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“…and Access for All.”
I didn’t think much of the iPad the first time I laid eyes on it.
Aside from its form (the shape and size suggest a mini cocktail tray) and its functionality (no camera yet?), I also couldn’t envision how it would be relevant in the realms of social innovation or to create positive impact for less advantaged communities. Technologies that aim at consumption rather than creation or social amelioration tend not to excite me. But as I started to look more closely, I started wondering whether tablets actually do have the power to be effective tools to power social movements for those who have limited access to opportunity, information or influence. The sheer ability to carry media, text, social good apps and web- or cloud-based communications tools in one highly readable, searchable handheld device sets the stage for creative media interventions to build avenues for voice, agency, and visual citizenship. It appears that what a tablet can do better than other devices is to enhance media access and facilitate local context. A few things happened to shift my thinking. A few weeks before Steve Jobs announced the release of the iPad, I found myself in a television studio in Patna,
Bihar, giving an interview about media, design strategy and activism against poverty and marginalization. Patna is the capital city of Bihar, a formerly deeply troubled state now on the upswing, with the second fastest growing GDP in India. Out of rapid economic growth often comes increasing marginalization of the poor and disenfranchised. The interviewer asked me what should be done for Dalit women to ensure their rights against the increasing gap. These kinds of questions always stump me, since I believe one can only really interpret the needs of a community when they’ve voiced it themselves. So I suggested: “Well, you need to put in place drivers and systems that bring Dalits directly into a cross-sector conversation that explores their needs and opportunities.” What I didn’t explain was how to do that, since I really didn’t know. Returning to the States, I started exploring the question of voice and its role in building communities of activism and practice through transmedia activism, a construct that creates immersion in a story world and opens up avenues for participatory content creation around workable solutions to real-world issues. In one comment I wrote, “If we seek to truly collaborate with people within communities that are disadvantaged… It’s much more helpful to think of each other as equal partners who bring to the table various
assets, resources, abilities, and time commitments. For example, one partner might bring access and resources, while the other one brings local learning, stories and knowledge.” Again, I didn’t explore how those stories might be captured effectively, thinking it a question of implementation someone else might work on.
With a tablet, image and visual literacy becomes more pertinent, though text literacy is less of an obstacle.
Then I read the Wired magazine cover story dedicated to all things “tablet,” and the wheels started turning. Bob Stein wrote: “The arrival of tablets ups the ante… To succeed, publishers will have to embrace multimedia and communitybuilding.” At the other end of the spectrum, Nicholas Negroponte wrote: “The undeniable beneficiaries of tablets will be those who have no alternative… I mean the nearly 2 billion kids in the developing world… If you ship 100 if these to a remote African village, each loaded with 100 different books, that’s 10,000 books in this village — more than you and I had in primary school.” There’s a sweet spot right in the middle of Stein and Negroponte: There is an
“… A N D A C C E S S F O R A L L .”
opportunity for all of us in the social impact field and the communities we serve to turn to this technology — in its next iterations, with the right apps and the right media creation tools — into a facilitation device, to build community and capacity through media. So imagine a partnership with those very Dalit women, visiting their community and using a tablet to create, edit and rapidly disseminate self-generated, imagebased needs assessments and “day-in-thelife” stories. (With a tablet, image and visual literacy becomes more pertinent, though text literacy is less of an obstacle.)
No matter what technology you use, we still have to address the human challenges that hinder equal exchange, avenues for listening and user-centered initiatives.
Think next about Wired commentator Jack Dangermond’s statement that “planning a city shouldn’t be done in an office,” leading us to envision an architect, planner and artist co-creating livable spaces onsite, listening to real needs and concerns, co-designing with beneficiaries on a tablet interface in real time, transmitting captured ideas back to the design studio (which is hopefully in-country, but maybe not: one battle at a time). As hundreds of millions of BOP people migrate into ever-collapsing urban systems, this is especially exciting in the realm of community livability. Think then of the possibilities, for example, of walking around Kibera slums with local women, iPad in hand, sketching out infrastructure needed to insure safe access to clean water and sending. Or think about the applicability for post-conflict or post-disaster zones, like Cambodia or New Orleans, where disappeared tangible cultural heritage might be reconstituted through digitized data that
is captured, stored and disseminated. Or finally, think about a new kind of partnership, where a tablet creates revenue and attribution streams for beneficiaries’ stories, which increasingly might be able to distribute their own work and not rely on an international aid system that doesn’t always play fair with their content. In reality, access to digital communications tools alone is not the silver bullet that will take down barriers to voice and agency. No matter what technology you use, we still have to address the human challenges that hinder equal exchange, avenues for listening and user-centered initiatives. But access to media and the use of one’s own stories is a powerful strategic tool. As sociologist Sidney Tarrow says, ‘collective action is built on fitting issues into frames, emotions, and symbols that will mobilize people’. The question that tablet computing can make inroads on is: How can we, as a practical matter, create communities of practice that use creation and distribution of cultural assets to engender positive social action? Tablet computing has the ability to let us all — BOP or not — have deeper access to participation and voice.
Lina Srivastava is the Principal of Lina Srivastava Consulting, LLC, which focuses on employing strategy, innovation, engagement and the use of cultural assets to create and demonstrate social change. She is the former Executive Director of Kids with Cameras, and the past Interim Executive Director of the Association of Video and Filmmakers. Lina created the Transmedia Activism framework, codirected the Transmedia Activism Design Group, and co-created of the Modeling Global Change framework. She provided support to films such as Born into Brothels and The Devil Came on Horseback, and a wide-ranging group of organizations dedicated to social change.