The Role of Social Computing Technologies in Grassroots Movement Building

Grassroots social movement organizing is becoming increasingly dependent on communication technologies. In this paper, we ask: How can social computing systems support grassroots organizations in facilitating collective action through democratic participation? We did action research with Science for the People-Atlanta, both participating in the organization, making technology for and with them, and also studying their use of technology as they build up a grassroots movement. SftP-Atlanta is a social movement organization dedicated to building a grassroots movement around science activism.

The Atlanta chapter of Science for the People is a part of a broader national movement around radical practice of scientific research. SftP-Atlanta is built on a local community of scientists, researchers, and science enthusiasts. They all came together with the shared belief that scientific reasoning could be an extremely powerful tool to resist injustice. They believe activating scientific discourse among public would not happen without a re-imagination of the practice of science for the causes of social justice. Following the core values of SftP, the local chapter in Atlanta built their identity around a practice of science-activism that is inclusive, participatory, and accessible. Their plan of collective action toward this goal includes both short-term and long-term advocacy work. While their short-term collective action includes both taking part in activist events happening in and around Atlanta as well as organizing public-facing events to advocate for their cause of science-activism, their long-term collective action is a step-by-step process that was informed by methods of community-centered research.  

Grassroots movements are assumed to have spontaneous growth; however, from our research and experience in SftP-Atlanta we understand that this process requires intense planning and collaboration among all members. In SftP-Atlanta this collaborative process was supported by a combination of social and technological networks. SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical ecosystem is not monolithic, it is a complex infrastructure consisting of several online platforms (Google Tools, Slack, Facebook, the web platform that we co-designed), offline networks (bi-weekly meetings), volunteer activists, local norms and values, etc. Our investigation of the existing sociotechnical practices of SftP-Atlanta reveals that while the social computing technologies they chose to use served some of the instrumental purpose, they often lacked the social, moral, and political alignment with the causes of grassroots organizing. That is to say, while technologies were chosen with an expectation of being an “efficient” solution to some practical problems, the very choice of certain social computing technologies introduced new power relationships within the organization that were perceived as antithetical to the philosophical beliefs of the organization.

In this paper, we use Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of social action and the model of participatory communication theory inspired by Freire to make sense of the movement-building process of SftP-Atlanta. Freirean model provides a three-step, iterative process for sustainable movement building: forming a collective identity, moving toward collective action, and engaging in reflexive dialog. We analyze both the perceived strengths and weaknesses of SftP-Atlanta’s sociotechnical practices in supporting the organization as they iteratively go through the phases of the Freirean model.

For instance, in the collective identity phase Google Drive was useful for the ten core members of the group who were researchers in different institutions. As the group grew and became more and more heterogeneous with different people with different comfort of technology, many members started feeling like Slack favored people who chose the platform to be used because they were already using slack for their jobs and excluded people who were not as proficient with technology which ended up reinforcing the already existing power dynamic within the organization leading to a conflicted identity. In the collective action phase, a task management feature of Slack was liked by many members that gave them a feeling of accomplishing something tangible. On the other hand in this same phase, when many events were being organized by SftP-Atlanta members shared how they weren’t comfortable with Facebook being the primary medium for events since their participation in the events were being broadcasted to their professional networks that they would not choose to share this information with. Finally in the reflex dialog phase, members pointed out how decision making through Slack was not sufficient since it did not adequately support the kind of transparency that a participatory decision making requires and as discovered in the identity phase it did not end up supporting the kind of equitable democracy SftP-Atlanta wanted to become. Our analysis of these tensions led us to identify inclusivity, privacy/security, and social translucence as three values desirable for sociotechnical practices of grassroots organizing.

With social movement organizing becoming increasingly dependent on social computing technologies (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Slack, etc.) that were built with commercial values in mind, these conflicts become a default reality of movement building. However, these conflicts come with consequences that are not just ideological but also practical: how can a group democratically decide on issues when the decision-making tool that is supposed to facilitate that process disproportionately favors people who are more comfortable with technology? In our work, we provide a way of understanding and working around conflicts that may exist within the sociotechnical ecosystem of grassroots social movements.

You can read the entire paper here: (paywalled)

If you cannot access the paper from the above link, here is a freely downloadable preprint:

Of Pines, Electronics, and Powerful Ideas: A Season of Hard Fun

It’s been a therapeutic few months in this village of ours. A therapy for all the wounded souls of the difficult times.

And this is, indeed, the darkest of times – the time of extreme capitalism, extreme violence and communalism, and extreme centralization of power. You either come out of it as the oppressor finding refuge in possessions and privilege, only to suffocate yourself in your own power; or you become the oppressed fatalistically accepting your powerlessness. You are a victim of a bigger puzzle either way. But what does an alternative learning space in a far-away village have to do with all of it, one may ask. The answer to that is: everything. This may come as a surprise (although it really really shouldn’t), but the sole purpose of education was to enable learners question the world more politically and more critically than ever. We have been taught to think and act otherwise by the mainstream system of education, because schooling the society in a way it is schooled now helps the oppressors. So, if you are constructing a learning space, and you are calling it an alternative to something you know for certain is disempowering, then the core purpose of the space should be to empower the powerless. And as Paulo Freire puts it, you as an educator in that space have a duty of not being neutral, rather to be deeply political (in the broader sense of the term as having to do with the power relationships).

In Rakkar, in the ecosystem that we have created for the young learners of the village, we have been living just that. We have exponentially evolved as a collective since the time of the last article on this blog. Long story short: I found a house in the middle of the village with a space dedicated to children, moved in, gained a home out of that house, and in the host was found a friend who has been a partner in my adventures ever since. We almost started living together with about fifteen kids from the neighborhood, and the madness followed.

Learnings in Leavings, and the Man who Showed it to Us:

Rakkar has a community of people who were once shepherds and had a transhumant lifestyle: they would go up on the mountains from time to time with the herd of sheep and cattle, and would live on the little houses that they owned higher up, and would come back to their mud houses in the village when the time would come. Some are still the same wanderers, but only a few survived the “choices” globalization and “rural development” forced upon them. From what I gathered from my random conversations with the villagers on local tea shops, last few decades have changed their way of being, and forcefully. Each of the families was gifted some land and was instructed to build a permanent shelter on that land they were provided with, and thus the entire population was legally discouraged to continue with their semi-nomadic life. Desperately looking for alternative sources of survival – some learned their ways to set up small-sized businesses and shops, some picked up farming, some went and joined the army, some drowned their days with alcohol and other chemical means of escape. All those who wander are not lost perhaps, but what happens when a system with too much power starts to design your paths as wanderers? You are forced to lose your way in the middle of a concrete jungle created in the name of rural development. It’s just another policy taken by the powerful –  it does not really care if the fields get horrendously damaged by the concretization of the water canals, or if the common people uprooted from their organic way of living come out of it as refugees in their very own habitat – it’s a scheme that comes with a cost, and it costs the lives of the people it was supposedly created for, because that is apparently how it works.


