Friday, April 20, 2007

drupal, engagement, mailing lists, email

I lived, worked and studied in Costa Rica from 1984 to 1989. Ostensibly, I was there to study Mathematics at the University, and indeed I graduated with an MSc. in Mathematics supervised by Ricardo Estrada (check that page, he even advertises me as one of his past students). And yes, I do have a nine page thesis that I wrote and defended in Spanish somewhere in my files, on a proof and extension of one of Ramanujan's theories.

But mathematics is a pretty lonely endeavour, and what drew me back to Central America (after the first visit, which was more of an accident), was the life and politics. The time I lived there was extremely interesting (for me as an outsider, though also painful and tragic for it's inhabitants) because of the various wars that were largely fuelled by US regional hegemonic interests (of the usual corporate suspects and individuals) and neglect (of the politicians and public) - the Contra war in Nicaragua, the full-scale guerrilla wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the low-intensity type conflicts everywhere else. My engagement was through the Friends Peace Centre, which was started and sponsored by Quakers, with whom I still nominally identify. In fact, if you visit that site, you can see there's an associated 'Ridgway House', which I helped renovate. I've got a picture somewhere of me and the Costa Rican I worked with (who actually knew what he was doing), I'll have to add it to this post.

But the original point of this post is that organizations have existed to help educate, publicize and mobilize around important issues for a long time, and (though it's easy to forget) well before computers, the Internet and the world wide web were even imagined. And I believe that technology is at its best when it enables us to do better the good things we're already doing. Activities that are created as result of technology (e.g., web development, system administration) are not inherently valuable, however fun they sometimes are, except to the degree that they provide tools for activities that provide value that exists outside their own constructed reality.

So, when thinking about Drupal, mailing lists and engaging constituencies as I am now doing with my civicrm.ca project, pbi canada, PS Kensington, the telecentre directory, ah, hmm, I guess with pretty much all my web development projects, ... it's essential to start by remembering the real purpose of all this, and ask the question - "why?" and "what are we trying to achieve". I remember that starting about 10 years ago there was a whole body of discussion adopted from the commericial world about "eyeballs" and "stickyness" (laughable in retrospect) which focussed on technology and resulted in giving the internet a bad name as a resource for social change.

Fortunately, things have settled down a lot, and web technologies no longer have to be such a waste of time (they still can be, of course). And that comes down to my plug - I've just started a Drupal project called OG2MLM, which, despite it's obscure name, has some good potential. I should start by crediting the good folks at openconcept.ca (Steve and Martin were the main developers), who have brought the project this far, and Mike Gifford who I originally met through activism at PERC and so who comes to this work with a solid perspective beyond the technology.

The goal of the project is to glue together a standard mailing list engine called SYMPA, and Drupal's Organic Groups. The reason this matters is because it enables people to do what they've now been doing for a while (mailing list discussions) and to use that to enhance the existing content (both private and/or public) to enhance the content on the web.

Okay, back to work...