🔮 On meaning and open futures.

TL; DR – Doing good with tech, means putting it out into the world as a possibility. For people to take up, adapt, reject. This is the open, free and ambiguous world of French philosopher Simone de Beauviour, which I try to embody when building and deploying tech.

Simone de Beauvoir starts by making two pretty simple points about humans:

1/ We’re always interpreting “things” into “meaning”. So aspects of life (events, objects, activities) meet with our ideas, values, and thoughts, and become something else. Interpretation gives us our compass, and our map as we navigate the world.

2/ We interpret, shaped by how others have interpreted things before us. We don’t do it in a vacuum.

From these points flows a way of thinking that’s changed how I see the world. They come (abridged) from one of my favourite ever works of philosophy: the Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir

We’re born into a world of ever-changing meanings.

We take some meanings up by default, following our parents, friends, communities, and culture. As we get older, we might invest actively in meanings beyond those immediate horizons. Eventually, we contribute our own interpretations of things into the world, for others to take up: our children, friends, communities and so on.

For de Beauvoir, doing all this is what it means to exist. We are alive, and then we partake in this dance of meaning making and taking.

Bandarban (pronounced: bun-dur-bun) is a district in South-Eastern Bangladesh. It’s vibrant, with some of the most stunning landscapes in the country.

It’s also a marginalised place, in many, intersecting ways. Marginalised by income, with most people reliant on subsistence farming. Marginalised by ethnicity: data is hard to come by, but around 40% of the population is indigenous and ethnic minority. One consequence: literacy rates hover at the 30-40% mark as many don’t read or write Bengali. Marginalised by geography: Bandarban is remote and its population is spread out, which means minimal access to transport, power, and connectivity.

Right now, I’m part of an amazing team¹ working in Bandarban to test how technologies can provide greater access to education. These basic technologies include feature phones, smartphones, projectors, computers, and tablets. We’re exploring whether children can access education content through devices like these, in or out of school.

Let’s take one of these technologies.

What does the phone ‘mean’ in Bandarban?

Different things to different people, we’ve learnt. To teachers, they’re a way for girls to get in touch with boys without their parents finding out. Phones mean danger and disruption. To children, they’re a gateway to accessing a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Phones means fun and opportunity. For some parents, they’re a way to stay in touch with their grown-up children working in the city. Phones mean connection and closeness.

Within this web of meaning, we were offering up another: the phone as education.

This is de Beauvoir’s world of making and taking meaning.

There’s two other important things about it:

It’s endlessly reciprocal. Meaning is offered up into the world, taken up, adapted, debated, rejected. This dynamic ties us together as humans in a never ending, reciprocal back and forth.

It’s endlessly emergent. There’s no “final” or “right” meaning. Nobody gets to be God. Nobody gets to reveal the meaning of the world fully, because there’s no such thing. There’s meanings, plural.

This is what de Beauvoir means by the ethics of ambiguity. An ambiguous world means no closure or unification; only constant emergence and discourse.

And for de Beauvoir, this world embodies freedom. You are free to take up, debate, offer and adapt meaning as you like. And so is everyone else.

And to make the most of this freedom – to do ‘good’ in this ambiguous world – is to fill the world with possibilities and significance. To create and offer up meaning, but not force it on people or decree it as an absolute truth.

And it’s to build the conditions – good health, good education, social justice, infrastructure and so on – so that everyone else can do the same.

I try to take this as a first principle across all my work in tech. Here’s some ways how.

Building adaptive products.

In Bandarban, we’re testing a range of different hypotheses for what might work. If the child’s parents have a feature phone they can borrow, would bite-size content by text message work? Or an SD card they can pick up at school or the local market, packed with text-based content? What about providing tablets to schools, that teachers can use as a teaching aide? Or projectors? Or should we provide tablets directly to students for one week every month?

We don’t have an absolute view of what our solution should be. And we’re not wedded to a “right” answer. Borrowing from the agile methods, we’re working in short batches to test an idea, measure what’s working (or not), and update our plans. Keeping our eyes open to all the different things that have to be true for tech to work. People using it. Communities accepting it. The tech being workable. And maintainable. And affordable. Limiting the unintended consequences. And so on.

Doing good with tech means responding to feedback loops like these. It means offering solutions as possibilities, not absolutes.

It means acknowledging an open and ambiguous future.

Being non-intrusive and non-disruptive.

The meaning a teacher in Bandarban gives to a phone (danger, disruption) has made us think twice about using it as an educational tool. For us to invest in providing more phones, and loading them with educational content so children spend more time on them, would be disruptive and intrusive. Even if we think it’s ‘good’.

But what about the computer, or a projector? They might have a different, less complex meaning. One more straightforwardly associated with ‘work’. Meaning we can work with, that doesn’t rub up against those people already hold.

Alternatively, can we offer up a different meaning for the phone? One that evolves how teachers think about it, gently?

We’re exploring ways of doing this that places teachers at the heart. Things like setting up WhatsApp groups and opt-in sessions for teachers to share stories of children learning using phones. Offering up a new idea without intrusion, and through voices and mechanisms already present.

In other words, taking our place in the reciprocal dynamic of meanings. And not acting like we’re above it.

Doing work in self-organising teams.

Self-organising teams come together around jobs to do, with no higher power telling them to do so. When someone senses an opportunity or issue, they act. Decision making is distributed; power is abundant (not a scarce commodity to fight over); information is open.

I’ve tried to embed the self-organising principle into my role as Venturing Practice Lead at Brink. Within the team, anyone can spot an opportunity, mobilise people around it, and get to work. And anyone can propose a new or improved way of working, codify it, and share it with others to take it up.

We’re organised in free, reciprocal relationships that add us up to way more than the sum of our parts. There’s no “best practice” or “right way to do things around here”. No absolutes. There are good, proven ways of doing things to learn from. There’s no one person assigning tasks to everyone else. There is a structure that surfaces and prioritises them.

And above all, there’s debate, emergence, and (very healthy) ambiguity.

And in Bandarban, we’re also trying to avoid silos. In any “international development” project, the ‘funder’, ‘implementer’, and ‘evaluator’ can become entrenched labels. Labels which create a hierarchy of ‘they who do’, ‘they who decide’, and ‘they who judge’. Labels which shut off ideas and interpretations by siloing people into very specific functions. Most dangerously, they shut off ideas from people closest to Bandarban and its teachers, parents, and children.

Working with tech gives you the chance to shape people’s lives.

Team building tech products can close off possibilities for iteration. They can come in with a solution that obviously makes things better, disrupting with dogma. And they can work in ways that concentrate decision making and “how things work around here” in the hands of a few.

Or they can recognise what de Beauvoir articulated so beautifully. That the future is emergent. It’s reciprocal. It’s ambiguous.

And above all, it’s open.

¹ This teams includes UNICEF’s Bangladesh Office. Their bold ambition to harness tech to serve the most marginalised started this work. It also includes Agami, a non-profit Foundation dedicated to education in Bangladesh. Lastly, it includes my amazing colleagues Shakil, Trishia, Rabia, and others in the EdTech Hub.

🎬 Thanks to Shakil Ahmed for looking at drafts of this.

🤔 Got thoughts? Don’t keep them to yourself. Email me on asad@asadrahman.io. Let’s figure this out together.

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Banner depicts the landscape of Bandarban. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.