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February 17, 2005

From Bullets to Books to Bytes

Every year, Sun Microsystems hosts a haj to San Francisco. Nearly 500 people from 40+ countries gather for Sun's worldwide education and research conference exploring the intersection of technology, innovation, and education.

In a day full of insights and stories, the highlight was Queen Noor of Jordan's conversation with John Gage, Sun's Chief Researcher. Her Majesty is not a technologist. That's ok, Sun employee #1, Andy Bechtolsheim filled the assembled with benchmark speeds of Sun's new Opteron collaboration with AMD. Her Majesty is not software whiz. That's ok too. Sun EVP for Software John Loiacono provided a whirlwind tour of all things software focusing on openSolaris. Her Majesty does not run a large and complex institution. President Bob Dynes of the University of California and Minister Lyle Oberg of the Province of Alberta shared institutional perspectives on technology, innovation, and education. Her Majesty is not a film maker. Milton Chen from The George Lucas Education Foundation showed up and shared a documentary film on a Portland Oregon technology-rich emersion school in Japanese language and culture helping me to imagine a slightly less xenophobic American education world.

What Queen Noor is or what she represents to her audience is an iconoclast. While her conversation with John Gage, himself a luminary, started with some trepidation, it quickly became clear that Her Majesty has a deep and profound commitment to education and in improving the status of women both in the Muslim and Arab world as well as elsewhere in the so-called developing world. But she is also a messenger. She is on a mission to challenge many of the settled beliefs and institutions both within the Arab and Islamic world and leveraging her unique status as a janus, Queen of an Arab country and an international icon.

In an otherwise inspiring conversation, the tone and context was somewhat unsettling. Or at least that is how I heard it. In my experience, when good people in the West want to understand how they can contribute to "others" we assume a kind of 21st century version of the "white man's burden" bringing enlightenment, education and progress to "others" through information and communication technology (or other forms of goodness). The thesis that moderation will grow in the world of Islam if only we can set of web sites and more generally diffuse moderate values through communication media is problematic in and of itself. However, more important to me, is the notion that the enlightened west alone can export all things good. Let me try and explain.

When asked by John Gage to speak about the source of hope for the future and the possible role of technology, the Queen shared the power of the internet and email to enable young people to render invisible political boundaries and inherited hate and fear. Her own work in this area has been influenced by the work of Seeds of Peace. Seeds is a summer camp based in Maine that brings together young people from zones of conflict. Israeli and Palestinians, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, youth from the former Yugoslavia, from India, Pakistan and Afgahnistan and so forth. In addition to all the regular summer camp experiences, Seeds has developed over more than a decade a remarkable "peace and coexistence studies" curriculum facilitated by an amazing and dedicated staff. The general philosophy of the camp is that 'treaties are negotiated by governments. Peace is made by People.' The Queen is on the Advisory Board of Seeds of Peace.

Back in 1998, I began working with Seeds of Peace founder John Wallach and more closely with his son Michael. I contacted John to learn more about the summer camp and proposed the development and use of a multimedia curriculum to help the many thousands of young people in the Middle East who were not lucky enough to come to Maine for the summer camp to still experience the co-existence curriculum and meet young people from "the other side". With support from our university and a grant from the US Institute for Peace we began to work on a year long project to teach a dozen young persons from Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt how to use multimedia tools to tell their personal stories and the Seeds of Peace curriculum. Campus technologists assisted and traveled and worked in the Middle East for nearly a year to help document the "day in the life" of our 12 Seeds campers. The result was an award winning 3 CD Rom set on Seeds of Peace multimedia. To be sure, we need enlightened technology companies like Sun Microsysems and its visionary leaders to enable many many more such opportunities to realize the full potential of information and communication technology.

But our vision then and now is that the Seeds of Peace and the role of technologies like multimedia and massive online player games (that we created back in the late 90s) are actually every bit as important for young people in American cities as it is for youth in countries that we consider "in conflict". American's inner cities are war zones. Infant mortality, school drop outs, domestic violence and abuse, gangs, drugs, and hopelessness are every bit as real in our cities as CNN Headline news would have us understand are the realities of life in Africa, the Middle East or other war torn and ravaged parts of the world. The real value of a Seeds of Peace effort and the real opportunity for technology visionaries like John Gage is to help us reframe the conversation. The Seeds of Peace co-existence curriculum is making a difference. As Queen Noor indicated, graduates of the program are now emerging into positions of authority and power and that gives her hope. What will it take for us in the U.S. to import the Seeds of Peace curriculum into our own inner cities? What opportunities can we enable to have kids in gangs in our inner cities on the road to near sure destruction understand that if reconciliation can be achieved by young people in parts of the world where people have been killing each other for generations, that there is hope and possibility for our inner cities. Can we use the same technology of multimedia, the internet and gaming to let our inner city youth experience the Seeds of Peace co-existence way? Can we even imagine using the technology to have young people in the Middle East or Central Asia teach our inner city youth about hope. That is the kind of reframing that we need. Lest we forget the network is designed to be fully bi-directional. If we are to take Queen's Noors insights on the value of Islam to humanity we must be very careful to not place that important point into the database under "17th century history" and relegate to an historical footnote. If we are to really leverage the network we need to be ready to take seriously the radical notion of the purpose of higher education and that is to contest our assumptions and received truths. That is our own call to be as iconoclastic as Her Majesty.

Sun's announcement that is investing in Jordan's Yarmuk university is enormously impressive. What will be even more impressive is when graduate students in Jordan can routinely use the network and application services to help social work students in Cleveland (and elsewhere) understand how using technology can address issues of poverty alleviation, creating hope, and a since of a common future.

The contours for true partnership is just beginning. Let's not miss the window of opportunity to change the course of history.

Posted by lsg8 at February 17, 2005 01:53 AM and tagged Bytes 

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