Social Constructionism and the Inner City: Designing Environments for Social Development and Urban Renewal



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Social Constructionism and the Inner City:

Designing Environments for

Social Development and Urban Renewal

by

Alan Clinton Shaw

B.A., Applied Mathematics

Harvard University, 1985


M.S., Computer Science

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1988

Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences

in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy at the

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


June 1995
© Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995

All Rights Reserved


Author:

Program in Media Arts and Sciences

May 5, 1995

Certified by:

Seymour Papert

Professor of Learning Research

Program in Media Arts and Sciences

Thesis Supervisor


Accepted by:

Stephen A. Benton

Chairperson

Departmental Committee on Graduate Students

Program in Media Arts and Sciences



Social Constructionism and the Inner City:

Designing Environments for

Social Development and Urban Renewal

by

Alan Clinton Shaw


Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences,

School of Architecture and Planning

on May 5, 1995

in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of


Doctor of Philosophy

Abstract
Constructionist theories provide important paradigms for study in areas of childhood learning and developmental processes. In the constructionist view, the child is an active builder of cognitive structures, and childhood development is especially facilitated when the child takes charge of the learning process by building externalized expressions of his or her intellectual endeavors. By extending this paradigm, it is possible to apply constructionism to larger sociocultural and technological contexts as well, bringing about developmental benefits in the social setting. Using a theoretical formulation called “social constructionism,” I present a model for how individual cognitive developmental paradigms can be used to guide technological approaches intended to foster social development and urban renewal. In particular, I will describe certain processes, activities and tools—including a community computer networking system—that are designed to support constructionist social environments.

In this thesis, I describe MUSIC (Multi-User Sessions In Community), a computer networking system designed around constructionist paradigms. This network focuses on neighborhood-based communities rather than on virtual communities. Computer networks present powerful organizational tools and collective models that can be useful in addressing local information infrastructure, instead of just national information infrastructure. This research attempts to address questions concerning how the same computers that enhance the independence of the individual might also be used to help the local community stay interdependent. Additionally, the intention of this research is to contribute to the discourse around addressing the difficulties faced by low-income urban communities.
Thesis Supervisor: Seymour Papert

Title: Professor of Learning Research, Program in Media Arts and Sciences


Support for this work was provided, in part, by the News in the Future Consortium and the National Science Foundation. The views expressed within do not necessarily reflect the views of the supporting sponsors.

Doctoral dissertation committee

Thesis Advisor:

Seymour Papert

Professor of Learning Research, MIT Media Laboratory
Thesis Reader:

Mitchel Resnick

Assistant Professor, MIT Media Laboratory
Thesis Reader:

Ceasar McDowell

Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Thesis Reader:

Anthony Maddox

Professor, Northeastern Department of Industrial Engineering

and Information Systems

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”

— Luke 18:27

I am dedicating this work to Chinua and Yesuto, who remind me of the wonder and awe of our Creator. I am also dedicating this work to two dear friends of mine, Greg and Ty. They made many impossibilities in my life fade away. And now they are no longer bound by all of our limitations and imperfections. They remain forever in my thoughts.
Acknowledgments

There is no end to the list of people that I must thank for getting me through this odyssey, and I cannot do justice to them with so few words at my disposal. But I shall forge ahead anyway, because the spirit of perseverance has been a key part of this entire endeavor. Yet, I ask for forgiveness from those who I neglect to mention, and forbearance from those who I do not adequately acknowledge.


First of all, I want to thank God for His hand in this. I am surely an oddity to many who know me, because I do not seem like the type to pursue and receive a Ph.D. But somehow God made this happen, and only He knows why or how. Take any such questions to His throne.
Next, I want to thank Michelle, my lovely wife. Without her, I would have given up long ago. Her love and support, in body, mind and spirit, saw me through all of this. We continually try to live out many of the ideas in this thesis in our lives together, so this work has truly been a labor of love. We believe that villages not only help raise children, but they also help keep marriages strong. Sweetheart, your name should be found above mine on this degree.
I also want to thank Seymour Papert for taking me on this journey in academic apprenticeship. My many years working with him have been filled with many wonderful constructions, both academic and social, as he has helped to guide me all the way to the finishing line. In many conversations I

can remember Seymour telling me that he was quite confident that my work would be significant and socially relevant. I cannot express how important it was for me to hear those words. Seymour, you have been an intellectual mentor as well as a friend.


