I am not a teacher, but I used to do a lot of training - I taught museum staff how to use the database software that helped them keep track of all their stuff. Because of that experience, I now feel comfortable addressing any group not actually armed with edged weapons. Let me put it this way: you ever read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? Of course you have. How would Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler react to having her files transcribed into database entries, so that they could be searched, shuffled, and read... by strangers?
Yeah. These were people who had avoided anything that even faintly smelled of maths or science since, sometimes, freshman year of undergrad. Many used a computer for email, but plenty affected a contemptuous and disdainful attitude, and considered it unfair that now, in addition to being profoundly knowledgeable about, say, Heian period sword guards, they were expected to operate machinery.
Not unlike teaching social studies to high school students, I'm thinking.
So in my attempts to explain how a database works to people who hated the fact that they were required to sit in a room with me, I worked hard - dang hard - at finding relevant analogies. I talked a lot about vase fragments, disassembled altarpieces, and suits of armor. Sometimes this worked, sometimes my room full of resentful PhD art historians would merely glare at me, arms crossed. My only consolation at those times was that they were too illiterate to be using their training computers to play solitaire or write email while they were supposed to be listening to me.
This is, of course, not the case for anyone trying to teach a high school student anything, not nowadays and probably not ever. Nowadays, even if he or she is listening, he or she is also likely to be texting at the same time. I believe that teens have a very inflated estimation of their capacity to multi-task.
So if you're going to try to explain currency trading, market derivatives, and the effects of globalization on labor markets to teenagers, you had better have one tight and terrible relevant analogy.
In fact, you'd better have an analogy that isn't even an analogy, because a lot of teens (like the majority of defensive and frustrated museum curators) have no patience with hypotheticals.
Hence the MMORPG economies in Cory Doctorow's For the Win.
The characters in For the Win - Bombay slumrats Mala and Yasmin, Pearl River sweatshop workers Lu and Matthew, and Orange County wannabe Wei Dong (birth name: Leonard), among many many others, work in these games, in a not-so-microindustry called gold farming. They form raiding parties and armies so that they can vanquish trolls, dark elves, fanged flying fish, zombies, Sith lords, and, in one especially nightmarish game, the Jabberwock. All of which seemingly fun activity nets them points - game gold - and special items, like vorpal blades, magic armor, levitating skateboards. Non-professional players who want to jump ahead in the game can then purchase these items or game gold. With money.
Real-world value of the game currency and treasure is based (partly) on the number of players playing the game, which is of course affected by how fun the game is at any given moment. Kind of puts world currency values into a new perspective, doesn't it. No wonder Zimbabwe's dollar is in the toilet.
In Bombay and in China, where the bulk of the action takes place, this industry has been assumed into the existing factory-boss structures. Mala and her friends, Matthew and his guild - both groups work for bosses, and are exploited in the traditional ways. No workplace safety, no job security, no health benefits, no guarantee that they will be paid at all. If there is a big order, or a particularly rich source of gold has been identified, they may be locked in and made to work long hours. If orders have dropped or the market has failed, they may show up to find their workplace shuttered and dark, the wages they are owed lost forever.
So Cory Doctorow has found a world which is in almost every way the same as the world social studies teachers are always trying to teach about - a world in which the economy is demonstrably a mutually-agreed-upon hallucination, industry is gigantically liquid, and workers are as disposable as their avatars.
It beats the crap out of using the scattered elements of a 13th-century Flemish altarpiece to explain the utility of using controlled vocabulary in database records, let me just tell you.
As the kids in the book are persecuted, organize, fight back, are beaten down, and attempt to convince existing labor unions that online and real-world workers face the same challenges and that all labor markets are global, we learn a lot - an awful lot - about economics, just as we learned a lot about democracy in Little Brother, Doctorow's previous book for teens.
Little Brother is amazing. I proselytize this book. I press it into the hands of anyone over the age of 13. The passionate arguments for individual freedom are delivered within the context of a tautly paced story in which the teenaged main character outwits the grownups.
For the Win is more of a challenge, for a number of reasons. With at least three geographically disparate threads going at one time, it can be tough to keep track of who is on a picket line and who is holed up in a smoky internet cafe chugging coffee and eating dumplings. Then there's the fact that some of the tools used in the fight against the bad guys are just not accessible to the very young protagonists. Older characters have to step in to do macro-level labor organization and multinational market manipulation. I mean, it's one thing for Little Brother's Marcus to be a computing savant - it would be tough to sell a 14-year-old South Asian kid with a natural affinity for the ins and outs of currency market derivatives.
One of the most successful of Doctorow's Asian characters is Jie, a Chinese girl who broadcasts a nightly radio show through the firewalls and blocked sites of China's notoriously hyper-monitored internet. She is courageous, decisive, savvy, and committed heart and soul to the factory workers who listen to her by the million. The way Jie moves between safe houses, covering her tracks using the coolest tricks, always one step ahead, she's like Jason Bourne with comprehensible motivation. Jie is what Doctorow does best.
For the Win is also longer than Cory Doctorow's previous books. It's extra ambitious. It pulls in so much of the wild, incredible urban life (and dumplings) that the author has witnessed in the last several years writing for Boing Boing and other outlets. But I think that it's something of an overreach. It's got to be incredibly difficult for a Westerner to try to write an impoverished Asian teen, and Doctorow's writing at least four of them, from the inside out. And ever since Oddjob, it's been tough to create a brutish Asian bad guy that doesn't read as something of a cartoon. It's also - and I realize this is a given - going to be awfully hard to insert an explanation of inflation into a novel and not stop the reader in his or her tracks.
Full marks for trying, but maybe a few points off for trying too hard. If we stick with inflation, it's explained twice. And unfortunately, many of the econ lectures have to come from the older characters, although frequently the younger characters who are their audience add excellently pithy insights.
At the end of For the Win, I admit I felt like an art conservator happy to get back to piecing together Inca textiles, willing to ignore the computer on her desk until she really needed it. Now I understand arbitrage better - I really do! Also, my consciousness of exploited workers worldwide has been raised. I want the young adults I know to be exposed to these concepts. I do. I think it's important. And I know of no other even remotely accessible cultural work that even attempts to exposit this stuff. This is why I will push this book, and keep my fingers crossed that the exotic locales - online and offline - of For the Win will keep them interested through its uneven pace and sometimes-thin characters.