Archive for June 22, 2009

Computing For Evil! Isn’t Education a “Good”?

Georgia Tech’s College of Computing offers a course “Computing for Good.”  Students in this class take on social activist projects, like creating kiosks to support Liberians in capturing video testimony after their civil war and creating web sites to help monitor blood supply quality.  These are terrific projects, and the context of social activism inspires student learning.  This class is part a global movement to include more activism in computing classes, like the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software effort.

The title of this effort “Technology + Activism = Computing for Good” sends the wrong message.  Activism is taking direct (Wordnet says “militant”) action to cause social and political change.  That’s not the only kind of good that there is in a University, or even in a computer science department.

The point of a University is to be a common good.  The University serves to advance the interests of people.  Education is inherently about bettering people, which is good. Sometimes the service provided is longterm.  Knowing how to make systems more reliable or more easily maintained does people good, even if it is not about social or political change. A long term good is still “good.”

I am working with a student, Brian Landry, who is finishing up his dissertation this Summer.  Brian has been developing a tool to help people tell stories (not just chronological slide-shows) with their digital pictures.  I’m loving reading the quotes from the people creating and viewing these stories.  Authors talk about their reflections about their lives, and how the process of creating these stories changes how they think about their experiences. Viewers talk about getting new insights into the authors.  I am no philosopher, so my view may be naive or ill-informed. I think getting people to come to new understandings of themselves and others is inherently “good,” but is probably not considered “activism.”

I worry about the message this “Computing for Good” sends to students.  I hear bits and pieces of talk from students getting involved in these projects and those who are considering other projects.  Work in “education” is not typically considered part of the “for Good” effort.  It’s not activism, it doesn’t result in immediate and dramatic impacts, and it rarely gets picked up on CNN or in the New York Times.  Universities (and its students) should not give up on long-term value in favor of short term press coverage.

One of my colleagues has taken on the Twitter monicker “computing4evil.”  If we’re not “good,” then are we “evil”?  We’re thinking about making up t-shirts, “The League of Evil Computationalists.”  Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek.  The project “Computing for Good” is doing great good for people who can use the help.  Putting labels on projects that some are “good,” however, is dangerous.  Everything at a University should wear that label, or something is wrong with our notion of the University.

June 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm 2 comments

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