In the Blog

Little what?

June 28th, 2008     by Mir Verburg     Comments

So this is a new charitable organization called Little Geeks: “Little Geeks is a philanthropic organization and registered Canadian charity that collects, refurbishes and re-distributes donated home computers to children in need.” How about that graphic design - like Toys R’Us on poppers. I feel like Joe Matt must have done the illustrations since no-one has eyeballs. Seriously though, “Little Geeks”? I can’t say I like it.

Though it may seem harsh to take shots at a good-hearted enterprise, I strongly believe that people from the corporate sector, (and take a look at the board of directors if you want to know who’s backing this project) need as much educating about social change as people who barter for used monitors need educating about interest rates and borrowing to save.

I am going to break this down list style to make it pithy, because the internet loves pithy:

1/ Why is the only brown person in the design a brown girl who evidently has been the recipient of a donated computer? I mean yay! diversity and all. But this image suggests something about race, poverty and technology distribution that while true, requires more addressing than a shiny eyeless PNG. In other words, if you are giving free technology to a young person of colour who perhaps is a girl, then you need a few such people on your advisory board. Either parents of the future little geeks themselves or a few female geeks of colour. WHY?? In order to be the change you have to look like the change. To do that you actually have to go out and actively give power to the people in the communities you wish to work with, by getting them on the board or by making them part of your organization as staff and volunteers. It also helps to if you represent women and people of colour in positions of power, not just as recipients of aid.

2/ Not to mention, last time I checked “Chuck the guy in IT” was actually kind of lame around kids, that’s why he chose computers. Barring the geeks I know who like kids, (yes there are a few), it would probably be more successful coaxing technologically savvy high school girls and boys to engage with young people from low income communities and mentor them in using their first computer. In fact, I’ll bet a lot of these little geeks have friends and neighbours who know a lot of stuff about computers already. Might not “Little Geeks” learn more about social change by searching for mentors inside the recipients’ own communities first? Maybe make it a condition of ownership - once your bright eyed and bushy tailed little geek is ready for her/his computer, they have to go find someone they trust and like (who’s got a head on their shoulders) and is willing to sign on to be a mentor/computer buddy. That’s called sharing power, letting the one who is pejoritively called “little” choose who they learn from.

3/ I am getting really really frustrated by the instinctive social marketing of technology as social good to children. I call it instinctive because people’s reactions seem to come from a place of instinct. The image is poor kid gets a computer, and suddenly it’s all good in the hood. Junior will learn Ruby on Rails and soon he/she will be putting a downpayment on a house somewhere in the GTA far from the poverty and strife of his/her childhood. There are other factors at play here folks, it is all too easy to take a technologically determinist view, and think that access to technology is going to erase cultural and social barriers to inclusion and success, but it’s also wrong. For all people to enjoy their lives and their labours fully, society needs to change along with the people.

For Little Geeks to address everything is asking too much I know, but from reading the site, I don’t get the sense that there is much critical analysis of what kind of change they are hoping to achieve. Is it enough to just give a kid a computer? Other tech/social change projects, most notably the OLPC Project have run into problems defending themselves from among other things accusations of Imperialism, and I worry that this project could garner the same criticism if the board members do not plan appropriately with respect to their approach to impoverished communities and donated technologies.

4/ Last but not least, let’s talk about age, and let’s talk about social change. Little geeks, while appealing from a marketing perspective, is kind of alienating from a kid perspective. I know a couple of eight year-olds and I don’t think they’d take it too kindly if I started referring to them as little geeks.

This is especially true of the word “little”. As a youth worker, the most difficult thing to undo in young people is their sense that adults don’t take them seriously. Kids don’t bother telling adults about 75% of the cool stuff they think or do, because adults often (and often accidentally) signal to kids that they have much better things to do with their time than listen to a young person.

This feeling of irrelevance is what frustrates intergenerational communication, and I think it is a social justice issue. Adults who work with young people have an obligation to afford them the same respect they give their contemporaries. A lack of intergenerational respect is why adults think young people are apathetic and young people think adults are talking at them and also are mostly lame.

Little Geeks, by framing its main audience in pejorative terms, make young people the main focus of their efforts, while also taking power away from them. They genuinely belittle their audience. That is probably my biggest objection to this initiative, the sense that this is a project that does not require anything of its main audience except that they shut up and look happy clicking a mouse.

So while I do think a project of this nature could be a great success, I also think that the board needs to go find a few more people with experience in technology and social change, or at least with anti-poverty/anti-oppression experience and get a few pointers on building real social inclusion into the power structure and marketing approach of the organization. It also wouldn’t hurt to make a youth advisory board at some point down the road and brush up on the bottoms-up approach to social change.

Tags: geek chic, in my opinion...

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