Finding good things in here. Using this as an outlet to synthesize what I can.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
--Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"
I have this sense that I've been sitting down for years saying the same things, thinking the same things, not doing stuff. Just talking about it.
It's not entirely true, I know. I've done stuff. I still... it's not enough. I've tried to live my life by the metric of "am I going to look back and regret not doing this?" and there are still opportunities I've dropped, because I don't have enough to pay all the opportunity costs for the things I want to grab. Still! Can I really say that what I'm doing now is always better than the the other things I could be doing? Am I solving the best problem I could be solving?
Something I wrote over 3 years ago, before I got involved with OLPC, might make this clearer. Here's 19-year-old Mel, blazing through a world she doesn't know at all, trying to find answers to these questions... and the thing that bothers me now is that I don't think I'm any closer to answering them now than was before. I'm a little better equipped to start finding the answers, but I haven't started.
Some MIT Media Lab folks are trying to make $100 laptops (which do multiduty as ebooks and handhelds) for schoolchildren in developing countries. [A now-out-of-print article] shows a particularly spiffy design idea; power cord doubles as carry strap.
This article was a reminder of something a classmate and I had been talking about recently. Some designers focus their work on improving the lives of people in developing regions (also known in non-PC circles as "underpriveleged"). These designers have come up with inventive solutions (see http://watercone.com http://www.lifestraw.com), worked with charities, and implemented many other wonderful changes. I thought this was great and wanted to do exactly that after graduation.
It wasn't until I went to a talk by Partners In Health (http://pih.org) where they talked about training doctors in Africa to treat their countrymen that I realized that much of the design aid going to developing regions is "descending from above" (Finger-Of-God), so to speak. Educated middle-class designers come in, fix the problem, and leave. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Papanek's book, Design For The Real World, suggests an alternative vision, the design equivalent of teaching that man to fish for himself. Or better yet, teaching him to teach others how to fish ("train-the-trainer") - that way you reach even more people and create a sustainable education effort that can last after you're gone by empowering folks to help themselves. However, after several hours of searching and asking people, I couldn't find a single organization that goes out and teaches these people to design and create their own things - maybe I was looking in the wrong places, but I thought an organization like that would be easy to find.
Three questions for the list:
1. Why does design philanthropy often take the form of being the "Finger of God?" (Is this even an accurate assessment of the situation?)
2. Are there any existing nonprofits that do this (and why don't they market themselves more publicly?)
3. What issues would you have to deal with in creating a "train-the-trainer" design program for developing regions? (How would you start one?) If we can't find someone that does this already, we'd like to try our best to do it once we're out of school.
Here's what we came up with so far: You'd need a team of designers, engineers, and businesspeople with the ability to teach, at the very least; some way of machining/prototyping things, and an understanding of the local situation and a way to deal with it (in a place with high disease rates due to lack of drinking water, ergonomic faucet handles will be laughed at). Your students may come from a background of little or no formal education. Things will be hackish. Designs must be practical and high-payoff. Supplies are limited; you can't drive to the local hardware store and expect to find epoxy on the shelf. It's a whole different ballgame.
What do you think? Feasible? Pipe dream? Already done? Crazy? How can designers help others, whether it's installing solar panels in Sri Lanka or giving speeches to high-school hopefuls touring your New York firm?
It makes me frustrated. Frustrated. I'm not frustrated that we didn't do this so much as I'm frustrated that we didn't find something better to do. I didn't look for answers for these questions well enough - and I'm frustrated, re-reading the responses I got to that message, to find that all the answers I got to these questions were essentially longer phrasings of "we don't know either."
Worse, replies like this one from people who actually come from developing nations*...
*I don't particularly like this term, mind you.
"...it's difficult to make design here because few people are interested, and we all need in a such a way submit ourselves to the marketing view, otherwise we would not make a living... I don't believe that design will make my country better because that would be so little related to what we really need..."
I refuse to become cynical and jaded about this. I can get mad.
What the hell are we doing? Why are we sitting around arguing about meetings and budgets and schedules and inter-organization politics instead of spending that time solving the bloody problem? Yes, schedules and budgets can be used in the service of a mission, but I have too often forgotten that they're in service of the mission, and that reading a goal should never be subservient to the tools and practices you use to get there.
Why am I wasting so much time?
Anger is fine. Anger is good. When I'm mad at myself, I can channel it to do things. Slowly building this up so I have something to point it to.
I can point it towards being quiet, too. It's challenging (but rewarding) to learn how to turn adrenaline (and sometimes rage) into the sort of sustained deep energy that's needed to change the things that are feeding your anger-which-doesn't-stay-anger. Another old email:
We can't just keep ramping up the "Wow!" factor, though; I think to really get into CS (or any other field), kids have to have an appreciation for the seemingly simple parts of it. It's easy for huge fire-breathing robots get your adrenaline pumping, but hard for quicksort to do the same thing unless you understand it. Sometimes I'm worried that we teach kids how to react only to Big Shiny Things and less how to be patient enough to appreciate quiet, subtle details, and I'm still not sure how you make the transition between the first (exciting opening grabber!) to the second (serious learning for mastery, but still having fun).
Yeah. I guess I'll eat my own words and start with myself, then.
The number of tricks I pull on myself to keep myself on something for the long term is pretty amazing. It's like I can't stand still, but I can keep on running back to the same spot, and that sort of has the desired effect...