Of course, I must also add Aaron Falbel to the ranks of my intellectual mentors. Aaron opened my eyes to many ideas that are still having an overwhelming impact on my life. I have found him to be a sage with the spirit of a griot, and he has been a great blessing in my life. His help in editing this document saved me from certain embarrassment. Aaron, thank you for being a true friend to me as well as a dear brother.
My other dearest family members in the academic community—past and present—at the Media Lab are Paula Hooper, Carol Strohecker, Jacqueline Karaaslanian and David Cavallo. All four of you have been very critical intellectual, spiritual and social forces in my life. You have all helped to make this thesis become a reality. The time I have spent working with you or just in simple conversation, has made me realize how truly privileged I am to be amongst you. I hope that we can somehow remain an extended family or a semi-intentional community throughout the coming years.
About two years ago, this thesis began to finally take shape from a morass of ideas and fieldwork that seemed to be going nowhere. The clearest moment of this turn came about when Mitchel Resnick became a part of my thesis committee. It is impossible for me to imagine how I could have finished this work without him. There were many days when I told my wife that Mitch had just convinced me that I was actually going to graduate by

showing me how to pull it all together. Mitch, there is no way of overemphasizing how significant your help has been to this entire project. Thank you for everything.


As the people whose academic work and lived examples have deeply inspired and instructed me, I would like to thank Ceasar McDowell, Anthony Maddox, Edith Ackermann and Carol Sperry. Ceasar, you are truly a social and intellectual mover and shaker that our community really needs right now. Anthony, I have trouble keeping up with all of your powerful and exciting theories and paradigms and your intellectual rigor, but I look forward to continuing to work with you and face the academic challenges that you put before me. Edith you have no idea how important your work and your presence has been in my life. I do not know how to express it, but somehow you have made many disjoint abstractions in my life become connected and rooted in a more humane epistemology. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Carol, I have never been able to tell you how much your support has meant to me. You have accomplished so much, and yet you still reach out to many who feel like outsiders and don’t know how they fit in. Thank you for believing in me and fighting for me.
For opening doors that I didn’t know could be opened and giving me a chance when they didn’t know what to expect, I want to thank Walter Bender, John Hynes and Jack Driscoll. All three of you helped me develop some important credibility. I also want to thank Fred Martin, Randy Sargent, Wanda Gleason, Florence Williams and Mai Cleary for all of their support with my many questions and in my many crises, and for making the E&L group such a friendly place to work.
I want to thank Tiffany Cunningham (who led the way for me), Mark Scott (who teaches me by his example) and Cynthia Parker (who guides me by her integrity) for all of their help and support in my fieldwork. Truly God reveals himself to me through all of you. I also want to thank Bob and Janet Moses, Pamela Morgan and Bob Thornell for being there for me over and over again. All of you connect me to the tree of wisdom that has its roots in the history of our people’s struggle. In your own way, you have each become parents to me and you have passed on to me a legacy of hope and belief in our people’s future. And I want to shower Jeff and Veronica Mitchell with “thank you” over and over again. You put yourselves and your family out for me to get this thing done, and now its done. I am forever in your debt. Praise God for both of you. And, of course, praise God for all of the MUSIC family members in Boston and Newark who made some beautiful music online. Only you can put it all together.
And last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank Sylvia Weir. Nine years ago, she brought me over to the Media Lab and then spent the next two years making sure I did not fall through the cracks. If I could point to a single individual who is most responsible for this thesis, I would have to say it is Sylvia Weir. Sylvia, you helped make social constructionism a reality in my life by helping me build relationships, understand processes and develop the tools necessary to become active and creative in this academic setting. I am enjoying the fruit of your labor, and I will never forget it. I will always be grateful to you.

