only 2 reasons for DARPA funding. Wrong. There are others – like a mandate to fund educational outreach. Most military research orgs give money to fund education at various levels. Look at the FIRST Robotics – they get sizable grants from the Navy (and defense contractors). Their goal is to have a more educated pool of candidates who *may* consider a military career – or an engineering career that might help support the defense industry. … or just help raise the general intelligence and tech-knowledge of the civilian population.

    Our system of education in the USA is broken. We need to fix it. Very very few people in the system that allocates funds are willing to step outside the SOP and take the risk on something as disruptive as Makerspaces in Schools (or in Space).

    DARPA’s whole charter is based on taking large disruptive risks. The and HSP programs are relatively small $ programs for DARPA – with potentially very high payoffs in educated, active population. They dont have the manpower to get very involved. They may take a lot o time getting a contract done right (over 9mo of negotiating for Dale & co) but then are pretty much hands off. You submit reports on schedule and they are happy. If you are near their itinerary, they may stop in for a visit, but otherwise they just want you to perform as planned.

    Ok… I gotta go build my workshop, and makerspace and HSP and … See you at Space Camp.

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