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A Two-Way Bridge Across the Digital Divide

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  • ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us
    This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: ann.popplestone@tri-c.cc.oh.us
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 20, 2002
      This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education
      (http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: ann.popplestone@...


      The following message was enclosed:
      I thought that this was neat!


      From the issue dated June 21, 2002

      A Two-Way Bridge Across the Digital Divide


      When most of us talk about the digital divide, we
      characterize the people on one side as those with plenty of
      technology, and the people on the other side as those who lack
      it. Concerned that the have-nots may lose economic ground
      because of that difference, we often propose a sort of one-way
      bridge, across which the haves can send computers and
      camcorders and other gadgets to the have-nots. We seem to have
      no problem celebrating the culture of the have-nots --
      numerous IBM and Microsoft commercials feature colorful Third
      World "content providers" -- but we usually assume that we
      have nothing to learn from them technologically. Further, we
      assume that culture is irrelevant on the have side -- that
      artifacts of modern technology are neutral, universally
      applicable tools.

      What if we stopped assuming such a simplistic division and
      tried to get the two sides to exchange material? What would it
      mean to create a two-way bridge?

      I have found some hints of what a two-way bridge might look
      like in a software-design project that my students and I are
      developing with students, teachers, and cultural
      representatives at the Shoshone-Bannock reservation in
      southern Idaho.

      The project began in the spring of 2000 when James J. Barta,
      an associate professor of elementary education at Utah State
      University, invited me to meet with teachers at the
      Shoshone-Bannock secondary school to discuss ethnomathematics
      -- the study of mathematical ideas in different cultures --
      which is my field.

      Barta had been working with teachers at the primary school on
      the reservation on the use of Shoshone words and images to
      teach counting. He had read my book, African Fractals: Modern
      Computing and Indigenous Design (Rutgers University Press,
      1999), and he was interested in how I used computer models of
      indigenous designs -- like textiles and cornrow braiding -- to
      make ethnomathematics relevant to secondary-school math
      curriculums. Could we use Shoshone-Bannock designs in similar

      After Barta and I met with several Shoshone-Bannock educators,
      including Drusilla Gould, a member of the Shoshone tribe and
      an adjunct instructor of American Indian studies at Idaho
      State University, and teachers at the reservation's secondary
      school, we concluded that the geometric patterns in
      Shoshone-Bannock beadwork -- a vibrant art form on the
      reservation -- would be a good subject for computer-based

      Marcos E. Galindo, a science teacher at the secondary school,
      was particularly enthusiastic about the possibility of using
      computer models of traditional Shoshone-Bannock knowledge of
      nature to teach ecology, botany, and other natural sciences.
      He and I came up with a vague plan for a simulation game, and
      he offered to provide local leadership. Because he was already
      mixing science teaching with traditional culture, he was used
      to mediating between the school and cultural representatives
      of the tribe.

      Back at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I assembled a team
      to help me, including Bruce R. Piper, an associate professor
      of mathematical sciences, and several undergraduate and
      graduate students. For the natural-science project, we decided
      to create a computer game along the lines of SimCity, in which
      players have to make sure that an imaginary population has
      enough resources to survive. We prepared a storyboard to show
      how the game might work. For the ethnomathematics of beadwork,
      I created a virtual bead loom, or VBL, that allowed users to
      produce bead patterns on the computer screen.

      In November 2000, one of the students and I took the
      storyboard and the VBL to the secondary school on the
      reservation, to get feedback.

      The VBL was a clear success with the Shoshone-Bannock teachers
      and students. The Web page
      (http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/csdt/na/loom/overvw.htm) begins by
      showing the prevalence of fourfold symmetry in Native American
      design, where the four winds or four directions provide an
      indigenous analog to the Cartesian coordinate system with its
      x and y axes. On the virtual loom, visitors to the Web site
      can enter x and y coordinates for bead positions and choose
      colors to create patterns similar to those on a real loom.
      Teachers and students at the reservation school were
      enthusiastic about using the software to make art, as well as
      to study the mathematics embedded in traditional bead

      The storyboard, however, was a near disaster. The RPI students
      had based their simulation concepts on games they knew well --
      in particular, Dark Ages, in which players become medieval
      characters attempting to develop and defend a village. The
      students and teachers at the Shoshone-Bannock school pointed
      out that a simulation in which everyone stayed in one spot
      replicated the reservation system, with all its flaws -- not
      their tribe's traditional life. They recommended a
      more-accurate simulation that would show people migrating from
      one area to another with the seasons, and that would teach
      players about the traditional technologies and activities
      associated with each area. For example, players could catch
      salmon with a fish weir in the spring, and winnow pine nuts
      with a special basket in the winter.

      Prototypes of technologies for the revised game are available
      online (see
      /overview.html), along with some beautiful three-dimensional
      simulations and creative mutations of traditional technologies
      created by Shoshone-Bannock students in Ed Galindo's science
      camp last summer.

      The shift to a dynamic combination of movements through space
      and time was particularly telling. It showed us that the
      have-not side of the digital divide had important
      technological resources, and that the programmers' culture had
      as much of an impact on their designs as their technology did.

      Shoshone-Bannock beadworkers had more technology for us.
      Because creating an online pattern one bead at a time was too
      tedious, we introduced shape tools (e.g., the user can enter
      just three pairs of coordinates, one for each point, to get a
      triangle). But our virtual triangles often had uneven edges,
      whereas real Shoshone-Bannock beadwork always had perfectly
      regular edges. It turned out that we had used a standard
      scanning algorithm to make triangles. Somehow, the beadworkers
      had algorithms in their heads that were better. After a few
      conversations with them, we realized that they were using
      iterative rules -- e.g., start each new row three beads to the
      left of the row before. We are incorporating their algorithms
      into the next version of the VBL.

      That was another opportunity to see a two-way bridge. The
      standard scanning algorithm was not universal, but an artifact
      of computer culture. And the Shoshone-Bannock beadwork was not
      just cultural content, but effective technology.

      There are larger lessons to be learned here. The digital
      divide is just the latest version of a long conversation about
      haves and have-nots. Whether we are talking about technology,
      health, education, or jobs, we can create problems if we talk
      only about absence -- that is, if we reduce one side to
      have-nots. At the same time, we must not ignore the social
      causes of such absence. Thinking in terms of two-way bridges
      allows us to combine social critique with an appreciation of
      cultural resources.

      Creating two-way bridges often involves translating ideas from
      one domain to another -- say, from art to math, or from
      computer science to cultural studies. Academics can serve as
      translators, but only if we overcome our own divisions. I
      sometimes hear scientists disparage qualitative interpretation
      as mere personal opinion, and humanists dismiss objectivity as
      inherently oppressive. As a first step, we need a two-way
      bridge across the disciplinary divide.

      Ron Eglash is an assistant professor of science and technology
      studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


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