Table of Contents

Abstract . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2

Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5

Table of Contents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22



Part I — The Theoretical Construction
Chapter 1: Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

1.1 Shifting Paradigms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

1.2 Constructivism and Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 31

1.3 Constructionism and Social Relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34

1.4 The Developmental Cycle: A Balancing Act . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37

1.5 Social Constructionism and the Social Setting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39


Chapter 2: Social Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41

2.1 The Paradigm of Social Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41

2.2 The Promise of Social Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
Chapter 3: Appropriable Activities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47

3.1 Appropriable Activities in the Social Setting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47

3.2 Cultural Resonance as Conviviality and Cultural Synthesis . . . . . . . . 48

3.3 The Power Principle and Tools for Social Constructions . . . . . . . . . . . 51

3.4 The Continuity Principle and Epistemological Foundations . . . . . . . . . 54

3.5 The Praxis of Social Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57

3.6 Villages of Learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 59

Part II — Contextual Narratives: Understanding the Urban Setting
Chapter 4: Three Perspectives on a Dream Deferred . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62

4.1 Visions of Hope . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62

4.2 Shaping a Perspective . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63

4.3 In Charge in Four Corners . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65

4.4 Headquarters Block . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69

4.5 A Tragic Hero . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72


Chapter 5: A Shipwrecked Family . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

5.1 Steel . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75

Chapter 6: One Young Girl’s Social Reconstruction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86

6.1 Hope and Solo, and a Family in Crisis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86

6.2 Hope Reborn . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92

6.3 The Dream Lives On . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 95



Part III — Urban Field Work: Experiences and Approaches with Urban Social Projects and Developmental Activities
Chapter 7: Summer Projects: 1990 - 1994 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98

7.1 Common Goals . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98


Chapter 8: Project I: Urban Apprenticeships . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

8.1 Appliance Repair Training—Samba School Style . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101

8.2 Developing a Neighborhood Service . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 105

8.3 Understanding the Lessons Learned . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 107


Chapter 9: Project II: The MUSIC Network . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109

9.1 Neighborhood Networking and Community Building . . . . . . . . . . . . 109

9.2 Social Constructionism and Appropriate Tools . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110

9.3 Making MUSIC . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113

9.4 Using MUSIC . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119

9.5 Making Beautiful MUSIC . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126

9.6 MUSIC as Social Constructionist Praxis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133

Part IV — Project Discussion and Analysis
Chapter 10: Stumbling Blocks to Social Constructionism . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

10.1 The Problem with Program-Based Approaches . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136

10.2 The Program-Based Approach in Four Corners . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138

10.3 The Program-Based Approach in Computer Networks . . . . . . . . . . . 143

10.4 The Content-Free Approach in Computer Systems . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146

10.5 Resisting Program-Based Trends in the Age of the NII . . . . . . . . . . . 148

10.6 Public Policy Implications . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 153
Chapter 11: It Takes a Village To Raise a Child . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156

11.1 Remembering the Village . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156

11.2 Children as Social Theorists . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157

11.3 A Retrospective on Hope . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159

Chapter 12: Epistemology and the Village of Hope . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161

12.1 Laying the Groundwork for the Urban Village Mindset . . . . . . . . . . 161

12.2 Developing a Concrete Epistemological Base . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 164

12.3 Masculine Bias . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 167

12.4 Dynamic Objectivity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169

12.5 A Cognitive Dance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 170

12.6 Epistemological Pluralism . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 172


Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 174
Appendix A . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
Appendix B . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 179
Appendix C . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 186
Appendix D . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192
Appendix E . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196
Preface

There have been many conceptual obstacles that I have had to overcome to make this thesis a reality. I feel as though I have survived a paradigmatic battlefield, surmounting the pitfalls of my own false assumptions, and avoiding the minefields of inadequate reigning social heuristics. Through it all I have found a theoretical framework that has structured my thinking about the connections that exist between certain cognitive, social and technological expressions. I have found the school of thought known as “constructionism” to be pregnant with implications that go beyond its normal discourse around individual intellectual development. I have been profoundly influenced by the notion that the processes involved in cognitive development can be linked to the processes involved in social and technological development, and this notion has become a critical theme throughout this thesis. Indeed, this thesis itself is a conceptual construction, and it has gone through a constructionistic developmental process as well, one that was not particularly clear to me when I started it.


