Technology, Education and Social Justice

I’m a middle school math teacher who is starting to learn more about computer science, and ways to incorporate more computer science and technology principles (like abstraction, programming, networks and algorithms) and into my lessons this year!

I would love any recommendations on books that explain more about how these fundamental concepts of computer science apply to different parts of life and why they are so important for everyone to understand more deeply. I’d also love recommendations for books about the intersection of computer science and social justice, or computer science and how it can potentially perpetuate inequality and injustice in the world, or how it could be a tool for promoting more equity.

Basically, what books would you recommend for a teacher who is herself still learning about computer science and what aspects to prioritize teaching, and wants to make sure her students are inspired to both use and produce technology in a way that makes the world more equitable?

Thanks!

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Hey! Great question. I’ll share a few books first + circle back soon with some other links / websites / further thoughts.

Claire Evans’ Broad Band looks awesome — a history of foundational women technologists, from the early history of computing technology to the development of the internet, modern social networks, and more. Seems like this could be a fun one to read chapters aloud in class every so often as inspiration.

Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism is excellent — a collection of essays on the criminal justice system, policing, economics, the prison industrial complex, state violence, “racial capitalism”…some interesting intersection with technology, like algorithmic policing, deploying technology in a way that supposedly serves to protect society, but in reality has a lot of problems with bias, power, exploitation etc. Very cool book, both creative and academically rigorous:

Ellen Ullman’s A Life in Code is kind of a memoir of working in technology, a collection of essays giving a firsthand view into the culture of tech, aspects of what a career as a programmer can look like, etc. I read her earlier book, Close to the Machine; she’s a great writer!

Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas is a cool collection of essays on an interesting blend of topics like math, science, logic, language, computation, philosophy, etc., based on a column he wrote in Scientific American for a few years. Seems to have a pretty playful, imaginative, interdisciplinary approach. I have this one too; haven’t read it yet but I think it’d be a ton of fun to flip through and perhaps photocopy a few chapters to read with students.

Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold seems like a solid overview of computational technology, from basic binary math on up to the building blocks of computers. Readable, and includes nice history of technology, but also gets pretty in depth with how stuff works (math/logic/circuits/etc.) I haven’t read the whole thing but seems like a popular rec for a good general “how do computers work” book.

I really liked Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? — maybe a bit tough to get through in parts, but a good critical framing of techno-capitalism, the information economy, the hazards of how tech behemoths mine our data for profit. Not sure it really provides any workable solutions, but some provocative ideas and helpful for thinking about possibilities outside the status quo for designing equitable tech systems.

Along those lines, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing is less tech-focused but more fun to read, broadly about attention, grounding yourself in your environment, being more contemplative and conscientious…definitely some implications for how we use technology, and she talks about e.g. radical alternative social networks that are more intentional and community focused. (Whole discussion of it here: Jenny Odell's "How to Do Nothing")

Okay, part two, some other websites / links that may be worth checking out—

  • Here’s a book, Data Feminism, with manuscript draft online for public review. Seems really interesting… “Intersectional feminism isn’t just about women nor even just about gender. Feminism is about power – who has it and who doesn’t. And in a world in which data is power, and that power is wielded unequally, data feminism can help us understand how it can be challenged and changed.”: https://bookbook.pubpub.org/data-feminism

  • Bret Victor is a great example of a technologist that focuses a lot on learning, communication, and invention. He’s got a particularly awesome website where you can browse his projects, from his current big thing, Dynamicland, a sort of community space for experiments in physical computation, to older work like ideas for interactive visualization methods and thoughts on addressing climate change: http://worrydream.com/

  • Here’s a really cool channel from Are.na (a sort of multimedia bookmarking site for academics and creative folks) on Cyberfeminism — cool collection of websites and readings for learning more about all kinds of feminist tech-related ideas: https://www.are.na/mindy-seu/cyberfeminism-jfek6ejyhtu

  • Francis Tseng’s site Speculating Futures is amazing — looking at speculative fiction, visions of utopia, and contemporary issues pertaining to culture, politics, economics, sociology and more, basically an entire syllabus, very well curated: http://speculatingfutures.club/

  • Interesting project: Tech Ethics Curricula: A Collection of Syllabi — spreadsheet collecting a bunch of syllabi and other resources on ethics in tech: https://medium.com/@cfiesler/tech-ethics-curricula-a-collection-of-syllabi-3eedfb76be18

  • From the previous link I found this piece on Social Networking and Ethics, a philosophical overview “from the community of applied ethicists and philosophers of technology” re: the ethical implications of social media technology: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-social-networking/

One thing I think would be fun to explore with students, and important / worth emphasizing in general: the open web! In other words, the internet as constructed by people rather than corporations — personal websites, blogs, design experiments, building things for fun.

Glitch could be a fun tool to play with, lots of examples of creative coding and “remixing” simple websites / apps. Or just having students play around with local HTML and CSS files could be even easier.

And related, the idea of open source — basically the ethos of sharing code that can be freely used by anyone to build on and incorporate into new projects. It’s fascinating that while there’s lots of technology that we have to buy (or is somehow making money for a big company somewhere), there’s like this whole parallel gift economy underpinning all kinds of important tech.

Here are a few teachers who have made + shared awesome syllabi (and other cool projects) about topics spanning technology, society, culture and more:

I think it’s important to note how entangled tech / computing is with almost every aspect of our lives, and when thinking about how this stuff impacts society, it’s helpful to look at perspectives from design, economics, politics and all kinds of other areas. Of course pretty much any technology can be used for good or for evil. Some tech companies help improve government services; others build dystopian surveillance technology.

And on a practical level, probably helpful for students to get a sense that there are lots of different roles involved in working with what we broadly might call “tech” — from programmers who write code, to designers who make things easy to use, to managers who help teams work well together, to people on the business side figuring out how something will make money, to customer support, community management, strategy, and many more. And accordingly, lots of potential points of leverage for applying an ethical framework to how we use technology.

Hope this is helpful. Would love to hear more about some of what you’re thinking as far as exploring these things, either in the classroom or in an extracurricular capacity. Lots of the above are prob more useful as background than for actually teaching, but it might be fun to try thinking of more practical suggestions too!