"Digital Justice and Our Future"

Originally published Sunday March 2, 2012 in the Michigan Citizen.

By: Shea Howell
Photo credit: Nina Bianchi

Last Sunday afternoon [Feb. 26], I watched the future take shape. I went to the third DiscoTech, put together by the Digital Justice Coalition. DiscoTech is short for Discovering Technology Fair. The fair includes more than a dozen hands-on stations where people can learn everything from how to set up an e-mail account to how to fix a computer. Held at the Makerspace at the Church of the Messiah, 231 E. Grand Blvd., the fair attracted hundreds of people, mostly young, and all engaged.

The first thing I saw when I entered the bustling room was a group of young men working on windmills. Like everyone else, they were completely engrossed in their projects, testing out their design and construction of the blades.

Just past the windmills there was a table crowded with people. The table was heaped with blinking LED lights. Before long, it became clear the lights were being soldered to small battery discs, creating powered jewelry. The creators were mostly young women, learning about electricity, battery power and soldering irons. Over the course of the afternoon, most people managed to get a pin or two for shirts and caps.

In a far corner of the room, another group gathered to watch and discuss a short film called “The Internet is Serious Business.” The film gives people a good sense of what the Internet really is and the issues communities face in using it for positive change. You can check it out at www.vimeo.com/13830730.

The Digital Justice Coalition will work with you if you want to arrange a screening and discussion.

The center of the room was dominated by three bicycles brought by the East Side Riders. They use materials reclaimed from old couches to refashion bikes, using battery power to run lights and sound, custom-designed by and for the rider. On any given weekend as many as 400 folks ride the streets, offering a new vision of travel in the motor city.

I spent a while at the Twitter station, learning how to set up an account. In the course of the mechanics of the process, Lottie Spady, associate director of Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council, introduced questions about privacy, responsibility and values, saying: “We don’t really have answers, yet. So much of this is new. Our thinking and our principles are behind where the technology is right now.”

Next to me was an older woman learning about Gmail (Google’s e-mail service). Everywhere you looked, people were in small clusters, talking, looking, doing, imagining.

As impressive as I found each station, the overall buzz was what really amazed me. There were hundreds of people moving through the space, but no one was “in charge.” No one was telling people where to go or what to do. Although I heard lots of laughter, I never heard a raised voice or a directive. Other than the use of a microphone for the raffle, the whole experience flowed from an internal, organic logic.

Diana Nucera of Allied Media explained the organization of space in her article “Tactics on Setting up Amazing Learning Spaces.” She wrote, “Learning spaces should be constructed in a thoughtful and intentional way that promotes collaboration and creativity.”

The Digital Justice Coalition says it “prioritizes the participation of people who have been traditionally excluded from and attacked by media and technology. It advances our ability to tell our own stories, as individuals and communities” because they believe “communication is a fundamental human right.” Their first principle says, “We are securing that right for the digital age by promoting access, participation, common ownership and healthy communities.”

Through their efforts, Detroit is creating a new grassroots web of imaginative, collaborative and more just possibilities for our future.

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