Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Recently one afternoon, Scott (a friend from college) called and invited me to attend a seminar for his course on "Comfort" that he was teaching at CCAC. I agreed to go. The topic was going to be appropriate technology and wheelchair design the speaker: Ralf Hotchkiss at his lab on the SF State campus. I agreed to go. I wasn't prepared for what I encountered there. I guess I expected to find a university industrial designer who imagined and drew ergonomically advanced titanium and carbon fiber motorized craft for the handicapped.

Boy was I wrong. We arrived at the lab -- on an upper floor of a science building. This lab was more like a welding shop than a high-tech design studio. Things were actually being built. One of the lab assistants was working on a motorized scooter, trying to modify it to add a seat. The class arrived, and we milled around waiting for Ralf. Just before the hour, Ralf arrived -- using a wheelchair. He began his talk with us rather informally, zooming around the lab; pulling many different kinds of wheelchairs off racks, and having us all sit in them.

My preconceptions were in sore need of adjustment. I've never used -- or even sat for an hour -- in a wheelchair. I've never experienced how hard it is to simply roll one down a hall and into a classroom. Variations in the floor that I take for granted walking presented significant obstacles in the wheelchair. Desk heights, door widths, sharp corners, and thresholds...I did not think of designers solving problems from wheelchairs themselves. Nor had I thought much about appropriate technology.

Ralf has.

For a couple of hours we sat in the various Whirlwind chairs. For a few moments we experienced the innovations he’s made to enable well-designed wheelchairs to be created and maintained using materials and techniques found in the poorest parts of the developing world. Built and maintained by the people who need them in those places.

This set me thinking about my experience with the high-tech world. In the developing world, it’s common to find clones copied design from the US with pirated software. These are alien products. Swallowed whole, without local modification.

What is the equivalent of appropriate computer technology? How dramatically things will change when we begin educating the disenfranchized and the marginalized about technology that can be created using the resources available locally; addressing the needs they (not we) find there; in the context of their culture, with a deep understanding of the impact of its use.

Monday, November 11, 2002

We’re making steady progress on our new company. Last Friday, we shipped our latest work off to México, where it will be installed permanently at a children’s museum. Production came down to the wire, and we were just finishing up the packing when the shipper arrived.

This was our first time shipping anything this large out of the country. The shipment went in two crates: one 1x2x10 feet, and the other 4x5x5 feet. The first one was about 3/4 full of extruded aluminum (and some steel). The second one was for the electronics, tools and spares. Neither was movable by a single person. We requested a truck with a lift gate, but the one that arrived didn’t have one. We’re not really set up for moving stuff – we don’t even have a hand truck.

Scott went out and tried to find the someone connected with a neighboring forklift, but he couldn’t find its driver. We tried finding a building with a loading dock…thinking we could wheel the crate up a ramp. Nothing. So all 5 of us did what we had to do. We lifted the two crates and put them on the truck.

Anne said: “It’s like when parents lift a Volkswagen to rescue their child.” It was. Except that our child is the size of the car, and is taking its first steps all the way to México.

Tuesday, November 5, 2002

Election day. Like many people, I am wary of our political circumstances. But this is an old story. Shakespeare and the Greeks have written all about it before. I am reminded, and in a weird way comforted by a line of dialog from the film Nicholas and Alexandra:

“Strong men do not need power; the weak are destroyed by it.”

I want the US to be (or to become) one of the strong. But I worry that the power and control we wish for will ultimately be our undoing.

Will it be easy to change our present course? No. Is the present course deeply perilous? Yes. Will we stumble or fall? I don’t know. Will we all go down with the ship? I don’t know, either.

I do know that today, fed on a steady barrage of images of fear and terror, America seems to be capable of only desiring something that sounds like safety and security. Trading cold comfort for chains, indeed.

It’s hard work to imagine, desire, and ultimately conjure a better future. We certainly must be aware of what might be lost. But we have much to do.

I choose optimism over despair as my militant position.

Hopefully yours,