Our Legacy as Modern Media

This is not a transcript—far from it. What we have here are notes or guidelines for a speech I presented to the 2011 National Society of Black Engineers/Los Ingenieros/MESA banquet for my alma mater UCSB. The theme for the year: “Creating a Legacy for Future Generations.” So my approach to the speech was very simple—and this is all explained therein. The slides for this presentation are available.

Extend appreciation to the banquet co-chairs, Laila A. Nur and Katherine Santizo—and Aisha Browne-Iwuanyanwu.

I am certain that I would not be here speaking to you were it not for Aisha being comfortable enough to contact me through Facebook—and this leads directly to the subject of my talk, our legacy as modern media.

Since 1998 I’ve been building, writing, curating and promoting for a web site called the kinté space, kintespace.com. It’s not just a poetry web site. It’s a web site to help people—especially young people—write poetry by nurturing poetic vision. Poetry is not just personal and emotional—it is also driven by information—any kind of information—political information, historical information—and, yes, even technical and scientific information.

Since about 2007, kintespace.com has been hovering around 30,000 visitors a month and much of this traffic comes from search engines like Google and from social networks like Facebook. So: in 2011 Aisha finds this kintespace.com article that I published in 2007 called “Blacks in the Sciences at UCSB”—this publication is repurposed from the original 1991 Daily Nexus article that I wrote before many of you were born—literally it turns out that I was writing for future generations and I really had no idea at the time that such communication would be so interactive and instantaneous.

In the article, “Blacks in the Sciences at UCSB,” much of my work was passing along the awareness of others. It was my 20-something-year-old way to fight against invisibility—which has turned out to be a lifelong struggle that transcends 19th-century European concepts of “race.” It was also my way to surround myself with a “community” of peers—even though I spent five years as a physics major in complete cultural isolation.

So, today, with respect to our attendance at this auspicious occasion, I would like to pass along the awareness of others—again: others doing innovative, sustainable things with their technical education—doing far more than having a degree in physics, writing code for a few IT departments in California and the Pacific Northwest and maintaining a poetry web site.

Kwabena Boahen, PhD

On Kwabena Boahen, his Stanford home page, he introduces himself:

Being a scientist at heart, I want to understand how cognition arises from neuronal properties. Being an engineer by training, I am using silicon integrated circuits to emulate the way neurons compute, linking the seemingly disparate fields of electronics and computer science with neurobiology and medicine.

During his TED Talk that took place in 2007 in Arusha, Tanzania, some very key points were made about contemporary computing:

  • The state of the art machines consume too much energy compared to the human brain.
  • The state of the art machines still process delicate, high-fidelity bits through processing bottlenecks, depending heavily on cultural concepts of “perfection” and central control. The human brain, in contrast, depends on loosely-coupled, distributed processing with redundant sets of bits.

One climatic point of his presentation was when he invoked a quote from Brian Eno:

There is not enough Africa in computers.

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For any educated student of history, it should not be surprising that Dr. Boahen was challenged directly for making such a ‘sacrilegious’ statement. But he is not alone: his critical eye on the state of computing and inputing is preceded by “the world’s most influential designers,” Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research. Bill Buxton and Kwabena Boahen both agree that the current state of the art of computing is simply retarded—in the literal meaning of this term. “We” have come not very far in such a large time. In his 2010 talk on the Natural User Interface, Bill Buxton damn near begs his audience to not be impressed with the technology in the iPhone and similar mobile devices. He shows the audience a digital watch from the 1970s with a touch interface to illustrate how little has been accomplished in decades. Certainly current budget cuts looming over our educational institutions are not going to help us overcome our retardation.

Dr. Peter Chen

At about minute 46 and seven seconds, in a 2007 video recorded on the Microsoft campus, Dr. Peter Chen says the words “Egyptian hieroglyphs” while presenting the subject of the Entity Relationship Model (ER model). Dr. Chen credits Chinese language constructs and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for inspiring his ER model research. As a direct result of his research (which began in the late 1970s), the field of Computer Aided Software Engineering (CASE) was significantly and vitally infused with ideas that can produce actual products. According to Microsoft,

[Professor] Chen has made significant impact on the CASE industry by his research work and by his lecturing around the world on structured system development methodologies. Most of the major CASE tools including Computer Associates’ ERWIN, Oracle’s Designer/2000, and Sybase’s PowerDesigner (and even a general drawing tool like Microsoft’s VISIO) are influenced by the ER model.

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IBM’s Application Development Cycle (AD/Cycle) framework and DB2 repository (RM/MVS) were also based on the ER model. Most businesses in the world run on database systems—and these systems operate on theories based on ancient abstractions. Any serious study of the history of abstraction will lead you to ancient wisdom-based cultures. To use abstraction not knowing where it really comes from is an error to avoid.

