Little Hands Teach Big Hands

Welcome to the digital playhouse.

Main story: The Future is Younger Than You Think

More: Brainstorming the Future, Cruise (Out of) Control, Who's Teaching Whom?, Workscapes of the Future

Everything's a jumble at the Digital Clubhouse Network. Its headquarters — 2,500 square feet of unstructured office space in Santa Clara, California — is a patchwork of computers and cables with Macs, PCs, superfast Internet connections, and infrared hookups. It is a "cyberlyceum" (for people to learn new technologies), an "ideation chamber" (for working with software companies to imagine future innovations), and a "hard-knocks cafe" (for beta-testing current innovations).

There's a point to this hodgepodge. The clubhouse organizes projects in which older people, often senior citizens, collaborate with younger people, usually high-school kids, to learn digital storytelling. Memories and microchips produce multimedia content and ways for different generations to swap skills and share resources.

But some patterns are tough to change. Top among them: adults tend to work while kids tend to play. Today for example, while Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is at the clubhouse giving a lecture, Brad Prober, the clubhouse's chief technology officer, is in the back room tinkering with his toys. Prober, age 17, is a junior at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose. He just finished running Produce the Producers, a class designed by the clubhouse to proliferate skills in multimedia through the medium of digital storytelling. But he looks much happier with an armful of cables and motherboards. He's linking a CPU to a monitor, that monitor to a different CPU, and the whole mess to a VCR. "Whoa, that's so bad," says Isaac Ullah, a 17-year-old with Elvis hair and Vans. Prober smiles and puts his hands behind his head.

Brad Prober is, to use John Seely Brown's phrase, bricolage personified. He doesn't learn by reading manuals. He didn't even open the manual last month when he picked up Adobe After Effects, just like he didn't touch a manual eight years ago when he got his Atari 2600 and started playing. He works by scavenging.

Warren Hegg appreciates Prober's style — even though he's the first to admit he can't reproduce it. Hegg, 50, is a former director of planning and coordination for SRI International, and the founder and principal evangelist for the Digital Clubhouse Network. "It used to be that someone older would teach someone younger," Hegg says. "How to kill a bear, which plants are safe to eat, how to navigate the streets. But suddenly, to survive today, you've got to be digitally literate. Who's living and breathing digital literacy more than any other cohort? It's not the teachers. They're struggling to keep up with the 16-year-olds."

Hegg pulls out a letter written by a 13-year-old clubhouse kid who goes by the cyberhandle Honest Ferret. It's become the organization's unofficial mission statement: "In an age of rapidly changing information technology," Hegg reads approvingly, "the system of 'big hands passing down technology to little hands' seems to be breaking down. Maybe the system of adults teaching kids new technologies should be flipped upside down."

Little hands teaching big hands. Right now little hands dissing big hands seems more apt. A quorum of teenage boys is converging around Prober. They're reviewing (harshly) some multimedia projects the adults have completed. "Transition, effect, transition, effect," one kid complains. "Why not just do a normal cross fade?" Eventually, Prober cuts the dissing — and explains the dilemma facing most adults. "It's easier for us to keep up with the latest technology," he says. "Adults have jobs. When we get home from school we just dick around with our toys."

The fact that Prober has a job — this summer, he's at the clubhouse ten hours a day, six days a week — doesn't seem to register with him or his pals. The slip is worth considering. Adults tend to see all things computer-related as work, even when they're play; kids tend to see them as play, even when they're work. It's a profoundly different mindset.

In the end, that's why kids can have such an impact on the grown-up workplace. Hegg, for all his digital activism, admits that he basically uses his computer for email. "Me," Prober says, "I spent all kinds of time this summer trying to figure out how to get the Energizer bunny to run across all the screens in the network here." When he was interning at NASA a year earlier, someone had pulled a similar prank and he wanted to see if he could do it himself. "There we had a dinosaur. I taught myself how do to the programming, because, well..." Here the chief technology officer pauses. "Net stegosaurus, you know, that was cool."

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