2016-05-26They all remained wanderers at the core of their hearts. They all still feel inseparable from the nature and its wildness. They did not forget. I don’t think we ever forget the lives we leave, or we ever completely leave for that matter. As Pedagogy of Hope sees it: no one leaves his or her world without being transfixed by its roots, or with a vacuum for a soul; we carry with us the memory of many fabrics, a self soaked in our history, our culture. Our interactions with the kids started with finding life in leavings, in forgotten and abandoned things. It wasn’t a conscious choice of mine, there was no syllabus to follow, but this activity emerged from our interactions in the most organic way possible. We would collect dead roots of trees and random dry twigs we stumbled upon, and would try to see what the branchings looked like in a different world: sometimes it would look like a bird, sometimes a person, sometimes a soul of a tree. Before we could realize, we had an entire wall full of structures made of discarded tree roots and its branches – each of the structures had their own story, and that story would vary from one child to another. 2016-05-26-2Many years ago, Abanindranath Tagore coined a term for this particular form of art he practiced:  Katum Kutum (কাটুম কুটুম), Katum (কাটুম) means structure or form and Kutum (কুটুম) means relatives, and the sculptures which were made from driftwood or discarded and left found tree roots as well as its branches are alike to our relatives. I don’t think the kids saw it as art though, they were just having fun, a kind of fun that had imagination and work involved, but fun nonetheless.
They also worked with two sources of green light situated at a distance from one another, and the structures hanging on the wall would now have two shadows both interacting with other such shadows from the wall full of structures hanging. It would then give birth to a single story that each individual structure was a part of. On the first exhibition that we hosted at our place, an artist friend looked at it and said, “you know, this installation could be in a Morden Art museum of a foreign country and would totally fit in to their sense of abstraction as well”. But that’s the thing, the kids did not see it as abstraction at all, or better put, not as an abstraction that was not real enough to perceive it as it was. When you try to explain them the biology of plants or the laws of light with black and white textbooks in a closed classroom, that right there becomes abstract to them. Because then you’re expecting them to learn things out of nothing, nothing that has a physical existence that they can touch and feel and trust. It’s grossly unfair.


 It is through these experiences of touch and feel that we landed up at the YouTube channel of Arvind Gupta. I was introduced to Arvind Gupta in my childhood, many years ago, with the book Ten Little Fingers. But childhood was long gone, or maybe it wasn’t after all. Maybe I was also carrying it deep within, like the wandering souls of our shepherds, as a memory, sometimes scattered, sometimes sharp and clear. This was, however, a conscious choice to introduce them to the videos of the toys Gupta Ji makes out of trash. The choice had much to do with my personal fascination with Gupta Ji’s work, of course, but it was also more than just personal. I had a few things in mind while making that choice:  it looked like an activity that they would be able to spontaneously relate to; it was something that would be financially reasonable to go on with for a significant period of time, and not just for us who are the primary operators of the project, but for the kids themselves, because it was also a way of learning that is most easy to go back to even when a kid is back home from our space; it was also very focused and very direct, and it had to be, because otherwise it would have the potential to remain as a hobby just, it takes a larger commitment to make an activity your life. But above everything, this activity serves a bigger purpose, a purpose that strives to fix the continuous damage done to the nature by the mankind. And this is what stirred their young minds the most. These are beings who feel inherently so close to the nature – here was a chance to transform that personal motivation to a bigger cause – and through that transformation was to happen the empowerment of silenced ideas.

 Bachhon Ka Avishkar, and the Power of Emerging Ideas:

Three months have passed, and we now have a laboratory of young makers creating everything from water filters to electric generator, all out of trash items. They call this activity of theirs as “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”, meaning the inventions of the children. It never stops at that but, they always look for bigger goals to work for through this activity of theirs. In March, we were climbing trees, and realized it would be far more exciting to live on a tree branch as the land looked kind of boring from up there. DSC_0109So they immediately wanted to build a tree house: and it wasn’t just an epiphany! No, they came back, got divided into teams: teams for design, painting, documentation, collecting materials, and so on. The design team started training themselves with design tutorials from the Internet, the documentation team would update their progress on their GitHub repository, and so on. This is exactly what I meant when on the last article I talked about finding a bridge between computers and their every day lives. Never for a moment they thought learning to use the Internet for this group project was a foreign task, because they knew exactly why they were using the machine. Empowerment often means just that, to be able to choose for yourself what you think is necessary. A computer, in these circumstances, does not remain an alien of a machine that you should learn because someone is instructing you to do so; but becomes a tool you choose to use in order to make your work easier. It becomes a friend who helps, a friend you learn from, and eventually, a friend you are not afraid of challenging.

It is interesting to see how they really saw their positions as users of the Internet. And so when they wanted a website of their own they knew exactly why they thought it was necessary, and it was pretty straightforward: हम रक्कड़ के बच्चे कूड़े कचड़े से खिलौने बनाते हैं, हमें जानकारी देना चाहिए (we are the kids of Rakkar, we collect all the trash from the neighborhood, and make toys out of them; we should inform the world about our cause). This is an amazing gift children are born with, they are strangely capable of always articulating complicated things in the most simplest ways possible. They really know their ways to tame the few words they are familiar with. All you have to do is to communicate with them in the most genuine way you know of communication, and they’ll take care of the rest. When Finnu, 13, started to design the website on a whiteboard, we never for a moment questioned his ability to do it. I asked him whether he would be interested in making a website, in the same spontaneous way they ask me if I would like to join them in their work in the fields. It’s really simple, actually: I wouldn’t know how to cut the wheat from the fields, he wouldn’t immediately know how to make an web application, but we believed we could both learn if we helped each other through the process of learning. The task of a learning space is to construct that belief in the participating minds. To make things seem easier than they actually are does not always mean to delude a learner, sometimes it also means that it is now my responsibility as a mentor to make computing seem as easy and as organic to you as gardening.