My thinking was forced to evolve during the researching and writing of this thesis. It is a claim of constructionism that by creating an artifact, the creator is changed by his creation. By being creative we express ourselves through our cognitive, social and technological structures, and this expression has an evolutionary effect upon us. If we were to have prior knowledge about the ultimate effect that our expressions are to have on us, then our experiences would not be evolutionary ones. Thus, it is through my

own ignorance that I have stumbled upon new insights and into a new view of the world.


The evolution in my thinking has even led me to an expanded view of the constructionistic model. I call this extended model “social constructionism.” In the theoretical section of this thesis I describe this model in great detail, but here I am only able to flesh out some of its implications. Social constructionism has helped me to believe in the spirit of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword, but I have come to this through a more fundamental formulation which states that epistemology is mightier than technology. Through the lens of social constructionism it is clear to me that computer networking can be as profoundly involved in issues about real (or proximal) communities as it is in issues about virtual communities. Social constructionism has taught me that the social hurdles and barriers that separate people are often more consequential than the physical distances that separate people. Moreover, I have learned that rather than focusing on technology to address what people lack, it is better to think about technology as a search to help us understand what we already possess, the untapped potential hidden within us all.
These ideas took shape from work that was both theoretical and applied—both academically and socially rooted. However, I did run into difficulties bridging the fence between these two critical spheres. I have found that hubris lies on both sides of the divide between erudition and grassroots empirical sensibilities. Yet, there is much to be gained from both camps, and attempting to find a middle ground has taken me on a truly exciting journey down an intellectually, socially and technologically relevant course of study.
In March of 1993, the research presented in this document was organized around a proposal aimed at applying the benefits of global telecommunication technologies to local neighborhood infrastructures. The intent was to focus upon the social and organizational potential of the networking medium, yet not by examining the growth of virtual communities usually associated with the promise of telecommunications, but this time by focusing on how this technology can advance the proximal community—those communities made up of individuals who live in the same neighborhood. In particular, I began by centering my research upon a disadvantaged urban neighborhood in Boston.
Two years later, this work has already begun to bear fruit that I had not initially anticipated. Rather than just developing into an urban computer networking system, this project has developed into a thesis about how a particular set of epistemological paradigms can be used to guide the use and development of technological innovations in support of social development and urban renewal. Moreover, the network that was developed for this project has already gained a surprising measure of recognition and support—NetGuide (Fjermedal, 1995), Popular Science (DiChristina, 1994), The Christian Science Monitor (Ross, 1994), The Boston Globe (Delgado & Buse, 1993), The Boston Herald (Radsken, 1994), The Star-Ledger (Sherman, 1995), San Jose Mercury News (Jones, 1995), Intelligence Newsletter (Rosenfeld, 1995), The New Republic (Syman, in press), American Visions (Roach, in press)—and it has already begun being disseminated to other neighborhoods in Boston and other areas around the country. In fact, the network was chosen by the federal government last year as one of the seed projects it

funded in its goal of ultimately deploying a National Information Infrastructure (NII).


The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the U.S. Department of Commerce serves as the President’s principal advisor on telecommunications policies pertaining to the nation’s economic and technological advancement and to the regulation of the telecommunications industry. As noted by President Clinton (10/19/93), NTIA will play a key role in fulfilling this Administration’s goal of deploying an “information superhighway,” as outlined by the National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action.
On March 4, 1994, the NTIA announced an important new program to assist the public sector at the local level in gaining access to the advantages of a modern, interactive National Information Infrastructure (NII). This Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP) program was designed to fund NII planning grants and demonstration projects. This program provides matching grants to state and local governments, health care providers, school districts, libraries, universities, social service organizations, public safety services, and other non-profit entities to help them access new telecommunication technologies.
On October 12, 1994, Secretary Ronald H. Brown announced the FY94 grant recipients. Approximately 90 grants were awarded throughout the nation. The projects receiving funding will serve as catalysts and models for other communities throughout the nation. (NTIA, 1994)
On October 12, 1994, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that a project in Newark, New Jersey was receiving a grant to implement the network described in this thesis to link up a housing development, a school and a hospital that are all across the street from one another in an urban community. This Newark project is now up and running. It had its opening ceremony on March 27th, 1995. Furthermore, in Chicago, Cleveland, the

Mississippi Delta region and other areas in New Jersey, there are other groups which are also proposing to implement this network in their communities.


