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Two Accidental Apprenticeships

There was a window of time in the 1980s when electronic components were still large enough to see but getting too small for adults to handle easily. My parents used to have an electronics repair shop. They did a lot of specialized work but their bread and butter was the regular maintenance that video equipment used to require [0]. They looked at their children and nieces and nephews, precocious whelps with so much time on their hands. And my, weren't those hands so small and nimble...

So they taught us how to use screwdrivers and soldering irons and our brains. We harvested chips from dead boards, sorted parts, read manuals, did mechanical work, testing, diagnosis, all the way up to full repair. Near the end of that era us "kids" were handling all of the games business.

My favorite part of those manuals was the hastily-translated Japanese: "Don't try to dissasembly. It just for reference. No one other than a qualified Sony technician repair or dissasembly this unit", or "This operation will take dozens of minutes".

By the age of ten we'd soaked up not just technical skills, not just how to handle very expensive stuff we didn't own, but how to handle problems we'd never seen before. We learned to debug circuits before we learned algebra. It's astonishing what children can do if you don't tell them it's too hard.

In my teens I snagged a job at a print advertising startup. This was at a time when "cut and paste" still meant "scissors and glue". They'd developed some automated desktop publishing technology that was completely revolutionary (and was about to be disrupted itself by the internet, which is why you've never heard of it). There were still some manual parts to the process so they hired high-schoolers through vocational-technical programs, paid us a wage, and taught us everything from library management to programming to typography. A huge fraction of the skills I learned in the second decade of my life are still relevant in the fourth.

It's not just education. Games teach skills efficiently because they have a possibility of failure. Mario dies and you have to start over. I still wince at the memory of messing up a print job, costing the company $3,000 and damaging our relationship with the customer. I also remember the dirty looks my cousin gave me while he repaired a motherboard I'd cracked when tightening a screw too hard. Failure teaches vivid lessons.

My two lucky breaks were just that: transitional moments when semi-skilled labor rubbed up against new technology. But I wonder if it's possible to create that kind of apprenticeship on purpose. In my work there's nothing to *see* anymore. There's nothing that needs an apprentice to help with [1]. My pipe-dream is to one day create a business that can legitimately soak up large amounts of young dumb kids and teach them something useful.

What would it look like? Volunteer work? A service business? Folding shirts is a down elevator. How can you teach technical skills and business skills while making money? If repair is no longer economic, what about some kind of bespoke manufacturing? If manufacturing is being replaced by printing, what about bespoke design?

How do you design a skills ladder? How do you build a guild? Where is the next transition that might boost a few lucky kids into the future?


[0] Old VCRs are about as steampunk as they come. The model I remember best was the 1985 RCA top-loader. That beast weighed 20 pounds and contained a dozen rubber belts, pulleys, rollers, sliders, and greased gears. Tapes had to wind both forward and backward at various speeds; it required a gearing and timing system comparable to a car. If this sounds unlikely I assure you it was unlikely even then. But it was all there was.

[1] Interns are different, and not what I'm talking about. A 20-year-old halfway through Stanford is already way, way up the skills ladder compared to a 14-year-old who maybe knows how to solder.