12905023_933452926773538_1489182403_n The set of wireframes Finnu created in a few hours was pure perfection: he spelled website as “wepside”, but he did create what engineering students don’t learn to create until they are stabbed with a college project. Unlike college students desperately trying to maintain grades, Finnu’s motivation to make it happen was to express his powerful idea of creating a platform that would serve the purpose of the collective he was a part of. He did really think about the requirements of the collective: from keeping a donate button, to storing all the necessary data about the dogs of Rakkar (such as, their birthdays, who all they have bitten, and so on), he had many ideas for his creation to become most useful to a bigger cause he felt very passionately about.

We now have a website and a YouTube channel that all the kids have put much thoughts into: they upload little demonstrations of the toys they create and discuss the science behind those creations. One incident that is totally worth sharing in this context, is how they dealt with maintaining anonymity on their website. They are now kind of aware of the userbase of the Internet, but only kind of. They are aware of a vast set of people out there who are also users of the Internet but their way of using it is different from the way they themselves have been using it. So they wouldn’t trust this world full of strangers just like that. They didn’t want their names to be publicly posted as authors on the website. But it turned out that even if you find a way to hide the author names, it is not too hard to find out the author-page if you really know your way. So, Vicky looked at the error message we ran into, and suggested that we should instead just have a common account that we would all have the access to, and that way we would be able to protect the identities with another layer of anonymity.

Stories We are Made of, and The Pedagogy of Hard Fun

 But young kids from a little village in the mountains, who do not speak English and understand very little of it, discussing anonymity and privacy issues is not magic. It’s not fiction either. It is just as real as our digital reality is becoming everyday. And it has to be, as the crisis also is as “digital” as it gets. When I first arrived here (when there was no legal hint of Aadhar card being mandatory as a proof of identity), all the families from this village were forced (and in all kinds of brutal ways) to enroll for Aadhar cards (the new UID deal that is murdering the right to privacy for Indian citizen), as they were informed by the local authorities that Aadhar was “only” mandatory if they wanted to get a ration card. It does not end there, of course. A village that is a growing victim of forced development is also equally a victim of the skewed politics of the present day Internet.


 Having said that, these young children of our village are not learning the digital world just in order to pose as rebels against the threats caused by the digital world itself. Not only the threats are too abstract to fathom but also a computer itself (and Internet more so) is still perceived as a privilege in their everyday reality. Ditto with the schooling system and education. It’s an element of worship in the lives of the parents in this village. Funny how privilege works, but to demand a revolution against the education system from a community like this just because you are aware of the fallacies of it, would be to impose your privileged point of view on a village you were a foreigner to.


Also, I feel it is anyway too volatile (not to mention, selfish) a motivation for learning:  learning should not happen with the sole motivation of defeating an idea that you personally (or even politically) believe is flawed (unless I guess one is living in a reality of such extreme political nightmare where a system plans on murdering you everyday, where learning to function with a pistol then becomes a question of basic survival). That is just not powerful. And if you think about it, it is actually no less institutionalized. From the moment you surrender to the real world – the school system you are a student of, the family structure you belong to, the society you are a part of, and the government you are ruled by (and in that exact sequence) – would want you to see the world selfishly, everyday a little bit more, because a society made of selfish families schooled in favor of a ruling machine helps the authority win. An alternative to that system, should relentlessly work toward rejecting that selfishness (often by identifying one’s own self as a product of the construct itself and then questioning that, to start with) first, and questioning the institution will inevitably follow. But if you start with the motivation to defeat the institution first, not only that is too detached from the reality of a community like this, but also it has this huge risk of turning into its own opposite.


Shyam, 14, is slightly older than the other kids at our place, he is also slightly more informed than the others. He knows about ISIS. He also seemed to believe that all Pakistanis were terrorists and hence should all die and disappear. I asked him what made him think so and whether he ever met a Pakistani in his life. He said, no, and then added that he did not even know where Pakistan was in the world map. So we looked at that first, and somehow ended up looking at Pakistani coins. He really liked a coin he found out through google image search, so he wanted to make it. We agreed on making it with cardboard and silver colored paper. This ended up being a strangely powerful exercise, because after he was done, he looked at this little creation of his with genuine contentment and pure appreciation. I jokingly remarked: so you at least like something of the nation that you so passionately hate.

A page from the graphic novel one of our young friends is creating

His feelings toward it was conflicted, I could sense. So we started looking up more stories, looked at beautiful structures from the land of Pakistan, listened to Ghazals, started reading literature from the time of partition, and so on. It was almost evening when it was time for him to leave. His eyes seemed lost: they were not lost in confusion anymore but it seemed like they were wandering in the streets of a foreign country that suddenly also seemed strangely familiar. Then after a while they were back, he looked straight at me with those eyes which now resembled a person who just discovered something very precious. “दीदी”, he said, “एक भारतीय फ़ौजी का दुःख दर्द, बॉर्डर के उसपार का एक पाकिस्तानी फ़ौजी से अच्छा कौन समझता है, है ना?” (Didi, who knows more about the despair of an Indian soldier, than the Pakistani soldier across the border sharing the same despair as that of his supposed enemy on the other side?) I did not know the answer to it, or maybe I could see that he was not expecting an answer from me at all. He further exclaimed, “मतलब वह दोनों तो soulmates हैं!” (So that means, they are basically soulmates!). Months later, he now really wants to learn Urdu simply because he finds it beautiful.

No, I am not prescribing an overnight cure for Islamophobia. I am not even sure if that is fully cured in his young mind yet. He would be told exactly otherwise in several other situations in his life afterwards, this battle is not an easy one. But more importantly, even this change did not happen overnight. Shyam first came to us as a big bully who used to beat up the younger kids. The first day he entered our place, I asked him to break a wire for us, you know, very casually, because we needed it for something. He couldn’t refuse, because that would hurt his masculinity. He broke one, and looked at me. I asked him to keep breaking. He questioned, why. I said I didn’t know but wires were hard to break and one would need muscles to break it, and so if he would kindly help us with it while he was there. He couldn’t refuse again. He was in the middle of the room breaking wires, while the kids surrounding him were all engrossed in making many different things. There was absolutely no pressure on him to think of anything he would also want to make. There was no assumption but, nor was a rejection to his extreme personality based on false assumptions. And he did, he did start to make things with the wires he broke with his own hands. Months later, he is the only child with whom I was able to read the book “Letter to a Teacher, by the School of Barbaina”, and the whole of it.

