How (NOT) to Change the World

An informal, reflective blog written for the course entitled “How (NOT) to Change the World, taught by Dr. Noah Theriault at Carnegie Mellon University

Week 2

Week 2 we talked about the value of multiple stories, we discussed who makes claims to the objective truth and the impact of that, and the importance of acknowledging the past and its influence on the present. The following is a reflection on the individual readings (see reading list at bottom of this post).

READINGS

bell hooks: Engaged Pedagogy

I found the bell hooks reading described the ideal relationship between student and teacher, and the type of relationship I’ve been looking for my whole life but have yet to find. Many people spend so much of their lives in formal schooling, so it makes sense that the institution should shape not just the mind, but the person as a whole. On page 16, she writes about the public-private divide, and it made me think of the “sheikh-mureed” relationship in traditional Islamic education, where the student (mureed) is taught by a teacher (sheikh) for several years. They not only learn from the sheikh, but observe how he comports himself when speaking with people seeking counsel, students, and other scholars — the good, the bad, the ignorant, and the intellectual. By observing the sheikh, the student learns how those religious teachings are put into practice in one’s daily life. I think this is especially important, because true education shouldn’t just be cerebral, but should shape and refine the entire human being.

Zoe Todd: Teaching in Place

This reading was very relevant, as students often attend universities as guests in a city, but don’t often consider the history and politics of the place we are living. I highlighted: “I…encourage students to think about not only their role as scholars but as people bound to particular socio-political realities and stories.” This is even more meaningful when we consider how easy it is in America to forget that we live on stolen land, that there was a thriving civilization that was completely erased before we got here.

I also liked that she mentioned learning “how to be good visitors in other people’s territories.” A powerful statement.

Subdomandante Marcos: Ideas as Weapons

This reading encapsulated in a lot in a very short space! Overall what was of interest to me was the author’s pointing out the many ways we are asked to conform and not question the status quo, and how the government, media, etc all have their role in ensuring conformity. Amusing Ourselves to Death is one of my favorite books, so his reference to the “visual era, opting for what is immediate and direct, switching from signs to images, from thought to TV commentary” resonated with me.

Howard Zinn: Objections to Objectivity

This related to the Bell Hooks reading a bit for me, in regards to developing the person and not just how “smart” a person is. I especially liked the paragraph on page 41 where Zinn writes,

how ‘educated’ someone is tells you nothing about whether that person is decent or indecent, violent or peaceful, whether that person will resist evil or become a consult to warmakers….

Along those same lines, there is a Sufi poet who says, “you’ve read 1000 books, but never once stopped to study yourself (or soul).” Thus, book learning that doesn’t develop and refine the self (as stated above) can be misguided.

This reading also reminded me of the book, Lies My Teacher Told Me as far as how biased and skewed our history books are. It’s sad and disappointing to learn that that was not at all unintentional.

Winona La Duke: Redefining Progress

I loved every part of this reading, and it also covered a lot of different issues, so it’s difficult to highlight any one part. On page 195, she mentions “U.S.-America is predicated on the denial of the native,” and then goes on to describe how they are viewed as caricatures. It reminded me of a documentary I saw many years ago called “TV’s Promised Land,” which, by only showing clips of news, cartoons, and films, shows how certain ethnic groups are grossly stereotyped, misrepresented, and even villainized in the media.

I was enthralled reading about intergenerational residency and the intimate relationship those people have with the land and a “home.” As a child of immigrants, I think I miss that and am fascinated by people who have that deep connection to a place.

Tejeda and Espinoza: Decolonizing Pedagogy

This reading raised issues about the impacts of colonization and excluding the other. On page 5, they write, “We make the history of our internal colonial domination through the practice of our everyday lives” and “their action in the world is largely determined by the way they see themselves within it.” It’s eye-opening to realize that internalizing colonization is in fact a form of perpetuating colonization in the world. How do we break these habits / frames of mind?

Week 3

I’m especially excited about this class because I already see that a lot of the things we’re learning about will help me to be a better designer and, most importantly, clarify my intentions for why I design.