Dr. Chen was not the first modern scientist to openly and successfully embrace the ancients—especially the ancient Egyptians. The Senegalese physicist, Cheikh Anta Diop leads the way in such a move. In the same manner that a fine European-centered education required knowledge of ancient, traditional languages like Latin and Greek, the suggestion here is to explore the ancient Chinese languages and, like Diop, the ancient Egyptian.

Vandana Shiva

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Before the field was called “physics” it was “natural philosophy”—reminding us of the everlasting presence of nature. Within this context it makes perfect sense that Vandana Shiva would obtain masters in physics and then receive a doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario—and then she would become a farmer.

In her speech to the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), she introduces some findings that might be surprising, including a report that states that farming that lacks biodiversity produces less food than organic diverse plots. What is more is assertion that what mega-farms produce is not really food but a “non-food.”

In 2004, Vandana Shiva spoke at UCSB. Her talk was entitled “Planting Seeds for Change.” In this Mother’s Day talk she demonstrated that there is an active, living scientific practice hidden in traditional indigenous ceremony—many of the participants in such ceremony are not even aware of this. She described an explicit woman’s role—a mother’s role—as a saver of seed—the seed of the human male, the seed of culture, and practically the seed of edible food. Most urban people around the world may assume that a seed saving ceremony is just tree-hugging trivia. But Vandana Shiva regretfully reports that massive, international corporations like Monsanto have taken steps to legally punish such cultural folk by placing copyright on their seeds—yes, copyright on seeds. What we have here is 21st–century sexism and incorporated patriarchy—a story that should inspire any human being to revisit what is actually barbaric and meditate on the abstraction of violence.

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Miguel de Icaza, Vice President of Developer Platform, Novell

For those of us who use a Linux-based operating system—especially a Linux desktop—then we might have heard of this thing called GNOME, a desktop environment / graphical user interface that runs on top of a computer operating system, that was released in 1999. When you know GNOME then you might know of its so-called “rival,” KDE. KDE is essentially German software. GNOME is foundationally Mexican software. Were I to tell some young, urban Linux nerd born after 1999, that German and Mexican software solutions competed on an equal footing for over a decade on an international stage, I am certain that she would find my words suspicious and strange at best or a joke at worst.

Now, to make matters “worse” were I to tell this urban kid that an employee from Microsoft, the Distinguished Engineer Don Box, actually serenaded Miguel de Icaza with an acoustic guitar, trying to woo him into employment with Microsoft, I would really be accused of joking. But this actually happened, Don Box is on record expressing his admiration for Miguel—and Miguel de Icaza still does not work for Microsoft—even after all the great music. He left the GNOME project and in the year 2004 released an open source subset of .NET called Mono. In “Mono: State of the Union,” Miguel presents at the 2011 MIX conference in Las Vegas. He summarizes his talk with these words:

Come learn how Mono can help every one of your current projects: from our C# compiler as a service to running your .NET code on iPhone, Android and Mac. All demos will feature our amazing MonoDevelop cross platform IDE. Come to be energized and fall in love with .NET all over again. This is your second honeymoon. Do not miss it.

Mathias Craig, Founder of Blue Energy Group

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One of the disadvantages of designing mechanical components to take advantage of solid state devices is that economic and political dependencies are introduced to the consumer of that technology. My father, Elmer Douglas Wilhite, an aircraft mechanic for Delta Airlines, would frequently complain about automobiles built during and after the late 1970s that were hard to repair by grassroots mechanics because many of the components depend on solid state devices—computer chips that could not be repaired in the field. They had to be replaced by the manufacturer—a manufacturer often with a political and economic agenda that effectively demands that customers be indefinitely dependent on the manufacturer’s products. What is evil here is when public representatives/affiliates of the manufacturer spread a political message with slogans about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” while making a livelihood selling products that effectively do the opposite.

My father would be proud of this young MIT engineer, Mathias Craig, Founder of Blue Energy Group. His non-profit organization builds renewable energy products that are designed for self-sufficiency and true independence. In addition to solar cells, their premier product is a Hugh Piggott wind turbine, connected to a set of deep-cycle batteries. Much of their work began in Nicaragua on the Caribbean coast in 2004, a region of the world made familiar to him due to the research work of his linguist mother. We are all familiar with the idea of grass-roots folk farming the land. The engineering efforts of Blue Energy Group make it possible for every-day folks to farm the wind.

Many of us are familiar with the concept of Open Source software—but the idea of Open Source hardware is truly revolutionary and is truly a productive response to the injustices in the world that have nothing to do with out-of-date, Hollywood portrayals of protest and activism.

There is a 2007 Google Tech Talk that introduced me to Blue Energy Group but since Google Video has been absorbed into YouTube the only direct link to this talk is on the French version of Google Video.


All of the names mentioned today came to my attention through non-traditional media. As these powerful personalities bring a message of massive change within face-to-face social relations, they are also directly and indirectly leaving a record of their efforts in the modern world of social media—digital media. Curating, preserving, remixing and sharing these media can inspire and influence now and future generations to come.