In Boston, my wife and I have begun a project called “Linking Urban Villages” which aims to use the same network to link up any other urban communities that are interested. By focusing our push on neighborhoods in the Roxbury and Dorchester sections of Boston, we are trying to keep African-American communities from falling behind the technological mainstream with a bold attempt that actually puts them on the cutting edge. Yet we are not pursuing these goals because we believe in the technological imperatives of the modern era. We are not convinced by the popular maxim that seems to say that more technology always equals more prosperity. Instead, we believe that there are other reasons to support the proliferation of computer networks that are based on epistemological rather than technological rationales.
Each individual’s theories about knowledge profoundly affects that person’s connections to and interactions with his or her world. How we believe we come to know about the world around us or become known by that world, helps to determine much of our driving goals and ambitions. These theories are our epistemologies, and they can be determining factors in how we develop and use our technology. This is why I believe that epistemology is mightier than technology. The epistemological paradigm of social constructionism has informed my own and my wife’s thinking about the use of information technologies. For us this is no longer an issue about bringing something new into people’s lives, instead it is about addressing some of the very oldest questions that people face. Networking is not just

about computers and it is not just about virtual communities that are forming. The issues around networking are as old as the concept of the village. Social networks have been a critical part of human history as long as our collective memory can recall. Even before computers joined the networking landscape, people have been at work trying to build better connections to one another, and this has been particularly important when it comes to the relationships that people have with their neighbors. The quality of life that each of us enjoy is related to our ability to get along with others who live in the world with us, and our neighbors are an important part of that equation.


Villages represent a collective of people who have many connections linking them to those who live in proximity to them. These links are not simply passive social ties, but they are also extremely active forces in helping residents to be productive members in their own communities. As urban environments have added increasing complexity and mobility to peoples’ lives, creating and sustaining the social and communal links that defined the villages of old has become increasingly difficult. Neighbors need help building and sustaining the social networks that can help them actively contribute to and shape their own local communities.
Social constructionism is an epistemological paradigm that suggests that getting to know one’s neighbor is an act of extending one’s self which has developmental ramifications. Computer networking is a technological medium that can offer support for this type of human endeavor. The technological tool is not the active force, however, because the critical agency is entirely based upon the prerogatives of the people involved. If we focus

our attention only on how this technology can connect us to people who are physically distant from us, then we are robbing ourselves of the potential for using these tools to address some of the most profound experiences that we will face in our lives. This is why epistemology is mightier than technology. Without adequate forethought and conceptual underpinnings, our technological advances can become disconnected and even contrary to some of our deepest collective assets and endeavors.


Why are we focusing most of our attention on the national information infrastructure? What about the local information infrastructure? It takes neighbors being informed about each other and involved with each other to rally a community to address the critical issues that exist in the local arena. If computer networks can contribute to the social infrastructure in local neighborhoods, then these networks can become a part of the profound developmental issues that social constructionism focuses upon. Rather than simply viewing this technology as a means to connect to resources and support that are far away, we should look at it as a means to rally the resources and support that are close at hand. Neighbors can use this technology to coordinate and develop their own cooperative projects, expand their communications, and begin forums and social activities that people are having trouble organizing without these types of tools. Local community members can take charge of information technology to become their own information managers and advocates. Rather than relegating this technology to the experts to manage and control on the “information superhighway” as the rest consume, “surf” and “browse,” neighbors can develop and control their own local information infrastructure, and in so doing, begin to

redevelop the ties and links to one another that are critical for making communities tight-knit and village-like again.