The two readings we did for Thursday overlap quite a bit with an independent study I’m doing on “participatory design” and “design in the public sector.” Participatory design originated in Scandinavia and is an approach that prioritizes designing with the people you’re designing for, which allows them to have a voice. Both of these readings speak to that. Teju Cole writes, “There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” Though designers do do extensive user research, traditional design does not require consultation with users before implementing the design solution. For example, Facebook changes features of the platform all the time without asking users what they think. Courtney Martin also talks about the importance of immersing yourself in the complexity of the situation and “putting down roots.” In transition design, we are taught different methods of designing for complexity, but those methods don’t always involve interacting with the people themselves. As I mentioned, we do user research in order to understand how users interact with a system, but that only goes so far. Children might have been using the PlayPump properly, but that doesn’t mean it was a good long-term solution. Uber’s app may function flawlessly, but that doesn’t reveal the impact on taxi drivers across the country.

I have long wanted to “sell” the idea of the value of design in the public sector, and these two essays forced me to check my intentions and gave me a lot to consider regarding how we approach solving other people’s problems.

Week 4

Readings

The readings this week left me feeling a bit like everything is problematic, so what can we do that isn’t offensive and doesn’t exacerbate these issues? On page 74, Ananya Roy writes, “there is no escape from complicity in global consumption.” If that is the case, then the small, incremental efforts people make to be more ethical consumers should be lauded—at least they are doing something to try to make a difference; picking out the flaws and reminding people their efforts are futile in the end feels disheartening.

Encountering Poverty: Chapter 3

This chapter addressed the economic roots of poverty. The discussion about markets was interesting, in that poverty is considered by some to be something like a math problem that hasn’t been solved yet. In Small is Beautiful, Schumacher talks about the fault of viewing economics as a numbers game devoid of any human, social factors. Similarly, in this chapter Roy talks about how the numbers only favor the already wealthy; they are not arranged to favor or even improve the condition of the poor. In fact, she talks at length about how “creative capitalism” and “poverty through profits” (64–5) is actually exploitative. It’s pretty upsetting to know that not eradicating poverty is a choice people are making out of greed.

Although the Islamic concept of “shariah” has been spinned into ideas about beheadings, etc., it’s actually the basis of Islamic law that seeks to preserve five basic things, one of them being wealth (the others being religion, life, intellect, and family). There is a whole set of laws related to finance in Islam, and when reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but think back to some of those principles (the ones I’m familiar with, anyway). For example, Muslims with a certain amount of wealth are required to give 2.5% of that wealth to charity every year. It is said that Caliph Umar bin Abdul Aziz (from 717–720 AD) managed and enforced this so well, that there was no needy person to give charity to. Unfortunately very few individuals and likely no governments today follow these rules — obviously, because 2.5% every year of the trillions that Arab oil titans amass would make a significant difference in world poverty. Also, interest is considered a form of exploitation and oppression, so Muslims technically are not allowed to receive or pay interest. We see today how aid recipients are mired in debt to rich countries for decades. Interest is an intentional form of exploitation that perpetuates the cycle of poverty. I find alternative economic models like Islamic finance fascinating to learn about, but ultimately I think the capitalistic forces are too strong to overcome.

Neoliberal Coffee by Paige West

Roy’s discussion about “conscious capitalism” ties in to the readings we did on fair trade, which talk about fair trade as a sort of feel-good slacktivism that makes consumers feel better about their consumption habits, but does little for the producers at the other (very far) end.

What stood out for me in the West reading was the paradox of the fair trade / organic movement, which a lot of times is so expensive that the producers would not even be able to afford those products. I think a lot about how at some point, all food was organic food, and now because of senseless farming practices, we have to pay a premium just for normal, non-toxic food.

I also found the part about “virtualism” interesting. In the design school, there is somewhat of a fad or obsession with artificial / virtual / mixed reality technologies, and I always felt that was short-sighted. Though she wasn’t referring to VR specifically, I was intrigued to read West’s take on this trend. She writes on page 56 and 57, “Carrier defines virtualism as the attempt to make the world around us look like and conform to an abstract model of it,” and “These abstractions become virtualism when the real world is expected to transform itself in accordance with the models.” The connection between escapism, the artificial realities being created and general societal malaise would be interesting to read into.

The discussion about neoliberal policies and deregulation (p 46) was enlightening, and made a lot more sense to me given that we had discussed neoliberalism in class.

Class discussion 2.6.18

The discussion about development on Tuesday’s class was great. International development is something I’ve been interested in and thinking about since I was in undergrad, so I’m always excited and eager to learn more about it and hear different perspectives and approaches to “development.” This class has definitely given me a lot to think about. The discussion about modernism and world systems theories as models of development gave important context to the independent study on decolonial theory that I’m doing. The reading by Janet Abu Lughod that I did for the study gave historical context to world systems theory, pointing out that no single civilization is inherently weak or poor. I definitely ascribe to the world systems model because I think the development model focuses too much on sheer numbers and not enough on the power dynamics behind them.

