Making Zines at Caltech
We started TechReach at Caltech two years ago to create a space for “CS + Social Good”: using tech to solve societal problems and creating opportunities for computer science students to help their surrounding world. Our mission donned a comfortable, virtuous halo. TechReach student teams, guided by alumni mentors, have conducted projects ranging from building a database for Miracle Messages, an organization that aims to end homelessness, to analyzing data for Arlington Garden, a local community garden.
But as we worked on these projects, we were confronted by questions that challenged our lofty ideals.
What does it mean to build technology for “social good”?
Who benefits from these efforts?
Who do they inadvertently harm?
Who wins and who loses?
Attempting to answer these questions, TechReach has shifted from building technical “solutions” for nonprofits to exploring themes of the human and societal impacts of technology. We turned to zines as one way to dive into these topics.
A zine is a self-published form of media with roots in both DIY communities and counter-culture; it offers space for topics ignored in mainstream conversations. For example, Bubble Sort Zines makes challenging computing concepts accessible to a wide audience. Free Radicals Series highlights technology’s impacts on marginalized communities, which are frequently overlooked in many computer science spaces.
More importantly, since zines lack organizational hierarchy or rigid structure, they enable more voices to be heard — with only paper, a pen, and maybe some scissors.
We decided to work with Amy Wibowo of Bubble Sort Zines to host a workshop about making STEM-focused zines. The signups filled rapidly. Nevertheless, on the day of the workshop, I was afraid that nobody would show up. What if, like, something came up and they had forgotten? Or they wanted an extra couple hours to work on their problem sets?
To my relief, the RSVPers kept their word. I recognized most of the participants from seeing them on campus, but I had no idea that they would be interested in making zines or sharing their knowledge in this way.
Together, we walked through the steps of making a zine, from shaping the paper into a booklet to brainstorming titles and themes. People created zines on topics ranging from material derivatives to technical interview prep to Cooley’s concept of “imagined sociability.” Having spent the morning struggling on my math homework, I decided to make mine about the Riemann series theorem, intended for a general audience without a college math background.
I found myself wishing that the workshop would never end — something I haven’t wished in a long time about a Zoom call. It felt meditative to be in this window of time and space where the only thing on my mind was the folded-up piece of paper in front of me.
Moreover, it felt a bit revolutionary to be transforming a theorem whose place seemed so firmly entrenched in a dry, unapproachable textbook, locked behind the iron gates of upper-level math, into something that could be taught with cute animal characters, sparkly gel pens, and not an epsilon or delta in sight.
The participants’ feedback shared my sentiments:
“I’ve never worked with a Raspberry Pi before, so I decided to learn more by trying to make a zine about them! Definitely not done, but I would love to make a lot more zines in the future; it’s a really cool concept and I loved the workshop.”
“Thank you for putting this together! I’d like to talk to my MechE peers and see if they would also like to make zines.”
“I really love the workshop — Amy was super helpful and clear about everything! I also really like her format where we could see her hands and her face — it was really clear and aesthetic.”
In this era of online school, I had wondered whether it was possible to build any community, let alone a niche centered on the social impacts of technology. While this zine workshop is a single point in time, it is a step toward a future in which people at Caltech understand and care about the intersections of computing and social change.
Working toward a broader vision starts at the local level. To create change in an institution, we must dare to imagine new modes of belonging and carve out the time and space to bring them into existence.
To continue these conversations, we have started the Caltech Zine Library, a repository of zines created by the Caltech community.
TechReach is always looking for more interesting and interactive workshop ideas that align with our mission to explore the social impacts of technology! Contact us if you’d like to collaborate.