Did I see him changing into this wonderfully sensitive child he is today? I don’t remember. I probably did not, because I don’t usually believe in foreseeing things that are not really relevant. However, I do see this inherent potential in disobedient kids – the ones that you casually throw into the label of “problem child”, and then beat the hell out of them to forcefully make them obey your authority as parents, teachers, instructors, and rulers. But they are born fearless and curious, they lack the naivety of obedience perhaps. Why is that necessarily so bad a quality that you immediately want to reject it instead of investing some time to see it through? Shyams are different. They always want to feel the power they hold as individuals. The moment you start beating them up or immediately lecturing them on morality, they react, they react by questioning you and your authority. But you wouldn’t feel the need to answer to a child with such audacity, and that rejection would then push him to the ultimate trap. The trap of finding pleasure and pride in being powerful, and looking for that power in bullying over someone inferior. Shyams are different, and they could be helped in seeing the world in a way where they would feel empowered as critical learners and committed doers; they would know that to feel the power they think they deserve can, and should, come without having to feel the power over someone (or a specific class) in particular. But instead, their differences are pushed to a point of no return, because you were too impatient to see through their quality and too busy in applying your own control.


Quite recently, Kusum, a young girl of age 12, was being casually (but, not so casually) mocked by a group of three boys of the group. We observed that it was getting uglier, and so we tried to sit and talk with the boys. After trying the same for three times, I decided to tone up a little bit, and very clearly stated: but this is not okay, and you should realize that. Mocking someone, any person who you consider weak just because he/she is different from you, is not just wrong it is sometimes criminal. Of course you wouldn’t know, but it is time you feel ashamed of what just happened. And you should also know that it is perfectly okay to feel ashamed, in fact it is way more powerful an act than catcalling a girl. The conversation got more intense, when one of them slowly uttered with a sad voice almost as if he was talking to himself: “पहले ना मैं बहुत बत्तमीज़ हुआ करता था।” (I used to be more of a brat earlier, you know). I have never heard a confession so powerful.


Later that night, Kusum wrote an entire play, which she then directed to the same group of boys the very next day. But, not once there was a careless effort to feel the power back over the group of boys she lost her power to, the day before. Days later they all went and performed the play written by her, and together, in front of a full crowd. Some forgot their lines, some would accidentally end up breaking their costume on stage, but nothing stopped them from conquering the stage like steady performers. Because they didn’t care if they failed, it was enough for them that they did it. And they felt secure enough to fail, and fail better. They knew no matter how much they embarrass themselves up on that stage, they wouldn’t be failing us, their friends and supporters.

And that, right there, is pathetically lacking from our system (social and education). It takes endless empathy to provide security, and legitimate security, to the vulnerable. We all deserve a land where it shall be okay to fail, it shall be a moment of appreciation when someone confesses their weakness, and a hug will be offered to every individual who feels ashamed of a wrong that was committed by oneself.

Ours is not a playhouse for kids, it’s not an easy place. We have been doing this activity, and living this life as a collective for three continuous months without a gap of even a day. It is very, very intense an engagement. It’s also fun. It’s fun in spite of being very very hard. When Seymour Papert coined the term “Hard Fun” he also talked about being devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline.

On that note, ours is also a very focused and very carefully structured participation. But on the other hand, this place is only as hard as the participants would want to make it, only as ordered as the children would want it to be. Because you are choosing it, all of it, even the order with which you are controlling your own chaos. And that’s empowering. A severe engagement of 180 days also means, all of them, also made the same choice of bringing this order in their chaotic little lives everyday. They could have left. Our doors have remained as open to the ones who would want to leave as it was to the ones who wished to come. But they didn’t leave. They never missed a day also. Because unlike everywhere else, here, they had the freedom to choose.

Abstract as a Luxury, and other Learnings

Poster of the first ever exhibition of “Bachhon Ka Avishkar”

They also always came back because they knew what exactly they were coming back to. Or maybe they never really left the activity for the last few months, and I don’t think they are going to leave anytime soon. They were not coming back to an “alternative learning space”, no, they came back to all the trash they so passionately collected, they came back to the activity of transforming all things discarded into their wonderful inventions. There was not a single chance for any abstraction to take anything away from this simple reality of theirs: we are the kids of Rakkar; we make toys from trash.

Abstract is a kind of reality that we have the privilege to indulge in perhaps. For our villagers, however, it is too much of a luxury; it’s not that they are incapable of perceiving an abstract idea in their own ways, but they would not want to do it at all. Their reality never had a place for luxuries, and it is incredibly unfair to demand one from them. But they have complete rights to know where exactly they are sending their children off to, they all have great potential to participate in that activity themselves – but the parents for whom it is of endless privilege to be able to send their kids to a school, an “alternative learning space” means nothing useful. And then you spend six sentences to explain the meaning and importance of an “alternative learning space” in a language you are comfortable communicating in, but before even knowing, you would be losing a potential collaborator just because you sounded too distant. Not just it’s a loss, it is also terribly unfair. As Ivan Illich puts it, “If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”

In fact, the way of functioning in a village you have to some extent invaded with your ideas should be very consciously subtle. My present efforts are to make the activities sufficiently more significant than my own presence in it. One way of approaching it is to subtly transfer the power I hold as a primary operator of this activity to the larger community. And that cannot just happen verbally. If sustaining this activity is a concern then I believe that it also a part of our responsibility to make the villagers feel like an equal participant in this adventure of ours, and the immediate community of villagers would feel empowered enough to sustain it on its own with occasional support from outsiders like us. So every afternoon, we started going to shops, streets, public places, and often to people’s houses – used the trash items they provide us with to make everything that inspires us as makers, from hand puppets to electric generators.


DSC_0101The idea was never to create a learning space just, but it has been more about constructing an ecosystem for learners. An ecosystem that does not reduce the value of the learners to their immediate identities, and moreover empowers them to question everything including the ecosystem itself. We had an exhibition recently at the community hall in the  village. It was the brightest day I can remember from the recent past – almost fifty children from all over the village came and they all looked like sunshine. I remember looking at their eyes. They were all overflowing with such genuine happiness, that it pained. It pained because it reminded me of millions of other children of this world who deserved no less, but we failed them, we failed them as humans, silenced them before they even learned to speak. What is more concerning is, that we have imposed on them our own authoritarian ways of seeing the world. We teach them history of human struggle as fairytales, making sure that they never feel inspired to live a life of commitment to a cause bigger than their own survival. We teach them Geography as law, so that when the Government decides to redraw the entire geography of our country – with no regards whatsoever to communities, the wildlife, or the farmers concerned – not a word of dissent shall be spoken. We teach them Science as Religion, we teach them always to worship the superior, barring them from questioning the same. We just teach them.