Week 5

Readings

The articles we read this week were a fresh perspective, because I had never heard anyone advocate for giving money to the poor as a policy for aid. Strangely someone had shared this Facebook post with me the same day I was doing these readings, which made the policy claims more real and tangible for me.

Aid Given in Cash

This was a good overview of the benefits of unconditional cash handouts. Of note:

  • “Advocates say cash transfer programmes give recipients greater control over how best to help themselves, with a greater degree of dignity.”
  • “A leading economist claimed recently that introducing a guaranteed basic income could eradicate extreme poverty for millions of people.”

With Strings Attached

This piece discusses the implications of Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT), as opposed to unconditional discussed in the “Aid Given in Cash” article above. The inherent assumptions of a CCT—that poor people won’t act in their or their children’s best interests unless bribed, essentially—are problematic, but more upsetting is that the programs don’t always follow through on their promises, or the services are subpar. This is just one more example of the poor always getting the short end of the stick. The authors write:

Despite the contractualist language, in reality the obligation only goes one way — recipients are obliged to comply with the program terms if they want to remain beneficiaries, but the programs do not require the state to actually provide the necessary conditions for the poor to fulfill their end of the bargain. … For example, one of the major problems in rural areas of Latin America is that there are simply no services to buy — even if there is a hospital in the nearby city, the recipient of the CCT may not be able to get there due to the non-existent public transportation system. To make matters worse, medical clinic staff are often poorly trained and thus unqualified to attend to the needs of women, especially those who are indigenous or differently abled.

The authors write, “By targeting only women, conditional cash transfers build on and promote conservative ideas of womanhood and the expected maternal role of poor women within their families.” I disagree with this claim and that of Ferguson (detailed below), because it feels like they are imposing their own gender politics onto different cultures. I don’t know enough about gender roles in these countries, but some cultures do have stricter and more distinct gender roles than in America, and that’s their prerogative. I have mixed feelings because of course I want to see women everywhere have the same rights as men, but at the same time, different cultures have different beliefs, practices, and norms, and to impose our own values on them smacks of ethnocentrism.

Give a Man a Fish

In the first part of this chapter, I felt like the author wasn’t making some far reaching, exaggerated claims. He goes on at length about how problematic the “give a man a fish” axiom is, but some of his arguments felt like a bit of a stretch. I didn’t really connect with him on his claim that distribution “evokes an undesirable passivity and femininity,” and “a gender panic, in which the very possibility of direct distribution threatens to emasculate the adult male” (43). This seems a bit overdramatized to me. I think the more interesting point is that the West is hyper-individualistic and holds up the “self-made man” as an ideal and model of strength, which discourages people from asking for help or being too reliant on others for fear of seeming weak. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and ‘every man for himself,’ essentially.

The reading did raise some interesting questions, though, as to why production is valued more than distribution and if a viable economic model can be rooted in distribution instead. Do services such as military protection and public schools count as distribution?

Ferguson writes on page 47 about the irony of the democracy,

In this context, the rich set of democratic rights (sometimes including social and economic rights) granted by progressive new legal instruments such as constitutions have sometimes come to appear empty, as the abstract freedoms they proclaim often seem to translate into narrow legal claims with little relevance to the actual lives of the poorest southern Africans.

Of note:

  • Access to rights is not as significant as access to basic goods
  • I loved the excerpts from Kropotkin (so poetic!) and hope I can read more of his writings in the future.
  • “The most basic citizenship right is thus understood not as the right to vote but as the right ‘to partake in the wealth of the nation.’ (56)
  • The idea of citizens having a right to the profits made on natural resources is intriguing. How does this work with immigrants or ex-pats?

Encountering Poverty: Chapter 4, by Kweku Opoku-Agyemang

What stood out most to me in this chapter was the discussion about technology on page 111. Referring to a study on technologies, Opoku-Agyemang writes “the authors found a very strong relationship between technology access five hundred years ago and poverty today.” Which is a fine claim to make, but he follows it up with an offensive excerpt from William Easterly that claims that North America, Australia, and New Zealand also had “the most backward technology” until they were colonized by white people. “It’s the people who matter, not the places,” Easterly says. Easterly also claims Europe was far more advanced even in 1000 BC, evidence that “the winners keep winning.” Opoku-Agyemang does little to refute these claims except to say that several crops in America actually came from Africa (???). This just shows how important it is to know your history, because there will always be those people who will try to tell you that you came from savagery until the white man saved the day.

