(by Russell Van Riper, expanded from newsletter)
As this is written, I am at work. Sailing, four days at sea, the last leg up the Indian River. We are delivering a boat and its owner to a new home port. Nearly four weeks have passed since the end of the Immokalee pilot. When first handed this little computer with great ambition, I asked myself, “How does one introduce computing to children who have never been exposed, without losing childhood to the screen?”. I have never been enamored with technology for tech’s sake. I see far to many people passively using technology as an escape from the truth of the world. With truly mixed feelings about the impact of media saturation on culture and individuals, I picked up the XO. The first click of the antenna latch had the sound of Pandora’s box. Now, surveying myself for the overall impact of those ten weeks, my original question comes to mind. I should be engrossed in this moment of sea and wind, new friends and adventure, yet I am pecking away at a keyboard. But wait, on deck I feel the breeze no less, the water rushing by the rail is no less exhilarating. Having a medium upon which to project my introspection is making my thoughts more clear, more focused, observation more keen for detail and striving for expression. Can it be that this bit of high tech is enhancing an experience, rather than distracting from it?
Rounding Cape Sable, that point where North America ends and the greater Caribbean begins, I posed the initial question to my ship mates. The vessel owner, a nuclear engineer by trade, said he had reached a balance by forsaking computers in his personal life, while being constantly immersed in the cutting edge of technology at work. (A wise 27 year old indeed) He also spoke of colleges who are completely absorbed into the internet, too their personal detriment in some respects, yet leading rich lives based upon the intellectual stimulation provided by the digital simulacrum. The benefits of access to interconnected communities of knowledge are awesome to behold, yet the ill effects of virtual life on real life cannot be ignored. Our captain, a cruising sailor of many decades, chimed in with a story from Polynesia. There was a sailor who was known to have a special nack for repair of all manner of electronics and supported his travels by repairing whatever happened to need fixing in each port of call. He came to an island where that had but one TV… it did not work. When the sailor brought the television back to his boat and removed the plastic housing he found a note. It read, “The chief really does not want this television to work. I hope you understand.” The TV was returned to the villagers with an apology, saying it was unrepairable. He understood. There is a moral and perhaps a pitfall for Waveplace in this story.
At the beginning of the Immokalee pilot, Jesus was far more interested in his cellphone ring tones than the laptop he had been given. While this was not the norm in the class and certainly not what would be found in Port au Prince or Nicaragua it illustrates a point: The lights and delights of technology can be infinitely distracting in the face of immediate experience. (while typing this sentence, I just missed a shark jump and role out of the water while striking a fish … infinite distraction in the face of immediate experience. … that shark was infinitely distracting in the middle of a writing experience… what the hell was I thinking???) What drew me into the teaching of XO and Etoys was not the gee-wiz laptop. It is the fact that the computer is being taught as a tool of expression. Expression requires active engagement with the outer world. With the proper mentoring the computer becomes a tool untethered and free to be used anywhere, anytime, and by anyone. A tool as untethered and unlimited as childhood itself and being sent to children for whom the ideal of childhood is a flashing dream in the face of poverty, limited opportunity, and often social dysfunction.
While making passage up Biscayne Bay, Port of Miami cruise ship hulks to starboard—-downtown billion+ dollar skyline hiding Overtown ghetto to port, Capt. Russell (yes captain and crew both named Russell… “this is my brother Darrell and my other brother Darell”) went on a bit of a bitter rant about Cruise Ship culture and Caribbean realities. Cruising sailors see the real Caribbean. Barbed wire fences excluding the population of rusted tin shanties from “all inclusive resorts”. An old woman, no arms no legs, set out to watch the world and beg. Feces in the street. Feces flowing, very illegal and very common, from the same cruise ship hulks into crystal waters. Nassau known as the cesspool of the Caribbean among those care to know. Tourist money floating back to Miami. Floating Haitians sent back to hell. All seen by a sailor with one eye to weather the other toward experience. Capt. Russell took a look at the XO and E-toys, understood the importance of what is possible, and said, “That’s F@%*ing great. They need some way real way of making money down there. Not the B^!!$#!T economy they have now.” Waveplace might be the moral of this story.
By the end of the Waveplace pilot in Immokalee, Jesus was one of our most engaged students. Somewhere in the third week of classes Jesus realized he could make his laptop do things his cell phone could never do. Ring tones are someone else’s product that can be appropriated for the appearance of individuality. His Etoy story was his own. He was proud of it and proud to share the skills he mastered with his classmates as they were proud and happy about their own work. The XO has been a catalyst for my own creativity. I saw this process in the instructors as well as the students. Ten weeks shifted some of my cultural cynicism, away from the technology, onto the producers of media content. I wonder if the students have been impacted in their own way as much as I have.