As we mark the one-year anniversary of the launch of Youth Radio’s Mobile Action Lab, I’m thinking about the video our team produced for our application to the DML competition. In it, we included a clip from Douglas Rushkoff at SXSW 2010.“If you are not a programmer,” Rushkoff argued at that time, “You are one of the programmed... If we don’t create a society that at least knows there’s a thing called programming, then you will end up being not the programmers but the users, or worse, the used.” (March 12, 2010).
In Rushkoff’s view, individuals who fail to understand the inner workings of technology platforms, and who can’t deploy them effectively, will be marginalized from decision-making power and self-determination. If you can’t access the source code, you will be outsmarted by thinking machines (Rushkoff, 2010).
That idea resonates with media literacy’s aim for young people to be active producers, rather than mere consumers, of high quality, original media. And yet, Rushkoff shifts media literacy’s standard assumptions and terminology in a provocative way. He replaces the concept of audience with that of the user. Today, every networked action by a user has the potential for a reaction and recontextualization by other users. In this context, the original intentions of media producers are reinterpreted, remixed and sometimes distorted by users and emerge into a recontextualized form that I’ve called the digital afterlife.
This shift from audience to user as a target for youth-generated media has been especially relevant to us at the Mobile Action Lab, given Youth Radio's history of developing radio stories for broadcast audiences, and now our current work creating digital content and apps for online and mobile users. But based on our day-to-day conversations, I'm a little thrown by the implication that being a user is such a lamentable role. Users, it turns out, hold tremendous power over everything we do at the Mobile Action Lab. In our design conversations, young people are constantly conjuring, quoting, imagining, and applying a hypothetical user's point of view. It’s the only way they'll be taken seriously when key judgments are at stake. Establishing one’s proximity to the user, and being able to anticipate and articulate the user’s point of view, are among the smartest moves a producer can make. Which is part of what makes this work so interesting, since here young people are makers and users at the same time, and it’s an ability to toggle between those roles, or—better yet—keep them simultaneously in play, that distinguishes their capacity to steer design decisions.
Speaking of design decisions, our team has been spending time over the last couple months working with the creators of App Inventor, a tool we’ve used throughout our program to enable people without CS training to make apps. We’ve presented and participated in workshops at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View and Chicago, and in a couple weeks we’ll head to MIT Media Labs, App Inventor’s new home, to join the conversation about how this tool can best serve educators’ needs. We’re excited to hook up with Leshell Hatley from Youth App Lab (DML 2010) while we’re there as well. I've got an essay coming out in National Civic Review chronicling this work--will add the link here as soon as it's live.