Of Pines, Electronics, and Powerful Ideas: toward a Cybernetic Ecology in the mountains

“I like to think of a cybernetic meadow where mammals and computers live together in mutually programming harmony, like pure water touching clear sky. I like to think of a cybernetic forest filled with pines and electronics, where deer stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers with spinning blossoms.”

There has been a fair amount of discussion around how computing and technology can be used to change the way we think and learn. This too is about that, but not really. The motivation toward creating a Cybernetic Ecology – has been decidedly political  – in the broader sense of the word as having to do with the power relationships inherent in the social structures that shape our lives.  In Rakkar, it has thus been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners, where the participants, regardless of their class, gender, age, race, and aptitude, are aware of their ability and power to question everything, including the ecosystem itself.

For over a month now, in this little village called Rakkar (situated in the laps of Dhauladhar range of Dharamsala, India) – I have been working with the local kids through activities that involve: constructing products that we find meaningful, questioning things that seem unfair, and unlearning all that we find restricting and useless. We named our initiative as: The Village Lab. Here, the village learns through hands-on experiences of Science, Technology, and Education: by doing – by touching, feeling, cutting, sticking — pulling things apart, putting things together.

The Village Lab and the Mountain People

The Village Lab is indeed an alternative platform for education which challenges the power dynamics that define a classroom in a traditional School System. But, let’s not talk of pedagogy just yet; instead, let’s talk about the individuals. Ours are the humans of the mountains with minds organically much closer to pine trees and birds with rainbow feathers than they are to the machines.  So, let’s talk about minds, first; machines can wait.

Maybe it’s the mountains, but the children here are oddly fearless. There’s reticence, too, in their minds – but it is neither a form of cowardice nor of heroism. It is more like a lack of arrogance. They do not speak English, understand very little of it; schools fail them, and even before they get to start exploring their academic interests and abilities, they are already (actively or passively) eliminated from the academic milieu. And, for them to lose faith in (or even drop out from) the traditional system of education is much less of a loss to them, than it is to the larger humanity. It is scary, you know; it is also necessary to realize the kind of power the mainstream has over us, even while challenging it with alternative ways of learning. What concerns me the most in this realization, is the disempowerment of ideas that happens with each child being eliminated from the mainstream of Education. Our immediate responsibility, therefore, as friends of these learners and believers in the power of their ideas, we feel is to re-empower the disempowered ideas. Keeping Papert and Mindstorms in mind, I felt that many of these silenced ideas could be brought back to the lives of the children by introducing them to the world of hands-on science and digital technology: with computers as mediators between children and ideas, there would be new opportunities for them to understand, to love, and to use ideas that had previously been inaccessible to them.

The reality is, however, computers are machines that are way too far from the everyday lives of most of these children. Which does not mean that they would not fit in the fabric of the digital world if they were introduced, nor does it anyway justify the inaccessibility. It however meant that there was a need for a second order mediaton in this case: a familiar and relatable phenomenon that can further act as a mediator between the children and the computers. That is precisely the role nature is playing in this ecosystem.

For the first one month in the Village Lab, we did not use computers at all. Instead, we were collecting trash from the neighborhood and turned them into toys, and conversed about the Science and the fun behind our activities. There was never a day when I suggested a project for them to work on, it was always them who came up with ideas that they wanted to work on for the day. We explored origami together, and through origami we visited the very complex world of solid geometry with sheer ease.

Take Anil, for example. Anil, on the twelfth day of our interaction when we were making paper lamps, wanted his lamp to be of a shape of a house. He then further explained, he wanted the house to be constructed of three triangles and three squares. He did make that structure also, and with wires. To think of a solid geometric structure like that, a super unconventional for a house to be structured as, demands the critical thinking process of a professional architect. To explain it so confidently and to make it happen afterall, you need to be one gem of a maker. Anil could not tell me what a diagonal was when we interacted for the first time, and helplessly admitted he fails Mathematics.