But let’s not. Let’s not be teachers to silenced students anymore. Let’s lose our power as the ultimate authority of knowledge, it would only humanize us. And let’s imagine an ecosystem where – we are all learners, regardless of our age, class, gender, race, and caste – committed to a life with purpose beyond our own selfish survival and a life of questioning the world as we learn from it.


In Rakkar, that has been our commitment.


Names of the characters mentioned in this article are used fictitiously in order to respect the privacy of the people involved.

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.


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.


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.











What did we learn in School today? An Outreachy Retrospective

This article is based on a talk I presented at LibrePlanet (the annual conference hosted by the Free Software Foundation) in March, 2015. The images used on this article were originally used as slides for the presentation itself, and was later published under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license on Wikimedia Commons.  


In the beginning the Cyberspace was created

When we started claiming the Cyberspace a couple of years ago, we had imagined a future world where race, economic power, military force, or station of birth would not be parameters of one’s ability to access. Of course, we were dreamers. But we were tired too, and felt the need to build a kind of spaciality that was to question the power relationships inherent in our social structures. It’s been some time now; our modernity is looking at us in the eye and asking some serious questions, and rightly so. The community-driven approach towards education, computing, and technology that has emerged through the years, has weaved new cultures of learning – ones that have shaped this very modernity indeed. Education was till now was believed to be achievable only through a process of knowledge transfer from an authority to a learner: that is to say, by teaching in a closed classroom often consisting of a few chosen ones. In that respect, the new model of learning is empowering in itself. It is meant to address the everlasting gaps in the development of Science and Technology by lowering barriers and transcending labels marked by race, color, and gender. But, has it really been so in practice? Do we really have increased participation in this field from identities whose existential experiences have been shaped by the virtue of being the other, the second one? Has the subaltern entity accessed yet? Is it distinctly visible yet anywhere on the larger paradigm of technology? The immediate answer would be: No.

It’s been several years since we pledged to create a civilization that was to strive for equality and collaboration. Yet, even today, the gendered subalterns (both in terms of sex and sexuality) continue being the have-nots of the digital age. The problem further lies in the nonchalance with the alarming statistics that so clearly portray the gender gap in technology and computing.

The Secret Weapon, Asterix Several of  the people I have acquainted with were curious to know “why do we even believe that women have to contribute to science, technology, and computing in an equal capacity to men?”;  they further added the obvious argument that it might just have been a choice made by the gender itself. These are often not people who are particularly “misogynist or xenophobic”, but are just as much of victims of patriarchy as is Vitalstatistix (the chief of the last Gaulish village to resist Roman invasion who features in a series of French comics known as Asterix) in this picture. However, in order to create the perfect antithesis of questions that counter feminist approaches, the questions themselves must be analyzed and pondered upon. What is also worth exploring is why do we really care so much for the equity and inclusion in sociotechnical systems after all.

As feminist theorist Carol Gilligan answers it: “to bring women in is not just to rectify an inequity…it means to change the whole conversation” (Patterson and Hall, 1998). It is thus important to spark the changed conversation on what is really keeping women out of the loop of science and technology, how early gender socialization constricts the option of many women, and what we are missing out on, as a result of these gendered exclusions.

Why do we care?

According to the National Center for Women and Information Technology’s most recent statistics, women made up 26 percent of the computing workforce in 2013 – the report further broke down the numbers showing: 3 percent of computing workforce were black women, 5 percent were Asian women, and 2 percent were Hispanic women. Now, those numbers particularly mirrors the situation of the traditional industrial world where exclusion has not been unnatural, historically. The numbers, however, are not much higher at the open communities of Free and Open Source softwares: a study in 2010 showed, Wikipedia, one of the most successful Open Source projects to engage people in an incredibly active virtual community had a female participation rate of 13 percent. Women are indeed significantly absent from the entire STEM milieu, including the Internet activities related to the branch of STEM (An acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education). It is all too easy to attribute this crisis to the choice of an entire gender, and this vindictiveness only reminds us of the cheap dismissal that chauvinists and others antipathetic to oppression have made throughout the history of patriarchal domination.

Page 3 However, it would also be unwise to oversee the unifying experiences that women do share sometimes: as feminist theorist Ruth Behar (1993) warns, “the opposite tendencies to see women as not all different from one another or as all too different” can be misleading in several ways, so much so, that it can lead one to be “unconnected to the lives of other women” (Wendy Luttrell, 1947). Which further suggests that with every woman we let go from the world of computing, we are also depriving ourselves of the unique experiences she comes with that could otherwise be used to make the Cyberspace more diverse and richer. And on that note,  let us take a moment to remind ourselves of the often ignored truth about the implications of gender inequity in sociotechnical systems: it is as much of a loss to technology and computing as it is to the oppressed. The gender bias in technology is also technology’s issue, and it is rather interesting that it has not been pointed out as often as it has been labeled solely as a feminist complaint: as it is indeed a lot easier to attack feminism than it is to attack the loss that technology suffers from with every woman eliminated.

It is time we change the game with a fresh approach that looks further into the act of exclusion happening here: the approach strives to find out not only the issues that chase women out of computing but also what makes them reluctant to join in, and how computing itself can be evolved to bring a positive change towards gender equity and inclusion. Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle foresee this evolution towards an equal and fair world of computing with a change that occurs from within computation, and further points out that “equal access to even the most basic elements of computation requires an epistemological pluralism, accepting the validity of multiple ways of knowing and thinking”.

Why do we care/Internet In fact, the most fascinating lesson I have received from my involvement with Wikimedia movement of all these years was to learn the value of diversity in a community.  Wikimedia has an incredible community of people who share in imagining a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That is our commitment. Each one of us has our own objectives about how we see that pledge being redeemed, but, no one of us has all the answers to how to achieve this mission. But, together, we are making it happen. Former Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation – the non-profit organization that operates Wikipedia and its sister sites – Sue Gardner explains the need of diversity in making the magic happen: “everyone brings their crumb of information to the table. If they are not at the table, we don’t benefit from their crumb“.

The potential that a truly democratic and fair cyberspace has in empowering the oppressed of the society is immense, and I say that from my experience with this movement of five years. There is a story I treasure in particular, it came up during the WikiWomen meet in Wikimanina (the annual conference of the Wikimedia community) last year. A Wikipedian from the Arab world shared with us this incredible anecdote: that eighty percent of the Wikipedia editors from the Middle East were women.

