"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
About an hour's drive east of Sacramento, the Great Central Valley of California meets the Sierra-Nevada mountain range. The valley's end loosely bounds the suburbs of the greater Sacramento metropolitan area. As roads and rivers climb into the mountains, towns become considerably smaller and more dispersed, trees shift from oaks to pines, the temperature quickly drops. Roughly 150 years ago, this area was one of the epicenters of the California Gold Rush. The historic use of hydraulic mining technology still marks some hills – ashen ruptures in otherwise pine-green panoramas. Locals call these barren desert-like patches "diggins." Coincidentally, it was in one of these diggins that Zelan first discovered a passion that would lead to a much newer form of technological prospecting:
"When we lived in Sacramento my parents got me a Game Boy to go out there in the diggins. 'Cause we'd come here on the weekends and go dig for gold. And I never really liked it, so I'd sit in the corner and, you know, play with Batman or whatever I was into. And so one day they got me a Game Boy for my birthday, and I sat in the corner and played games all day."
As his parents prospected for gold, Zelan began a trajectory of engagement with digital media; one that would lead him far beyond gaming as entertainment. At the time, he was four or five years old. Now he is 16. For the past 11 years his family has lived in a secluded rural town near where they used to go digging for gold. In pursuing his passion for games he has developed pragmatic strategies for making and managing money; he has acquired unique technical skills and knowledge; and, lately, he has configured these assets into his own form of prospecting, one that enacts and imagines modes of work that defy local tendencies and expectations.
This pragmatic sensibility partially stems from, and continues to mix with, his passion for video games and digital media. After getting immersed in the Game Boy he pursued newer and better consoles. As he did so he also learned how they worked. His parents didn't like buying gaming gear so he became resourceful. When his neighbors gave him their broken PlayStation 2, he took it apart, fixed it, and upgraded from his PlayStation 1 in the process.
He also started devising ways of making money to support his hobby. He has bought, or traded for, nearly all of his games, equipment and game-related media such as magazines and guides. Sometimes he would help his dad with various projects, practices of manual labor that he continues to this day. Yet he also learned that the technical knowledge he was developing could be leveraged to make money. When he was in middle school a teacher asked him to help run the audio-visual equipment. He soon transferred this knowledge into a DJ business. In several instances he has acquired broken computer equipment or game consoles, fixed them, and then sold them for a profit. As his reputation as a technologist grows, so too has his stature as a valuable resource for students, teachers and neighbors. In one case, he made 200 dollars fixing a teacher's computer. The high school has since hired him to help maintain "the empire" of over 200 computers on the school's network.
As these opportunities build, he now imagines technology-centric modes of making a living after he graduates high school:
Zelan: I wanna start a business about, you know, just like computer repair, gaming, just, you know, anything computer wise. So I can get it all started and hopefully start another business and get two businesses going and, or two chains going or whatever, and hopefully just be able to sit back when I’m older.
Zelan: Not to just sit there and do nothing. Like have the businesses going around me.
This vision of work differs considerably from the manual forms of work typically practiced by those in his immediate community. His town is one of the most remote and blue collar of those feeding his high school. Both of Zelan's parents make money by performing manual forms of work; his mom cleans houses and his dad is a local handyman, aggregating jobs that match any of his numerous self-taught skills. Zelan seems to understand that many of his peers will end up in similar careers as his parents and neighbors. In his exploration of a "nerd" identity, Zelan partially seeks to differentiate his work trajectory from that of his peers. When describing the social groups of kids from his region he doesn’t focus on differences in their consumer tastes – say, who listens to which type of music – or their day-to-day activities – say, what they like to do in their free time. Instead, he associates each group with the occupational practice he imagines them entering after high school:
Zelan: But the jocks, they're more into like construction. And my group's into the computers, and the computer jobs where you have to do little to nothing to make your money. Everybody else is into hard labor and mechanics. That’s what the metal heads are in--
Christo: Oh really--
Zelan: They're the mechanics. And, you know, the computer nerds, I think they've got the best side of it. 'Cause computers are spreading, if you can see, they're everywhere in this room. You know, everybody's houses are turning into that, and they're just everywhere. And they're gonna be here. Before long houses are gonna be computers.
For Zelan, being a "nerd" is a purposely unconventional path, one deeply entangled with practical economic concerns. In embracing a nerd identity, he imagines an alternative life of work; one that flanks the expectation of a career in manual labor; one that may allow him to eventually "sit back."
It is a strategy in which digital technologies are seen to hold the prospect of social mobility. By entwining technologies into this entrepreneurial narrative, Zelan echoes the sentiment of his parents as well as those who flocked to his region of California nearly 150 years before. With them, he sees technology as affording opportunities for personal betterment, paths that may bypass the gridlock of class mobility, strategies that creatively prospect the rural landscape.