As the focus of networking continues to be primarily upon issues concerning virtual communities, many people are beginning to worry that the tide is turning us toward abandoning our commitments to work with the real communities in which we live.
If you’re like most Americans, you probably grew up in a community—some place where you knew most of your neighbors by name, where your life intersected with your neighbors’ in the street, at school, in shops, and at church. If you’re like most highly educated Americans you probably think you live in a community now, but it’s far from where you were raised, you don’t know most of your neighbors, and most of the people you consider to be part of your community live across town or across the country. The truth is most of us aren’t really living in real communities anymore. We’re living in the ruins of bygone communities, in special-interest networks that aren’t really communities at all—they’re ghettos of like minded people.
Most of the rest of the world still live in communities, connected to a place and their neighbors are of mutual need and support. Of course real communities can be constrictive and oppressive, but they can also teach you how to live with people who are very different from you, people you wouldn’t necessarily choose to be with. Networks are based on choice. When they get uncomfortable, it’s easy to opt out of them. Communities teach tolerance, co-existence, and mutual respect. I think most of us are searching for community. (Utne, 1995, p. 3)
I think that Eric Utne’s concerns should be understood from the light cast by a broad backdrop of social alienation. For it is clear that some people are turning to cyberspace as they retreat from social settings that have been very painful and troubling for them. As a nation we face enormous

difficulties trying to hold ourselves together in the midst of vast social, cultural and economic disparities. These are the barriers that I spoke of earlier that are often more consequential than the physical distances that separate people. It is not just the highly educated who have seen their traditional communities erode. The poor and the marginalized are also finding that their communities are becoming more troubling and difficult places in which to live. Our age-old quest to get along with each other, to learn “tolerance, co-existence, and mutual respect” must not end in the “ghettos of like minded people.” For then we would be abandoning one another and giving up on this nation’s dream for a society of equals. Justice and liberty cannot be realities unless people find a way to work together to achieve it. Perhaps we will never fully achieve these goals, but it seems that if we stop trying we shall end up in a more wretched state than the one that we achieve as we continue the struggle.



People say it doesn't exist

'Cause no one would like to admit

That there is a city underground

Where people live everyday

Off the waste and decay

Off the discards of their fellow man
Subcity

Tracy Chapman, 1989


There are underground communities in America whose plight are a painful reminder that ours is not a perfect society. As Tracy Chapman points out, it is often difficult for us to face this population because of the disturbing implications that they represent to us. But the underclass do exist, and they are connected to the world in which we live. Some of them are homeless or unemployed, some are welfare dependents or high school dropouts, but

undoubtedly all of them feel disconnected from the wealth and promise that abound in a world which has left them feeling hopeless and abandoned. To Chapman, there is a great divide between those with and those without hope in this society. It is a divide between those who have a piece of the fabled American pie and those who must live off of its discards, waste and decay.


Yet this cannot be the end of the story. There must be some middle ground in this picture through which efforts can be made to bring an end to this divide. At the Media Laboratory at MIT, I have learned to think of media as the abstract notion of a middle ground—it is any place where the process of negotiation and communication can lead to new profound and meaningful experiences. Technologies or theoretical models can be used to develop new forms of media or change our relationships to old ones. In the chapters that follow, I shall examine a particular set of theories and technologies that I believe can provide new approaches to mediate social development in urban settings, which is at the core of this thesis. I focus on a certain urban setting which is underprivileged, although I believe that the potential exists for applying this type of inquiry to other settings as well. The reason that my investigations center on this particular setting is personal—I live in the setting that I am studying and I grew up in settings very similar to it. This research has been an important part of my own inner searchings for better understandings about the world in which I have come to know. In light of Chapman's words, it is important that we better understand the existence of those who are often misunderstood and the promise of those who are often defined more by their perceived failings than by their ultimate potential. In doing this, I believe we begin to better understand ourselves as well, and we open the door to the social reconstruction of our lost communities.
Introduction

A quarter of a century after our country declared a war on poverty, social theorists and policy makers have said and done many things to attempt to fix our economic inequities. Yet, by many accounts, the situation that the poor find themselves in is actually getting more desperate. It is not simply an economic tragedy that the underclass face, but it is also devastating levels of crime, violence, addiction and despair that are a dramatic crisis among them. We could view the situation as simply an example of the problems of modern social stratification, but I believe that it is an expression of a more universal issue of our time. The conditions that the underprivileged face have crystallized into a devastating enigma that affects and challenges each of our lives in the increasingly complex world in which we live.


