Why We Need Public Interest Technology

Technology: Nearly all of us use it, but do we understand how it works?

We’re calling for public interest technology education. Why is this important? It’s simple: The more we know about how technology works, the more we can better utilize it to perform our everyday roles, relate to the people around us and identify ways to improve our way of life.

To Understand Technology is to Understand Culture

When it comes to technology, the medium is still the message. To create interfaces, protocols and tools is to create not just the means, but the genre of communication, and every time we do it, we change the scale and pace of human affairs. Innovations don’t appear out of thin air – they’re resurrected from what came before. Take for example the telephone. It was born of a simple idea and progressed into what it is today: a pocket-sized computer. Technology is constantly emerging into new uses, contexts and adaptations. It’s this history and evolution that is sadly absent in public education.

The truth is, technology in its various layers embodies memory: not only human memory but also the memory of things, objects, chemicals and circuits. Without understanding the basics of these processes, we miss out on the history of communication, capitalism, innovation and so much more.

What Should Public Interest Technology Education Look Like?

Most of must use technology just to function. From household appliances to work-related devices to leisure technologies, we all survive on technology. That’s why it’s strange so few of us have a basic understanding of how they work.

At best, the public’s understanding of technological processes seems reduced to abstractions. Considering the point above – how technology and culture are intertwined – abstract understanding is potentially problematic, because it leads to misunderstandings about basic experiences, like how your credit card was stolen or why your call dropped.

Now, with big data and networks beyond human comprehension, processes that power our everyday lives are simultaneously alienated from that everyday life. For example, most of us don’t understand, say, how the internet works or the difference between 3G and 4G.

What we need is public interest technology education that is culturally sensitive, exists for the greater good and supports basic human values of community, transparency and trust.

Collaborative

Public interest technology is a space of collaboration – a contact zone to enable simultaneous engagement with different modes of engagement and infrastructures as part of a broad humanistic and deep academic investment. Further, we need to take seriously the responsibilities and expectations that come with this enlarged territory.

Critical

Ultimately, we have the power to progress and grow, both as individuals and as a society. That is why it’s important to lay the groundwork for community-like think tanks that carefully consider how technology affects the neighborhood, human behavior, work, play and much more. We need to objectively unpack public interest technology and examine it critically to find solutions that move toward universal human rights of happiness, love and support.

Playful

Even though the need, importance and responsibility are high for implementing public interest technology education, it should also prioritize elements of play. It should be fun – and not in a trite sense. At the end of the day, learning should be enjoyable because that encourages risks to try out big ideas. The possibility of a new field opening up is that we can reignite play.

Community Oriented

In general, we must acknowledge that technological use and information are being taken for granted. This can’t be the same old divisional, with a college, department or committee; it needs to be community-oriented and as unified as the technologies that connect us.

We need to create a space where community members can bring an electric guitar, Gameboy, phonograph or whatever they’re interested in to pursue the more significant questions of the self, community and culture. Each and every technological object and concept provides insight into a cultural narrative. It’s our job to pry that narrative open and become aware and critical of how it influences us.

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