Local Columnists

Joe Robertson: For parents, power and peril of hacking open a brave new world

File illustration/KRT

I, um … (nervous throat clearing) …want to talk about this friend of mine.

He’s got these two boys — they’re like 14 and 12 — and he knows they’re all in on this digital frontier that’s revolutionizing education.

A little rebel action is harmless, isn’t it?

They’re enamored with Anonymous and its worldwide network of activist hacking for justice. They’re abuzz in interactive games.

He even joked with his boys, this friend tells me, saying, “We’re not going to have the FBI knocking on our door, now are we?”

We like this determination in our youth. A legitimate worldwide software-writing event for youth to work calls itself a Hackathon, for crying out loud.

Then comes that call from the middle school principal.

The 12-year-old was doing what? Trying to shut down the school’s server? Really?

So I — I mean he, that friend of minecalls on digital culture expert James Gee at Arizona State University to try to make some sense of our digital duality.

First off, Gee says, those historical divides between adolescents and their adults and institutions are trolling uncharted waters now.

Whatever problems they might have had, our parents and parents before them at least grew up in the same culture as their kids, he says.

But today’s parents are watching their kids leap off into this mysterious and exploding digital culture, Gee says, “and it scares them.”

My friend’s thinking: “And how.”

Then you take the stark inequality in the world that fuels Anonymous-like activism and mix it with the digital world’s power to make everyone creators and not just consumers.

“We’re unleashing a world of makers who are organizing outside of institutional norms,” Gee says.

And it’s mostly a wonderful, empowering thing.

Thank goodness the middle school principal shows a knack for creative punishment.

The 12-year-old sits in the office, seemingly on the verge of tears as he cradles his notebook in his lap and nods dutifully at the task assigned him — creating a digital citizenship report and presentation.

Parents need to know that this is their children’s world and they will be aiming to make their mark in it.

Who knows what wolves they’ll run with?

Gee reminds my friend — and me — that we’ll have to keep asking and asking.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.