Why do we care?/Freedom The numbers in this story are, in fact, too promising to be true. There might be a slight exaggeration in that particular figure, but it is known for a fact that there is an overwhelming participation in Wikipedia from women in the Middle East. It took a digital revolution to make women choose freedom from a region where the price of basic right of education for a girl child is often the life of the girl itself.  And once you know that information, there is no way you can un-know it, there is no way you could not care for all the women we are yet to welcome to our cyberspace.

A tale of two women

Seymour Papert and Sherry Turkle, in the article Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete, discuss two significant case of personal appropriation that take place in an introductory programming course in Harvard:

Lisa, 18, had feared that she would Story Onefind the course difficult because she is a poet, “good with words, not numbers.” But after years of scorning teachers who had insisted that mathematics is a language, the computer has made Lisa ready to reconsider the proposition, and with it her characterization of herself as someone “bad at math.” Lisa started well, surprised to find herself easily in command of the course material. But as the term progressed she reluctantly decided that she `had to be a different kind of person with the machine.” She could no longer resist a pressure to think in ways that were not her own. She was in trouble, but her difficulty expressed a strength, not a weakness. Her growing sense of alienation did not stem from an inability to cope with programming but from her ability to handle it in a way that came into conflict with the computer culture she had entered.


Robin, is a pianist. Robin explains Story Twothat she masters her music by perfecting the smallest “little bits of pieces” and then building up. She cannot progress until she understands the details of each small part. Robin is happiest when she uses this tried and true method with the computer, playing with small computational elements as though they were notes or musical phrases.

They both get dismissed. Lisa wanted to manipulate computer language the way she worked with words as she wrote a poem, and preferred to write her own smaller “building block” procedures even though she could use prepackaged ones from a program library; she resented the latter’s opacity. Her teachers chided her, insisting that her demand for transparency was making her work more difficult.

She had been told that the “right way” to do things was to control a program through planning and black-boxing, the technique that lets you exploit opacity to plan something large without knowing in advance how the details will be managed. Lisa recognized the value of these techniques — for someone else. She struggled against using them as the starting points for her learning. Lisa ended up abandoning the fight, doing things “their way,” and accepting the inevitable alienation from her work.

Like Lisa, Robin was also frustrated with black-boxing and pre-packaged programs, but she too was asked to sacrifice her own ways of programming a software.

So, what did we learn in school today?

Lisa and Robin are just two among an entire section of women who are eliminated from the cyberspace further reaffirming the anxieties they already had  about “being an alien” to the world of computing that is generally known to belong to the male hackers. This goes on to prove that not only we fail to bring more women in the cyberspace; we lose the ones we already had by our side. But, if we really keep losing them, a community is no longer a healthy community: it becomes just a device to strengthen the existing differences to a point of no return.

Page 9 The concept of epistemological pluralism is thus becoming increasingly necessary in order to achieve a sustainable diversity in the cyberspace. Which essentially leads us to the discussion of constructing learning environments, and maintaining the learning environments we construct: there is a change needed in the way we learn and in the way we teach, and together we can make that change happen. In fact, it has already started.

In December 2012, I took part in the internship program known as Outreachy (formerly known as the Outreach Program for Women or OPW), which was run by the GNOME Foundation in the past, and is now run by the Software Freedom Conservancy. OPW was inspired by Google Summer of Code and by how few women applied for it. The official website of Outreachy further defines the initiative as:

A welcoming link that connects talented and passionate newcomers with people working in free and open source software and guides them through their first contribution. Through Outreachy, participants learn how exciting and valuable work on software freedom can be, while helping us to build a more inclusive community.

Slide Ten/Outreachy I was still in school, pursuing my undergaduate studies in Computer Science at that time. And this came to me as a splendid opportunity, as this was the first time I experienced this completely new model of learning that itself was so empowering in its approach. I was a Wikipedian since 2011, and a regular contributor to the world of Free/Open Source softwares, so I was already familiar with the concept of collective learning to an extent. But, I was yet to see it work for me.

It all worked out, and how: besides the fact that I got to code for a real-time collaborative editor for Wikipedia, in 2013, I also traveled to Portland to speak at Open Source Bridge, visited the Wikimedia Foundation office in San Francisco, and finally ended up joining the Wikimedia Foundation in a formal capacity as a Software Engineer. But, above all, I felt like I was a part of something very, very meaningful.

It was in late 2013 that I took part in the same program, again, but this time as a mentor. The idea was to pass on my experiences as a learner and a professional in the Free/Open Source world, but as it turned out, I came back with learning a lot myself. Niharika, my mentee, is now as Software Engineer employed by the Wikimedia Foundation – so that also ended well, I suppose. And not only because Niharika has secured a job that matters, of course that is important. But, I would say, more so because we were successful in making Niharika a part of our community.

Things I learned from Outreachy as a student

page-eleven I spent a good few months of my life learning how to learn from others. I learned: to ask, to know, and most importantly to refuse to stay invisible.  I realized that the mentor on the other side of the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was a not a higher authority, in fact, there was no equation of authority whatsoever. Instead, I was told that I was  just as much a part of this community full of amazing developers as was my mentor.  And that it was the entire community that I had the support and guidance of. So, I learned the art of asking: to reach out to the community over IRC channels and mailing lists whenever I  would get stuck with a problem that the Internet could not help me solve; I was also emphatically taught to exploit the chaos that is  the Internet – I joined several other developer communities online and got in touch with many strangers who – from the issues I ran into while installing a software on my local machine, to making an algorithm work – relentlessly helped me solve almost everything; and most importantly, I learned to ask boldly without caring even a bit about how stupid I might be sounding.

Slide Twelve/The Art of Asking I learned to make mistakes publicly, and learned to laugh at the stupid ones and move on. The biggest failure in the traditional education systems today, I think, is in the way it deals with the mistakes a learner makes. It would disqualify the learner in every way possible, immediately stereotyping the person as a genius or a slow-learner judging by the mistakes made in the process, and would eventually chase away the slower and worship the genius. This vicious cycle of judgment inherent in the systems outright destroys the culture of learning: it deprives the socially chosen slow learners of the means of expressing themselves, and at the same time it also deprives the socially branded geniuses of the knowledge of things as they are. And in the end, we are left with yet another generation of insecure individuals who are too afraid to know how much they do not know.

