Jack Driscoll has a dream. While its geography is cyberspace and its tools digital, its heart is down home, grassroots community.

Editor-in-Residence at the MIT Media Lab since 1995 and former editor of the Boston Globe, Driscoll is leading the charge to “make the world a smaller place,” as he puts it, through community computing – arming small groups, of any age and diverse global locations, with the digital tools to publish their passions. Economics and a corporate mindset have made newspapers “too dispassionate, to the point where they have lost the feel of the community,” he says. “Community publishing has the potential to fill the void.”

Take the Silver Stringers. Six years ago, the Media Lab honed in on the Milano Senior Center in Melrose, Massachusetts to jumpstart a group of 12 seniors into the digital age. Though none had ever previously connected to the Internet and only two had owned computers, they decided they wanted to publish something ‘cutting edge,’ Driscoll recalls. The Media Lab developed easy, plug in-and-write software with a built-in editing function that enables multiple editors to review every article; “it creates a social learning fabric where everyone is in on the conversation,” says Driscoll.

The result was The Melrose Mirror, a monthly web page highlighting a potpourri of community news and personal reflections, ranging from post- 9/11 essays to the perils of potholes. With a monthly readership of 7,000 – the first online feedback came from Ireland! – the site has inspired comparable projects in Finland and Ireland, as well as at the Jack Satter Senior House in Revere and the Danvers Senior Center in Massachusetts.

The software’s easy use, coupled with the Media Lab’s mission to bring technology to developing countries, has sparked its proliferation worldwide. Translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, Hindi and Thai, the software is used in some 1,400 venues worldwide, including 1,100 high schools in Italy, 50 schools in Brazil, and numerous remote villages in Thailand, where children who had never before seen a computer have since published an online newspaper. In Texas, the textbook publisher McGraw Hill has adapted the software to teach 4th-, 5th-, and 6th-graders how to conduct research and write. In Italy, the website of the newspaper La Repubblica often features the digital wisdom of the kids’ online newspaper, La Fragola – an instance of kids “setting the agenda,” says Driscoll. “Their site is sometimes the talk of the town.”

A Forum for Kids

Setting a youthful agenda and being the talk of the town – on a global scale – is the driving force of the Junior Journal, a monthly on-line publication that connects some 220 kids from 80 countries and gives them a forum to write, edit and publish on things they care about. Peace in Kashmir, written by a Pakistani teen; defining happiness, penned by 12-year-olds in Bulgaria; corruption in Cameroon; and a mini travelogue of Baku, Azerbaijan are among the scores of pieces recently featured. “Because of the lack of adult involvement – other than my advice, and they never ask for it – you’re really hearing what the kids think and feel and see without any intermediary. I’m not sure there’s anything quite like it anywhere,” says Driscoll. Drawing together 10- to 19-year-olds, the online journal teaches kids to be digitally savvy, while sharpening their writing, editing, and thinking skills; it exemplifies par excellence the Media Lab’s educational philosophy – learning by doing.

As a dialogue on serious world issues, the Journal breaks barriers of distance and allows kids from traditionally antagonistic countries – India and Pakistan and the Middle East, for example – to share their perspectives and discover their similarities. The publication, which won top prize in Rome’s 2000 Global Junior Challenge, “demystifies things that kids have been taught erroneously in their short lives,” he says, adding that involvement promotes “self confidence and reinforces the belief they can change the world.” This was corroborated by a moral education study conducted by Pepperdine University, which analyzed all Junior Journal stories over a 10- month period to find that involvement in the online publication promotes a sense of hope.

Inspiring Hope

That hope is a byproduct of a key benefit of community computing, according to Driscoll: “giving people a voice they’ve never had – whether with kids, who have been squelched at home or at school, or with adults, whose wisdom has been bottled up.” What’s more, community computing enables people to delve into local issues the media doesn’t have the resources to explore. This is especially true given the current state of the mainstream media, which focus on institutions, government, and famous people, and less on “what’s going on in people’s everyday lives, ” says Driscoll, adding, on a personal note, that “community computing has recharged my batteries. I’ve learned an awful lot, mostly about the depth of stories that almost everyone has in their back pocket.” The point of the enterprise is not about how widely the stories are disseminated, he says, but for “people to connect with one another. My dream is to have community computer groups in every community, connecting with one another.”

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