A Two-Way Bridge Across the Technology Divide

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Ron Eglash

Inequities in social power – financial, educational, environmental, etc. – abound for many groups disenfranchised by race, class and gender (as well as other categories). How can information technology help?


The characterization of inadequate information technology resources in disadvantaged communities as a "digital divide" was a useful wake-up call. At the same time, this metaphor is often taken to imply a problematic solution: the one-way bridge (see figure above). The one-way bridge sees a technology-rich side at one end, and a technology-poor side at the other end. The one-way bridge attempts to bring gadgets to a place of absense, a sort of technology vacuum. This view can have the unfortunate side-effect of making local knowledge and expertise invisible or de-valued. However there are a variety of ways we can create a two-way bridge alternative.


One of the alternative approaches which avoids the one-way assumption is that of Culturally Situated Design Tools: using information technology to "translate" from local knowledge (e.g. African indigenous designs, African American vernacular practices, Native American traditions, etc.) to their high-tech counterparts in mathematics, computer graphics, architecture, agriculture, medicine, and science. The graphic above shows a simulation of an African American cornrow hairstyle. We also have design tools that provide a virtual bead loom for simulating Native American beadwork, virtual graffiti, etc. Each design tools makes use of the mathematics embedded in the practive--for example the virtual bead loom uses Cartesian coordinates, because of the four-fold symmetry of the traditional loom (and many other Native American designs such as the "four winds" healing traditions, the four-pole tipi, etc). We found statistically significant increases in both math acheivement and attitudes toward IT careers for minority students who have had extensive use of the design tools.

Another alternative approach is that of Appropriated Technologies. Most social studies of science and technology have focused on either production by established professionals, or the impact on the general public. But what about the lay public as *producers* of technology and science? From the vernacular engineering of Latino car design to environmental analysis among rural women, groups outside the centers of scientific power persistently defy the notion that they are merely passive recipients of technological products and scientific knowledge. Rather, there are many instances in which they reinvent these products and rethink these knowledge systems, often in ways that embody critique, resistance, or outright revolt.

A summary of these two approaches for creating a "two-way bridge" is visualized in the image below.


Culturally Situated Design Tools and Appropriated Technologies are just two of a number of potential strategies for avoiding the "one way bridge." I hope readers of this pattern will contribute additional ideas for the two-way approach.

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