Alienation is becoming the common denominator in our modern age where the only constant seems to be the increasing pace of change in our society. As change has become the rule, fear and anxiety have begun to reign. If we can learn anything from the plight of the underprivileged, it is that their situation reflects some of our own disaffection and instability as well. As our social, economic and technological order continues to evolve rapidly, there is no one who can safely predict how any of us or our children will fare in the future. Is America in a decline, doomed to suffer as a second-rate economy and as the world's largest debtor nation? Have we failed our children, leaving them with a broken educational system, unsafe streets and deteriorating social norms and traditions? Or will we find new ways to draw upon the potential and the promise within all of America's citizens, to shape

our collective future in a positive direction? Our only hope is to face this new world with a growing ability to change along with it, as Seymour Papert recently noted:


Not very long ago, and in many parts of the world even today, young people would learn skills they could use in their work throughout life. Today, in industrial countries, most people are doing jobs that did not exist when they were born. The most important skill determining a person's life pattern has already become the ability to learn new skills, to take in new concepts, to assess new situations, to deal with the unexpected. This will be increasingly true in the future: The competitive ability is the ability to learn. (Papert, 1993, p. vii)
In cities and among the poor, we see the clearest picture of pressures that the pace of change has put upon all of our lives. As American society has become more technical and urban, the local community and family units have begun to change and exhibit less cohesion. As social bonds have suffered there have been certain well-documented consequences. There are now fewer two-parent households, fewer intergenerational associations and fewer defining traditions among many social groups. In particular, for the underprivileged, the neighborhood setting has become less of a tight-knit community as neighbors have begun to distrust one another as much as they have historically distrusted outsiders. As a larger proportion of our society has moved to live in the city, cities have become increasingly more difficult places in which to live (Heilbrun, 1981, pp. 1, 6, 269).
No one can doubt that most American cities these days are deeply troubled places. At the root of the problems are the massive economic shifts that have marked the last two decades. Hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs have either disappeared or moved away from the central city and its neighborhoods. And while many downtown areas have experienced a “renaissance,” the jobs created there are different from those that once sustained neighborhoods. Either these new

jobs are highly professionalized, and require elaborate education and credentials for entry, or they are routine, low-paying service jobs without much of a future. In effect, these shifts in the economy, and particularly the disappearance of decent employment possibilities from low-income neighborhoods, have removed the bottom rung from the fabled American “ladder of opportunity.” For many people in older city neighborhoods, new approaches to rebuilding their lives and communities, new openings toward opportunity, are a vital necessity. (Kretzmann and McKnight, 1993, p. 1)


In their introduction to “Building Communities From the Inside Out,” John Kretzmann and John McKnight argue that it is common knowledge now that what it means to be a community in an urban environment has radically changed. Our cities are experiencing troubling economic shifts that are resulting in social upheaval, and the old neighborhoods that we used to live in no longer exist. The economic realities in modern urban settings appear to be producing unforeseen consequences that are forcing many to rebuild the premises, the assumptions and the institutions that serve as the organizational foundations for their lives and their communities.
Schools in urban America are experiencing enormous difficulties adjusting to the changes in the surrounding social setting. As issues concerning crime, violence, drug use and teen sexuality become more prevalent, we are seeing record high drop-out rates and declining academic performance. Practically all big cities have public schools that are struggling with the attrition of a large percentage of their teenage student body. Many social theorists view the situation as one that will continue to worsen with no end in sight, especially in light of political realities that include shrinking budgets and declining commitment to public education (A Nation at Risk, 1983).
Without better methods for understanding the difficulties involved in urban experiences, much of the public debate is centered around how to force schools and students to perform, often by threatening to purge those in either category who fail. School departments are being blamed, teachers are being blamed, parents are being blamed, and the children themselves are being blamed. But assigning this blame has done little to change the situation. This scenario is one of social retrenchment and retreat.
They say there's too much crime in these city streets