I also found the author’s use of metaphors confusing and hard to follow.

Class Discussion 2.13.18

Week 6

Readings

Encountering Poverty: Chapter 5, by Clare Talwalker

This was my favorite chapter of the book so far. I appreciated her urging to consider the complete socio-historical context of the place in which we are intervening. As a designer, I also found her description of student projects good to think about. She wrote about how most of her students approached problems as a lack of education, and the solutions all involved educating the poor in some way. Being mindful of the stance we take is a good reminder when designing interventions.

The discussion about utilitarianism vs Romanticism was also relevant to design. My favorite projects I’ve done were ones that weren’t necessarily viable or useful, but that conveyed some sort of feeling or encouraged behavior change. I wonder how much richer the design world could be if market viability wasn’t a factor.

The discussion about utilitarianism also made me think back to the online discussion about gender equality. Based on those readings, it seems that a lot of people chafe at the idea of women being ‘maternal,’ and I wonder if it’s because traditional women’s roles were not considered “utilitarian” or productive if they weren’t contributing to market growth. My mother raised six children and never worked outside the house, and I don’t see her maternality as a weakness, incompleteness, or embarrassment. Similarly, the elderly also seem to be discarded in a way as irrelevant because they’re no longer working. The way people are viewed as objects of use is a tragedy of modern society; we miss out on so much that is intangible that people have to offer.

“Why small-scale alternatives are not enough”—Michael Ware

I was not convinced by this reading. His arguments were reductive and facile, and in some cases his claims seemed dubious. For example, he says that “One British study…concluded that small businesses are the least likely to ‘safeguard the environment.’” But are they causing as much harm as BP? Unlikely. He also exaggerates his point and takes it to the extreme, saying “A planet with seven billion people and one billion Facebook accounts should never go back to bartering, surviving on grain and root vegetables all winter, or making our own clothes, except for our own individual amusement.”

He mentions that small, incremental changes are a bandage on a bigger problem of “corporations and the US military-industrial complex,” but tackling those large-scale problems is not realistically within the scope of the average American. His argument seems to be ‘all or nothing’—if it’s not solving all of the world’s problems then it’s not worth doing. I find those arguments to be really discouraging.

I heard someone say the other day, “we don’t need to transform, but we do need to transition.” Statements like this and Michael Ware’s seem to say, “we definitely need a dramatic change, but we don’t want to have to change our lifestyle or make any sacrifices at all.” It’s interesting to me that during WWII Americans willingly rationed and sacrificed to support their country during the war, but now, in spite of wars and the $20 trillion-dollar national debt, Americans are encouraged to consume even more, almost as if to make war and crisis invisible by stupefying the population with ‘things.’

“To Find Alternatives to Capitalism, Think Small”—David Bollier

This article makes some important points that counter Michael Ware’s claims. Bollier writes, “the focus should be on securing tangible results and greater leverage for change.” Though Michael Ware argues that there are much bigger problems to be addressed, these incremental shifts make way for larger movements and progress to be made.

By enabling self-organized groups to bypass large institutions and formal systems of authority, and to set their own terms for establishing social trust and legitimacy, we enter the headwaters of a new kind of politics, one that is more accountable, decentralized, and human-scale. The substantive, local, and practical move to the fore, challenging the highly consolidated power structures and ideological posturing that have turned our national politics into a charade.

“Post-Development Possibilities for Local and Regional Development” —J.K. Gibson-Graham

I liked how well the authors articulate the problem of hegemony that we talked about as it pertains to ideas about economic development. On page 2 they write:

[We] are able to appreciate how developmental thinking has produced a sociology of absences — “non-existent” places, regions and nations where any vestige of (self-defined) development has been “disqualified and rendered invisible, unintelligible, or irreversibly discardable” (238)

I was surprised by the World Bank excerpts that take the inequality of development as a given, and, as the authors said, their “refusal to inquire into the causes and consequences of this unnevenness or places on the ‘lagging’ end of the development continuum (Rigg et al. 2009)” (3).

Their inquiry into “different development pathways” of wellbeing is important one. A lot of these readings raise the question of how we define progress, and what moral sensibility we sacrifice for material gain. Considering how many Americans suffer from depression and loneliness, does the accumulation of material wealth constitute as progress if the nation as a whole is generally unhappy?


Reading List