Slide Thirteen/The Art of Knowing Which further formed the crux of another important lesson from my experience as a student, I learned the art of knowing: I learned that the first step towards knowing was being aware of all the things I did not know; I learned to gain knowledge instead of spending time collecting quick information about things that never was able to provide an in-depth understanding of a subject matter; and most importantly, I learned to share with the community whatever little knowledge I would acquire. The internship program insists every intern to maintain a blog where they would be sharing their experiences with programming and other internship related adventures.

Slide Fourteen/The Art of Staying Visible This practice of maintaining a blog of my own led to me the lesson that changed my life forever. I came out as a stronger individual who, under any circumstances, would refuse to stay invisible. I learned the art of staying visible: I learned that writing about a problem might not immediately solve it, but it often answers a lot of questions I might even not know I was looking for, and so I wrote about the things I made, things I failed to make, and things I wished to make; I learned to talk to people in a way that I had never known before – I learned that it was important to talk to the people who mattered and even to the bullies – I learned to  pick my battles. It was, however, in Open Source Bridge, that I realized how important it was to actually meet these people in person, who I had always been virtually related to. It was the first time I felt the warmth of a community so deeply – I knew how it felt to hug a comrade.

Before I participated in collaborative learning myself, much of my perception of knowledge was filtered through the idea of education: it was to be transferred from one person to another through the process of teaching. That is how it had primarily been like throughout all of my childhood and for some parts of the adulthood as well. I had no reason to believe that it could effectively happen otherwise. The truth is, however, I did not choose that education system: by the time I was able to find out the alternatives that worked for myself, I was already a part of that system I grew up in. It was but a personal choice to contribute to the the sum of all knowledge, a personal choice that, as feminist theorist Carol Hanisch says, was also decidedly political. And consequently, I chose a collective I wanted to belong to in order to be able to participate in making the planet better, in a way that I also believed in. Whatever learning happened afterwards, was thus through, building a bridge between two worlds – one that was largely public and information based (a software program, several websites and programming forums, IRC channels, relevant mailing lists) and another that is intensely personal. The bridge between them – and what makes the concept of the new culture of learning so potent – is how the imagination was cultivated to harness the power of almost unlimited informational resources and create something personally meaningful (The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, 2011).

Things I learned from Outreachy as a mentor

Slide Fifteen But, what would be the role of a mentor in the design of collective learning? The answer, I realized, was the dictionary meaning of the word “mentor” itself: that is, to be an experienced and trusted adviser. Collective learning functions in a way where the conventional methods of teaching becomes an obsolete concept. Obsolete, and mostly impossible. I did not know how I could  possibly transfer the tacit knowledge, which grew through my personal experimentation, to another human being I was supposed to mentor. It is not transferable: it cannot be taught; but it can still be learned, rather absorbed. That, to my opinion, is exactly where lies its immense potential to empower a learner. And so, I learned the futility of teaching in the construct of collective learning, and instead went on to learn: to answer, to help, and to guide.

In fact, I never realized until this point that there is an art of answering that one needs to master in life. The virtual world of the Cyberspace have had a list of etiquette that they ask people to follow on the most relied method of communication since the ancient times of the Web culture, The Internet Relay Chat. The website, very appropriately named as Living Internet, explains the need for this practice:

All sorts of people and opinions are expressed on IRC, since it is a real-time common space on the global Internet on which people can exercise their right to free speech. Just as in any public space, such as a park or restaurant, a little attention to chatiquette (chat etiquette) will make the experience more pleasant for everyone on IRC.

Slide Sixteen/The Art of Answering But, I am not necessarily talking about just the protocols of human conversation over the Internet (which is also, as we all know, so often violated in the most horrid ways possible, and especially against women), but I am also talking about the practice of answering to a person, any person, with no less empathy and sensitivity than an act of asking deserves. To ask at all is to be vulnerable: it has been conventionally perceived in the education systems as the act of admitting to the authority of the one with the answers. Take for example the stories of Lisa and Robbin, they were made to succumb to the orthodox practices that their superiors believed in. It was, therefore, important to be aware of the amount of power I had – through no choice of my own – over my student, over every newcomer to this world I was already a veteran of, who reached out to me over IRC channels or emails.

This is particularly important as we strive to eliminate gender inequity from these virtual communities. Language has its own ways of binding us and breaking us apart. And so have words. It is an eternal battle to eradicate gender insensitivity that language now almost inherits, but it can still be avoided if we all try to be a little more aware. An important step towards this consciousness might be to be more cautious while using specific nouns, and even pronouns (for example, it does not take a lot of effort to use “you people” instead of “you guys”). IRCs are platforms where the identity of a participant in a conversation can be well hidden, which does not change the fact that if you are cursed or abused you are most likely to be mocked with absolute horrid terms that prove the worth of femininity in the least subtle way possible. Then again, that is the impact of the everlasting domination of gender in language. But it is all too easy to blame it all on the history. When in fact, empathy and awareness are all it takes for now to be a responsible individual in the Internet (or, practically everywhere). As a blog I found out further explains the responsibility:

Gender — specifically, masculinity — is inextricably linked to software, and that’s not an attitude that should be tolerated. This isn’t merely a legalistic concern (though that too, certainly), but also a technical one: we believe that empathy is a core engineering value—and that an engineer that has so little empathy as to not understand why the use of gendered pronouns is a concern almost certainly makes poor technical decisions as well.

The ultimate goal while conversing and answering to my student and to anyone else in the community, I learned, was to be understood and to understand others.

Slide Seventeen/The Art of Helping This is not that hard to achieve, really. I was answering to help her through the process of learning that she was going through, and not to intimidate her with . To practice the art of helping is to be humble and genuine in every good sense of those two words. Unlike passing on mere instructions, helping needs patience, consideration, and time from both ends. And in the end, it is worth all of that.

Slide Eighteen/The Art of Guiding The most crucial task, however, as a mentor should be to make sure that your mentee understands that the three months with this program is only a beginning to something meaningful. It is important to discuss the opportunities that you feel your mentee could grab next. We cannot really afford to lose the women we bring in, so there is an immense need to guide the women in a way that does not leave them clueless about their possible next steps in the community.

The story thus far

Slide Nineteen/The Secret Weapon, Asterix Looking ahead, I think the practice of collective learning that Free/Open Source communities organically follow, will become indispensable in order to effectively confront dominations marked by “race”, “gender”, “sexuality”, and “class”. In a new and feminist approach towards computing, collectives, as we define them, will become the medium in which inclusive participation will take shape. And in consequence, a change in conversation shall happen, the crux of which shall be to render visibility to the invisible, make a presence of all that has been absent all this while.