My sentiments exactly

Government and big business hold the purse strings

When I worked I worked in the factories

I'm at the mercy of the world

I guess I'm lucky to be alive
They say we've fallen through the cracks

they say the system works

But we won't let it

Help

I guess they never stop to think

We might not just want handouts

But a way to make an honest living

Living this ain't living
Subcity

Tracy Chapman, 1989


Chapman's desire is that we see these problems not from the position of one who wants to assign blame, nor as one who wants to do a good deed for the helpless. But instead she is imploring us to see it from the perspective of one who believes that there is unleashed potential and capacities within the underprivileged that can restore to them their dignity and self-respect. If we begin with this understanding, then there is hope that we might be guided

by a philosophy that can humbly bring us onto common ground with the underprivileged, from which we can collectively bring about social redress. Paulo Freire reinforces this point when he discusses two possible results that can come from one group's attempt at intervention to help another group. He calls the first type “cultural invasion,” which can be devastating to the latter group, and he calls the second type “cultural synthesis,” which brings benefits to both groups.


In cultural invasion, the actors draw the thematic content of their action from their own values and ideology; their starting point is their own world, from which they enter the world of those they invade. In cultural synthesis, the actors who come from “another world” to the world of the people do so not as invaders. They do not come to teach or to transmit or to give anything, but rather to learn with the people, about the people's world.
In cultural invasion the actors (who need not even go personally to the invaded culture; increasingly, their action is carried out by technological instruments) superimpose themselves on the people, who are assigned the role of spectators, of objects. In cultural synthesis, the actors become integrated with the people, who are co-authors of the action that both perform upon the world.
In cultural invasion, both the spectators and the reality to be preserved are objects of the actors' action. In cultural synthesis, there are no spectators; the object of the actors' action is the reality to be transformed for the liberation of men. (Freire, 1982, pp. 181-182)
If we invade the poor with our solutions to their issues, then we shall betray them by forcing them to be spectators, passive in the face of critical questions that concern them, while our modern world demands that they be active and engaged, prepared for the realities of constant change. But if we work with them to find solutions, then we are developing together with them our capacity to continually learn as we face the future that Papert spoke

of above. One way or another, we all share the fate of the poor and the underprivileged. Either we shall all lose hope in the face of extreme social upheaval, or together we shall all find productive responses to the new realities that we face. In the pursuit of the latter ends, I believe that certain epistemological paradigms and inquiries can help.


Constructionism, epistemological pluralism and dynamic objectivity are three important theoretical models to consider. Through the lens of constructionist inquiries, I have found that it is possible to see how urban communities can be the active forces in their own development. Through the insights and techniques this type of inquiry provides, it is possible to make sense of the connection between the work of community building and the issues of social development and interpersonal relationships. Epistemological pluralism and dynamic objectivity provide a framework for understanding how inner-city environments can support the various types and styles of constructive analyses that urban communities might engender. In fact, I will use these theoretical models as a basis from which to analyze my own research activities in the latter portion of this thesis.
However, this thesis goes beyond discussing theoretical paradigms. I will also evaluate how these ideas are expressed in the praxis of actual community development projects that have been the focus of my research during the past four years. My work involved, among other things, analyzing the role that technology can play in these types of projects. I will look at a particular example of communal appropriations of technological media—namely a telecommunication system I developed—and I will evaluate ways in which this type of media can strengthen or weaken internal ties within the

community on which I focus my study. I will attempt to demonstrate that activities and tools in this social setting which are related to the concepts above can help to create urban environments that support profound examples of social development and urban renewal. In short, I seek to explore how certain urban models can guide the use of various technological media as our society attempts to address the concerns raised by Chapman, Papert, McKnight and Freire.





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