So, maybe you’ve heard about this traveling robot called hitchBOT? This little robot traveled all over Europe and Canada and was destroyed in Philadelphia over the past weekend. I offered to help repair or rebuild the robot with the help of our resources at The Hacktory on Sunday. By Monday the story was making international news. Stories about it in France, Italy, Canada, and Australia were linking to our website, as well as tons of US news outlets.
Yesterday I did a slew of radio interviews for local Canadian radio stations, all of which used a script of the same questions. One of the questions was, “Why do you think there’s been so much interest in this story?” I clearly don’t have one single explanation for this, but I have some thoughts.
What I have been saying is that people really love robots, which we’ve seen at The Hacktory. Every time we run our “Take Apart Table,” where participants get to take apart old electronics and building something new, there’s one or more kids who say “I’m going to build a robot!” When we’ve designed interactive projects and installations with elements similar to the hitchBOT people of all ages really love them.
In addition, I think the US news this summer has featured some harsh realities about our culture, and I think this story gives people a bit of a diversion from that. It also reinforces the old stereotype of Philly as an unfriendly, uncouth and dangerous place, or for international followers, it reinforces this stereotype about the US.
I am a big fan of Roxane Gay, and I read her piece last Sunday in the New York Times reflecting on the mourning of Cecil the Lion vs. Samuel DuBose. In it she wrote, “On Twitter, I joked, “I’m personally going to start wearing a lion costume when I leave my house so if I get shot, people will care.”” This week you could make pretty much the same joke about dressing as a robot.
I hesitate to tie the story of our hitchBOT efforts to a polarizing topic, but I have followed the news about the #blacklivesmatter movement. I think it is an important and timely intervention in our culture which is revealing issues about racial and economic disparity that we still need to work on collectively.
At The Hacktory, we purposefully chose to locate ourselves in West Philadelphia (aka University City – because some people don’t realize that is in West Philly). It’s a great neighborhood in general, but also a site of huge demographic change and disparity. Our workshop is on the edge of the Promise Zone, one of a few zones across the US defined by very high poverty and therefore will be given special attention via federal grants.
We’ve worked with schools in the neighborhood and I’ve gotten to see how they are doing what they can to provide quality education and a safe environment on shockingly meager resources. I think most people in the general public wouldn’t believe that teachers and school administrators are actually working under the kinds of conditions these amazing people are, or that there aren’t laws out there that would ensure they don’t have to. For example, you would think it might be a law to have a nurse present at every school every day. Not so, and because of that, students in Philadelphia have died while at school.
I’m writing all this to say, I personally take these matters seriously, and I know our team at The Hacktory does too. We have recruited diverse and skilled board members, and we have been pursuing grants to help us provide our after-school program for free to neighborhood students. We strive to provide our classes at a range of price points, some as low as $10, and our weekly Project Night is always free. We are also working to develop opportunities for neighborhood students to learn programming skills, which is a great path towards a high-paying career, since these skills are in extreme demand, and many employers hire programmers who are self-taught.
One of the best things about Philly in my view is the other awesome organizations that are working on building a more diverse pool of technically talented people, including Code for Philly, TechGirlz, Coded By Kids, and our local chapter of Girl Develop It.
Just wanted to put that out there.