The feminist approach towards technology and computing is not a war against the male hackers of the Cyberspace. It is but an effort towards peaceful and productive coexistence, and it cannot happen without the kind of massive collaborative effort that challenges all kind of biases and prejudices. And here is something ironical: a majority of the male “nerds” who are the superiors in this particular demography are the same ones who grew up being bullied by kids who were either physically stronger, excelled in sports, or had a privileged lineage. In another paradigm, these “male nerds” have played the role of the other. However, despite having been victims of stereotyping and consequent oppression once, they take the role of the superior in their own field of work, owing to their gendered identity. The picture of gendered discrimination, and that it is layered with all other forms of discrimination becomes clearer when we imagine female, queer, or trans identities as subjects in this very paradigm of discrimination. For these identities, their lived experiences of racial, ethnic, and class-based discriminations are always interspersed with gendered discrimination, and not to mention, stereotypical representations (from which they are mostly absent). The heteronormative male nerd’s fight always begins one notch higher. He always has one battle less to fight than his female counterpart. The irony is that he mostly does not realize this, in spite of having played the role of the other in an erstwhile narrative. Or, our structures of domination have blinkered him in a way, that it is not even possible for him to see it on his own.

In fact, the distasteful practice of setting nerd stereotypes is responsible for the existing gap to a large extent, as studies say. In a recent article that featured on The New York Times, Ellan Pollack criticized the role of popular media and the stereotypes set by them:

The percentage of women studying computer science actually has fallen since the 1980s. Dr. Cheryan theorizes that this decline might be partly attributable to the rise of pop-culture portrayals of scientists as white or Asian male geeks in movies and TV shows like Revenge of the Nerds and The Big Bang Theory. The media’s intense focus on start-up culture and male geniuses such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates might also have inspired more young men than women to enter the field.

This new approach towards computing strives to confront these bigoted standards imposed on the cyberspace culture. Initiatives such as Outreachy are steps towards breaking that stereotype, and making communities more inclusive and diverse. Because in the end, it is all about creating an environment where anyone, anywhere is able to express his or her beliefs, without the fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. And I do not know of any other time in the history of the Cyberspace when there was a greater need for collectives. I also do not know of any other time when the kind of pluralism we might help build, could have been possible.


I ‘see’. (Rather, what all I now ‘visualize’ with d3.js)

So, d3.js is officially awesome. If it isn’t so official yet, it might have been just very very kind to me so far.

Flashback: I started off my research on the data visualizations for our Language Matrix Dashboard with Limn, our visualization toolkit that is there. And for some reasons, I did not decide to stick only to it, especially not for LCMD. Well, I went on hacking into more libraries. Here I am, sharing my story with d3!

I was thinking of some random queries that could be useful for our dashboard to have a visualization graph for. On my last meeting with Runa, we decided that we can think of queries in two ways:

  • Language Basis
  • Tools Basis

Now different queries would demand different graphical representations to make, obviously. Let’s say A query like “How many languages does have jquery.ime support right now” would not be very well represented with Line Charts as it will be with Pie Charts. Whereas, “The increase in language support for a particular tool in years” would be quite nicely represented with Line Charts. We need to figure out the definite queries that we would like to have for the tool to be pretty enough. I chose to work on “How many language do have jquery.ime support right now” as the primary goal to visualize. The main aim being, naturally, to have a pie chart representation for all the language tools available.

Visualizing jquery.ime statistics, just: 

The best thing about D3, is probably all the neat documentations that are available and the tutorials as well and I have taken advantage of their neatness whenever possible.

There are a few D3 helper functions that have been used. Like:

Pie Layout:
Will take an incoming data array and give you back an object with the necessary angle and radius parameters to construct an arc.

           var donut = d3.layout.pie().value(function(d){

Ordinal Scale:
To return a colour value from an ordinal scale of 20  preset colours.

           var color = d3.scale.category20();

I have used the API that Harsh has wonderfully made to fetch data from.

url : ‘‘,
dataType : ‘JSONP’,
type : ‘GET’,

                success : function(data){
var x = data.length;
a = (x / 133) * 100;
b = 100 – x;
console.log(a + b);
error : function(data){

What actually happened in the previous bit of code is quite simple: I fetched the data that I would want to visualize from the API with the url mentioned, which basically being a cross domain data transfer I am keeping the dataType as JSONP – Padded JSON. I am storing the value that would need for the calculation for the visualization purpose in var x, which stores the data.length. var a (which has been initialized before as var a = 0) stores the calculated percentage of the languages which has jquery.ime enabled. var b (Which also initialized before at the same time as a) stores the percentage of the less fortunate languages. Simple! Now I printed those as :

streakerDataAdded = [{‘octetTotalCount’: a},{‘octetTotalCount’: b}];

Now that and a few hundred more lines of code should give you a nice pie chart, helping you to visualize the particular query.

Initially, there was an issue with retrieving data from the API, which I reported at Harsh’s repository. But nevermind he solved it in a jiffy and was very happy to realize that somebody was sweet enough to open an issue (the first ever, in his lcmd repo) in his repo – Yep, that’s me! 😉

Although I do have a working instance of the LCMD in my machine and can easily do the whole data-fetching-from-API locally, it’s good that we solved it.

Implementing the visualizations in LCMD interface:

Implementing this bit of visualization in LCMD interface would simply mean that checking in various language tools that are listed would show the respective visualization. As I had mentioned earlier, I have Harsh’s repository both forked and cloned, and there is one working instance of the LCM dashboard in my local machine, with sane database. I found that he has created a filter where you can play with the tools listed by checking them and shall see the output of languages that have those tools valid for. Neat. What I did for my demo is, I kept all of the html, css, most of the JS same except for a little change in language.html and a major change in his filter.js.
His filter.js now has:
function filterdata(value){
url : ‘’,
dataType : ‘JSONP’,
data : ‘query=’ + value,
type : ‘GET’,
async : ‘false’,
success : function(data){
error : function(data){
$(‘#langcount’).html(‘<h3 class=”text-info”>’ + (data.length)+ ‘ Languages </h3>’);


   function langCount(data) {  
$(‘#lcmd’).append(‘<div id=”lcmd-chart”></div>’);
var a = 0;
var b = 0;
data.length == null ? a = 0 : a = data.length;
a = (a/133)*100;
b = 100 – a;  

//Rest of the code for the visualization

Which pretty much gives I aimed for: Checking on the tools list will give the visualization pie charts for the same on the same place as where the languages’ names were being listed earlier. Of course, I replaced that.

So.. YAY, I guess? 🙂