No device can bring happiness – it’s already inside us! (Now you just need to find it.)

After the festive period, MONTAG is shaking off its collective hangover, peering into the future and wondering: after a #problematic 2018, what would an ideal 2019 be like? We’re going to spend a couple of weeks looking at what 2019 might bring.

Deborah Rodrigues – aka Tartaruga Feliz – is an awesome artist and technologist, who gleefully explores the space where art and technology combine to create happiness, wonder and learning. MONTAG’s generous benefactor Grover has sponsored some of her work, including an AR exhibition that was as technically innovative and fascinating as it was downright cute.

We were particularly interested in the Glück Workshops (for non-German-speakers: literally, “Happiness Workshops”) that she runs, using robot-building, drawing, art, and tech (and more) to spark inner creativity. Using tech to spread happiness and learning – rather than using tech to erode it, as seemed prevalent in 2018 – sounded like a particularly positive way to begin a new year. Because, hey: children are our future.

So MONTAG chatted to Deborah about: her approach to tech, art, learning and joy, on teaching children about empowerment and self-responsibility with (or without) technology, and whether we are deluded in believing that a piece of technology can bring us happiness (SPOILER: yes, we’re deluded.)

MONTAG: Hey Deborah! You combine artistic creativity with technology to bring happiness to children – how does this work and what do they love about creating with tech?

My aim with Glück Workshops is to empower children through creative development. And to do that, I use arts and technology, which I explore with my practice as an artist.

I wouldn’t say that is the technology or the arts itself that brings happiness to children. What brings happiness is the empowerment. It’s the experience of having space and freedom to create without being afraid to be judged or compared to other children, as opposed to the education system that most children have every day.

I also work with Congolese children that live in the middle of the rainforest, and there’s no technology involved; and the results are the same: happiness as an outcome from being in touch with an aspect of themselves that has almost no outlet in our current educational structure (we actually lose that ability in school).

Children are curious beings (we all are) – so when I show them a little robot that draws and tell them that in a matter of an hour they can create their own, it itches their curiosity. “What is this motor for, or this battery? How am I going to make this work?”

That’s what they love about creating with tech – it shows them that is not magic even tough a lot of people think it is!

MONTAG: These children are next-gen Tech Natives, having grown up with iPhones and constant connectivity. When you encourage them to become creators, not consumers, what do you find most surprising about how they connect with technology?

Children are also still experimenting with technology – and because they were born in a world dominated by it, I feel that they have an instinctive relationship to it. And that is always surprising to see as well, because it’s expressed in unique ways.

The only thing I encourage children (and adults!) to become is themselves: to not get lost in the outside world so much – meaning to not pay so much attention on what other people are doing or not doing with their iPhones, or how the other children are building their crafts.

Instead I encourage them to pay attention on what they’re feeling when they’re building a robot, or writing a song, or making a mask to tell a story. Of course, for me it’s always surprising with each child that I manage to nudge in this direction, because human beings are unique creatures.

We are all different, and we all are good at very different things. I give the exact same materials for creating each of my ideas, and the results always come different for each child.

MONTAG: There has been a lot written recently about the negative impact of technology on children. (Some senior tech people in Silicon Valley don’t allow their children to use screens, for instance.) How can we approach technology differently to achieve happiness without causing unwanted negative effects?

How can we approach technology differently? There has to be a balance. You should be aware of what you’re doing online and why you’re doing it at all times. You owe it to yourself to not be in “automatic mode”. If you try and do that for a while you’ll find that the unhappiness (if there is any) is coming from a much deeper place than your screen.

Most people that get addicted to social media or news or dating apps (or anything really) are people that are using these technologies as a means to escape their realities. I don’t think being sad is a bad thing. Sadness is a natural human emotion and it only becomes “bad” when you’re so out of touch with yourself that you don’t know why you feel sad, and then you go to social media for relief. It’s downhill from there!

I don’t look at this problem from a technology perspective, but from poor human interaction as a result of disconnection with ourselves. For me, that’s the real problem.

If you’ve been crushed to behave a certain way during all of your development years (as the huge majority of children in schools are at this very moment), chances are you’ll be lost in social media. You don’t know who you are, you’re disconnected from yourself and you think that your profile will help you with that! Social media is just a reflection of the state of human mind today (mine is literally filled with cats, so what does that say about me? :D).

A parent that uses an iPad to distract their children so they can have a moment of rest is more responsible for the child’s unhappiness than any technology could ever do. I’m not saying don’t let your children play with an iPad, what I’m saying is: be aware of when and how and for how long you’re doing this.

Play with your children using technology as well! I found in many of my workshops that when parents decide to join their children to build a robot together, they bound in a very beautiful and deep way. They bound in creativity!

MONTAG: When we think of “tech”, we often think of screens or phones – but while these devices don’t automatically bring us long-term happiness, they do have the potential to so. As Augmented/Virtual Reality starts to become more normal, what considerations around happiness should we keep in mind when we are building AR/VR technology for children in the future?

I believe no device can bring us happiness. What they can do is to bring out the happiness (and unhappiness) that is already inside us. AR and VR are incredible tools, as they give us infinite possibilities to work with our imagination, to create worlds and to enhance and help us navigate the one we are standing in.

But don’t seek happiness through technology or through anything exterior. From my personal experience, I can guarantee this: the more you dive inside of you, and the more you spend time doing what makes you remember who you are, the more you’ll get in touch with your own happiness. After all, we are incredibly complex beings, and happiness means very different things for each of us. No technology in the world can destroy or compensate for that. It can only enhance whatever is already happening inside you!

What I’m living for is to help children be more aware of themselves through curiosity and creativity, so they can be adults that are free from these narratives of good and bad, and whose fault is it. I believe that’s where real and authentic happiness lives! : )

MONTAG offers huge thanks to Deborah Rodrigues for her extremely thoughtful and insightful answers, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

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