Exploring Makerspaces, Mediation & Transformative Literacies in Berlin & Quebec

Communication is nowadays taking place through interactive, mobile and online platforms that enable the speedy distributed production and circulation of multimedia designs across different institutional, geographical and community spaces. In this frame, as elucidated in the collective volume “Global Youth in Digital Trajectories“, the boundaries between life online and life offline are increasingly blurred while the children’s bodies cannot be perceived independently of its connections to multiple devices, interfaces and networks.

Departing from the position that:
• knowledge, cognition as well as affects are distributed, situated and embodied
• certain interfaces and web-designs privilege particular forms of communication and knowledge while they constrain others

I have been involved in a variety of activities at FabLab Berlin as part of a broader project involving seven EU countries and the US (cf. http://makeyproject.eu) and explored the development of activist and transformative literacies within the rising ‘maker’ culture. A conceptual framework for understanding and supporting children’s engagement in co-constructing and transforming the socio-technical worlds, which they inhabit, was developed bringing together (and in certain cases apart):
• Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach to human development emphasising his passionate commitment to transformation and equality
• Post-human scholarship exploring the messy and dispersed interrelations between humans and technologies.

At the same time of conceiving of child development as a cultural-historical phenomenon, Vygotsky also posed the question as to how human history can lead to a new type of society and a new type of human being. Concepts such as mediation, appropriation, and active subjectivity, have been central in this undertaking. The notion of active subjectivity implies that children as well as scientists or teachers act according to their own intentions and motivations, actively participating in defining how signs and tools are used and meanings are appropriated. Active subjectivity can thus transform a given social situation so that new meanings and new practices emerge. Children can on the longer run create new meanings and new ways of VR design, making or hacking in this frame or participate in such creative processes in collaboration with others, which also explains how civilisations develop. In Russian the term “mediating activity” emphasises exactly the generation of novelty in every developmental process (as opposed to the term “mediated activity”).

The notion mediation offers a fairly fertile ground to begin analysing children’s activities in FabLabs. Yet, in its Vygotskian version, it somehow discloses exactly what it is supposed to reveal: the involvement of mediating tools and devices in on-going action, which is not only “human” but distributed in time and space and embodied in networks of technical and material artefacts (e.g. 3D printers, VR headsets, software, cables, fabrics, sensors).

This is the most crucial aspect: an actor-network e.g. of a child + software + keyboard/ mouse pad + laptop + 3D printer (as in the picture above) does not just do more or better of what this child would anyway do, it does different things and transforms the activity at stake in ways that neither the children (or the teachers/ facilitators) nor the software programme (and its developers) would have necessarily envisaged in advance. In a post-humanist perspective, the contingency and unpredictability of this dynamic ordering of humans and Other-than-humans cannot be reduced to any single part – let alone to the agency or intentions of a single human agent. A “program of action” emerges symmetrically in this context: it refers as much to the intentions of human beings as to the functions of artefacts, without invoking a distinction between humans and non-humans on the level at which the terms are applied. The original program of action is thus “translated” or “transformed” in the technical mediation into a new one. Both the machines and the person change in the course of mediated action: neither has an “essence”; they have existence, they exist, and they are transformed in their relation to one another.

If this sounds interesting to you, a few readings for further reference in this context are suggested below – I can also send you a yet unpublished chapter if you would contact me per email: michaliskonto@googlemail.com.

I am soon giving a presentation on this topic in the Congress of the International Society for Culturalhistorical Activity Research in Quebec: https://www.iscar.org/next-iscar-congress-2017/ which you may further follow through my twitter: @m_kontopodis

More information on FabLab Berlin: https://fablab.berlin/en/ 

Suggested readings:

Kontopodis, M., Wulf, C., & Fichtner, B. (Eds.). (2011). Children, development and education: Cultural, historical, anthropological perspectives. Dordrecht, London, New Delhi and New York: Springer.

Kontopodis, Michalis (2012). How Things Matter in Everyday Lives of Preschool Age Children: Material-Semiotic Investigations in Psychology and EducationJournal für Psychologie, 20(2), 1-14. Open access also here: http://www.journal-fuer-psychologie.de/index.php/jfp/article/view/116

Kontopodis, M.; Varvantakis, C. & Wulf, C. (Eds) (2017). Global Youth in Digital Trajectories. London: Routledge.

Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation: Philosophy, sociology, genealogy. Common Knowledge, 3(2), 29–64.

Stetsenko, A. (2016). The transformative mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to development and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

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