How Papert confronted the system in 1983, would therefore be the exact words of these illegitimate students of the school system on the present day: education is much more related to love than to logic; it’s much more related to sex than to abstraction; it’s much more related to how you see yourself fitting into the social and cultural fabric. Education has very little to do with explanation; it has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material.

The Girls of the Lab

It’s time we realized that to talk at all about pedagogy of the others of the system, it is necessary to talk about equality and inclusion of the even less privileged entities of the immediate group of others. The marginalized, also, have their own others. And it’s necessary to consciously prevent an occurrence of role reversal there: the oppressed of one domain, should not become the oppressors of another. So let’s talk about the other genders of our little collective: the girls, in this context.

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Let me get this straight: what all we radically stand against in case of gender stereotyping, also often turns out to be true in the immediate sample space. There lies the fallacy; however, it would be unrealistic and often counter-productive to dismiss the possibility of that being true. What is more reasonable therefore, is to realize that in a solid geometry project that has to do with constructing a house-shaped lamp with three triangles and three squares, the girls of the group would be more inclined toward decorating the house and the boys will choose to bend the wires. But, it is crucial to further realize that this choice is very deeply constructed through several hundred of years of gender domination. So, even with the equal and unbiased access to all, there will remain a series of battle to fight before we establish an equal and fair society of the marginalized.

But, it is more hopeful than I made it sound like. I did not force any of the girls to choose construction of the shapes over painting Rangoli. Rangoli itself is a valuable practice of art, to dismiss their apparent natural inclination toward it would be to dismiss what they see their mothers and their grandmothers practice at homes: it’s confusing for them and also has a severe risk of alienating a mass. Instead, I chose to observe, and the most fascinating thing happened. Anil had to leave the place before he could complete the whole structure, and it was time for someone else to take up the rest of the work. And, it was, Priyanka who volunteered to do so after she was done with her painting. She also made a water syphon out of a plastic bottle the next day, and taught the entire government school to make a rabbit out of a piece of square paper. It’s not just Priyanka, sixty percent of this collective now constitutes girls: and they are talking geometry with paper toys, discussing physics with experiments with trash, and most importantly they are having fun while constructing meaningful products. And this very sense of satisfaction does not discriminate, unlike several other things in life.

The Pedagogy of Emerging Ideas

It is now the children of the lab who want to know the computers and the Internet. I have been recording them as they make and break, and have been infrequently uploading the videos to YouTube. Of course, I had to ask for their consent before I started doing this. This was mostly a way of starting the conversation about the digital world, more specifically about the Internet and privacy. Manish, our friend from the lab and another gem of an inventor, dropped by my place one day: he wanted to know more about computers, and how to create things with it as he is doing now. For the next three months, we thus plan to work on an application with computers and the nature around: after many sessions of brainstorming through ideas throughout the last month, they have now decided on a project to document the birds and map the trees of the locality, and have a simple interface so that everyone interested can find out about the data they collect as the researchers of Rakkar.

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The idea of this initiative is not to make all the children think like computer scientists at all, neither do we aspire to make all of them genius programmers overnight. Not only is that an impossible exercise, it is also very futile an ambition. To bring the silenced and the invisible of traditional school system into the world of digital technology, is not to rectify an inequity just – it means to change the whole conversation. As Papert envisions this programming as communicating with the computer (having a conversation) — and suggests that “learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place.” It is thus less about the product that we will end up creating together, and more about the questions that will come up in the course of this project, and as happens always, they will sometimes be ‘solved’, and sometimes, ‘dissolved’.  It is necessary to ask, however; it is also necessary for every individual to feel the power to question at all. And in times of mandatory Adhaar cards and digital surveillance, growing intolerance and industrial invasions – let’s imagine a cybernetic ecology, where we all sit together with our children amidst pine trees and wild flowers, and talk about data privacy and powerful ideas. That’s our commitment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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