Enabling Technology

In the latest edition of EDGE there’s a great article from Neil Gershenfeld on the empowerment of people through enabling technology. In this case, though, we’re not talking so much about the usual digitial technology (the internet and it’s related mechanisms) so much as fabrication tools and microcontrollers. A few choice excerpts:

In support of this basic research we started teaching a class, modestly called “How To Make (almost) Anything,” where we show students how to use the millions of dollars of machines available at MIT for making things. This was meant to be a class for technical students to master the tools, but I was wholly unprepared for the reaction. On the first day a hundred or so students showed up begging to get into a class with room for ten people, saying “Please, all my life I’ve been waiting for this. I’ll do anything to get in.” Some would then furtively ask “are you allowed to teach something so useful at MIT?” There was a desperate demand by non technical students to take this class, who then used all of these capabilities in ways that I would never think of. One student, a sculptor with no engineering background, made a portable personal space for screaming that saves up your screams and plays them back later. Another made a Web browser that lets parrots navigate the Net.

I had come back from spending time in the Himalayas with a remarkable Indian Army general named Arjun Ray, who has just stepped down. He was in charge of Jammu & Kashmir, and the Pakistani border, and the Chinese border � i.e., the world’s nuclear battlefield. He came to the conclusion that border security follows from human security, and that human security follows from human development, and therefore the best thing he could do was to take some of his budget and have soldiers bring the Internet to Muslim and Buddhist girls. I was there because they could afford to use satellite terminals to connect up just a few Quonset huts. Where these have been installed they’ve transformed the communities; people who used to run and hide from outsiders now come running. There’s been a remarkable development of community. But the need now is to extend the connections from one village to the next, and on to the next, in a locally self-sustaining way, and hence they need tools for doing their own incremental telecommunications infrastructure deployment.
… If personal fabrication is indeed the next big thing, a key question is how people will people learn to do it. There are two tricks that we’re using for training in the fab labs. There isn’t a fixed curriculum that can teach personal fabrication, it’s education on demand that builds on a long lineage through my colleagues Seymour Papert and Mitch Resnick. You can view a lot of MIT’s instruction as offering just-in-case education; you learn lots of stuff in case you eventually need it. What I’m talking about is really just-in-time education. You let people solve the problems they want to solve, and you provide supporting material they can draw on as they progress.