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Zero Bias – A CQ Editorial

Technology and Creativity


*e-mail: w2vu@cq-amateur-radio.com

Technology. It's the foundation on which everything we do as hams is built. For some of us, technology is what ham radio is all about designing and building circuits, adapting devices built for one purpose to do something completely different, restoring vintage radios or advancing the state of the radio art. For others, technology is a means to an end providing us with different ways to communicate with other humans across our planet. Both aspects are equally important, and we need to remember that the technology part of amateur radio and the people part are dependent on each other. We can't communicate effectively without the technology, and the technology is meaningless if it doesn't help people to communicate. Plus, we need people to be able to communicate ideas to each other in order to advance technology. This interdependence has been at the base of some interesting discussions I've had recently, starting while waiting in line for a shuttle bus at September's World Maker Faire in New York City (see story, page 32). I was accompanied to the fair this year by my wife (and CQ Editorial Consultant), Susan. As a non-technology person who is nonetheless a longtime observer of a group of technologists, her perspectives are always very perceptive, and the Maker Faire was no exception.

While we were standing in the very long line for the bus to the New York Hall of Science from the parking lot at adjacent CitiField, she quickly noticed the extreme lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity among the people around us. This was a solidly upper-middle-class crowd, which wasn't that much of a surprise, considering the ticket prices ($35/adult and $30/child in advance; $45/$40 at the door), parking ($10), the cost of getting there and overpriced fair food. Doing some quick calculations, the minimum cost for a family of four to attend the Maker Faire was roughly $200, not counting any "stuff" they might buy there. A lot of people were priced out of this event.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones who noticed this because Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty, in a news release after the event, made a point of trying to refute such observations. "What I love most about Maker Faire, and it was truly evident at this particular World Maker Faire, are the people and the many walks of life that come to take in the Maker Movement," said Dougherty, adding, "There were … people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds … (t)he diversity was visible and shows that this movement is engaging and inspiring people, no matter who they are, where they are coming from or what they make." One place they probably weren't coming from was the neighborhood right around the Hall of Science, which is located in a solidly working-class part of Queens (one of New York City's five boroughs). I'm guessing the cost of admission was beyond the budgets of most of the show's neighbors, regardless of their interest in technology or in "making."

Discussions subsequent to the show made the whole topic even more interesting. I had lunch the following week with a friend who is a computer science professor. When I mentioned how many families with young children were at the Maker Faire, he wondered how many of those kids were "dragged kicking and screaming," noting that many parents today want their children to become engineers because that's where they perceive the well-paying jobs are regardless of whether the kids have any interest in or aptitude for the field.

So the Maker Faire provides an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand, there were a lot of kids in attendance, at least some of whom were likely there only because their parents wanted them to be; and on the other, there were likely just as many young people with a real interest in technology and "making" who were excluded from attending because of the cost. The cost of this exclusion is not only restricted access to technology, but at least as important, restricted access to technologists, people who share a similar way of looking at the world and of trying to solve problems; people with whom a young person can share ideas and get back not only encouragement but possibly mentorship or collaboration as well.

Fortunately, there are efforts to fill both of those gaps, starting with Barnes and Noble, which scheduled free Mini Maker Faires at each of its stores on the first weekend in November. But the most consistent efforts are coming from local maker groups. Some examples include the group with which I'm involved in New Jersey (Hack'nCraft NJ), which is working closely with public schools in its hometown of Montclair; the LeMoyne College "Maker Zone" in Syracuse, New York (whose advisor is a ham), which is working with public schools there and the Staten Island (NY) Maker- Space, which takes its mobile "STEAM Wagon" to schools around the borough (see photo in Maker Faire article). "STEAM," in this case, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics, an extension of the technology-only focused STEM programs being pushed by educators and politicians, from the President on down, because of their perception that our future lies in those fields, particularly when it comes to competing economically with other countries.

While there is certainly some validity to that perception, one of the things that has always set apart American education from so many other countries' is that we have tried to balance our interests in specific, job-related, education with the humanities, understanding great literature, studying people and what they do, and learning how to think critically and independently. The ability to think independently has been as important to American creativity and innovation as any technological or engineering skill. Learning how to think on your own encourages thinking "outside the box," which in turn encourages innovation including in technical and scientific areas that moves our society forward.

We hams have always recognized that a mix of interests and abilities is essential to our ability to thrive and grow. Just look around your club at the variety of jobs represented. We refer to advancing the "radio art." This is not some old-fashioned phrase. There is an art to radio communication that is as important as the technology that makes it possible.

Here at CQ, we have always understood the need for a mix of technology-focused and activity-focused articles. That's why the subhead on our cover each month reads "Communications & Technology." That dual focus is illustrated in this month's Technology Special, in which we highlight the technical side of our multifaceted hobby. So let's maintain our focus on advancing technology without forgetting that technology is only part of ham radio's formula for success, and of society's. Let's join some of our maker friends and do our part to help expand access to technology and technologists to anyone with a genuine interest, regardless of their economic status. Finally, in this season of joy, and of putting others first, our best wishes to you from all of us at CQ for a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, or whatever you may celebrate at this time of year to bring more light into your home and your life.

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