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!

2 Likes

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!

Maura – have you looked into the work of Christina Dunbar Hester? She writes about the politics of feminist hackerspaces among other topics that might align with your interests.

1 Like

Thanks for sharing this, Christina Dunbar-Hester’s work looks super interesting!

Looks like she has a book coming out in December '19:

From this brief summary in the linked interview, sounds like it’ll be great:

I’m looking at hacking and free and open-source software spaces — participatory ideals, technological production and questions about how open these communities actually are. Even if they’re framed as open to anybody who wants to be there, there’s definitely a sort of tension with who’s there and who’s not there, specifically, in many cases, women and people of color. Diversity work is occurring in spaces like the Python programming language community, and feminist hackerspaces are also an outgrowth of these conversations. The book is an anthropological look at conversations in some of these communities, alongside, but not identical to, the bigger conversations about diversity in tech. The U.S. has amazing disparities, both in terms of access to technology, and the perception of who is a technological agent, and that’s one of the things this book is about.

Verrry relevant to the challenges lots of communities are facing, from small indie projects to large companies, not just paying lip service to diversity and inclusivity but actually shifting community norms / behavior in an effective way. For example Stack Overflow (Q&A site for programming) has a recent post Iterating on Inclusion that outlines some efforts at making the community more welcoming but is getting plenty of pushback in the comments — Stack Overflow is kind of notorious for blunt / abrasive comments and it’s such a major resource for tech learning that it’s important to have these conversations!

I also just became familiar with the work of Joy Rankin, an independent scholar who recently published her first book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States .

She’s actually giving a talk at Brown next week that I think I’ll attend. Below is the abstract; I’ll have to let you know how it goes:

Creating Computing Citizens: American History from the User Up

What does it mean to write American history from the user up? When I was researching A People’s History of Computing in the United States, stories of students and teachers, principals and professors, touch screens and video games – in New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Illinois – jumped off the pages of newsletters, grant reports, and other archival documents. Those are not the people or places that typically come to mind when we think about America’s digital origin stories. This talk focuses on the users of 1960s and 1970s academic computing networks to develop a history of the digital age that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and community. These students and educators built, accessed, and participated in cooperative digital networks, developing now-quotidian practices of personal computing and social media. In the process, they became what I call “computing citizens.” I’ll use several case studies to illustrate the dynamic - and unexpected - relationships among gender, community, computing, and citizenship.

1 Like