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Playing the Future

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A provocative look at how kids’ culture can give us the tools for survival in the increasingly complex 21st century.

Do “The Simpsons” represent a leap forward in media consciousness? Do Sega video games and channel-surfing offer new strategies for coping in a world fraught with unpredictability? Can raves, snowboarding, or online chatting teach us something about adapting to cultural change? Douglas Rushkoff, “one of the great thinkers and writers of our time” (Timothy Leary) says yes, yes, and yes.

The San Francisco Chronicle writes, “An exuberant progressive, [Rushkoff] contends that kids today, who were weaned on Macintosh and MTV, have developed adaptive strategies to live in a mediasphere in which CNN seems less real than Pulp Fiction….Rushkoff gently nudges us to loosen up and celebrate the pace of change in which our kids have learned to thrive…it’s hard to argue with his contention that a hearty dose of the Net would give us a fighting chance of learning about the future that our children already know.”

New Introduction to the Paperback Edition

The Children of Chaos

“They keep changing the rules–how we’re supposed to behave in each situation. They keep changing it. It’s just like the world: everything keeps changing constantly.”
–U.S. soldier in Haiti police operation, October 1994

Looks like this is the end.

Global warming, racial tension, fundamentalist outbursts, nuclear arsenals, bacterial mutation, Third World rage, urban decay, moral collapse, religious zealotry, political corruption, drug addiction, bureaucratic ineptitude, ecological oversimplification, corporate insensitivity, crashing world markets, paranoid militias, AIDS, resource depletion, hopeless youth, and many, many other indicators of societal health all suggest crisis.

Is it so naïve or even childish to suggest that these may not be signs of doom at all, but only look that way? Couldn’t our inability to see our way out of what feels like such a mess be more a problem of perception than of design? And if we are now ready — or simply desperate enough — to adopt a worldview based on something other than decline, decay, and death might we have no choice but to adopt the open-mindedness of youth?

Those of us intent on securing an adaptive strategy for the coming millennium need look no further than our own children for reassuring answers to the many uncertainties associated with the collapse of the culture we have grown to know and love. Our kids are undoubtedly younger and less experienced than us, but they are also less in danger of becoming obsolete. They are the latest model of human being, and come equipped with many new features. Looking at the world of children is not looking backwards at our own past — it’s looking ahead. They are our evolutionary future.

Consider any family of immigrants to America. Who learns the language first? Who adopts the aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual values of their new host nation? The children, of course. Psychologists have concluded that a person’s ability to incorporate new language systems — to adapt — is greatest until about the onset of puberty, when it drops off dramatically. As a result, adults adapt more slowly and less completely than kids do. Were any of us immigrants to a new territory, we would be watching our children for cues on how to speak, what to wear, when to laugh, even how to perceive the actions of others.

Well, welcome to the twenty-first century. We are all immigrants to a new territory. Our world is changing so rapidly that we can hardly track the differences, much less master them. Whether it’s caller ID, MTV, digital cash, or chaos math, we are bombarded every day with an increasing number of words, devices, ideas, and events we do not understand. On a larger scale, the cultural institutions on which we have grown dependent — organized religion, the medical establishment, corporations, nation states, and even the family itself — appear to have crumbled under their own weight, and all within the same few decades. Without having physically migrated an inch, we have, nonetheless, traveled further than any generation in history.

Compare the number of ideas a person is exposed to each day with the number he might have been asked to consider, say, just seventy-five years ago. Inventions like the telephone, radio, television, photocopier, fax machine, modem, Internet, cable TV, video teleconferencing, computer bulletin board, and the World Wide Web all function to increase the number of ideas and number of people whose thoughts we encounter. Each successive development in communications technology brings a corresponding leap in the number of ideas that we’re forced to process.

Children born into our electronically mediated world of computer and television monitors might best be called “screenagers.” While the members of every generation experience some degree of tension with their own children, today’s screenagers have been forced to adapt to such an extent that many of their behaviors are inscrutable to their elders. We feel threatened by how different they have become. Indeed, screenagers appear to be interacting with their world in interacting with his world in ways that are as dramatically altered from their grandfather’s experience as the first winged creature from their earthbound forebears. What’s more, this intensity of evolutionary change shows no signs of slowing down. What we need to adapt to, more than any particular change, is the fact that we are changing so rapidly.

Today’s renaissance marks a moment when human beings have achieved the ability to direct certain aspects of their own evolution through their cultural and technological innovations. In this sense, our computers and networks are doing anything to us — we are doing something to ourselves through these new tools.

The reason this all feels so troubling is that we have very little sense of direction. We don’t know where our tools are taking us, much less how they work. By pulling back a bit, though — much in the manner that our children have learned — and viewing this process in the context of evolutionary history, we can regain our bearings. Most simply, evolution has been process by which matter moves toward higher states of complexity and greater levels of awareness. Through the development of life forms, matter itself appears to be groping towards greater levels of organization. Atoms formed molecules which linked into chains and eventually cells. These cells then networked themselves into complex organisms, which themselves involved into creatures including human beings. Now, by devising mediated networks and an electronic communications infrastructure, we human beings are working to take this evolutionary process to the next stage: together, we are constructing and participating as components in a new, highly networked life-form.

The difference between our current evolutionary shift and the ones that preceded it, however, is that this one is intentional. Instead of simply waiting for it to happen on a biological level, we are enacting it on a cultural plane. Ironically, the very devices and institutions we created to shield us from the unpredictability of nature are now in nature’s service as the agents of evolutionary change: A pirated phone message tape can shake the foundations of the British monarchy, a camcorder tape can bring down the Los Angeles Police Department, a cable channel can erode our confidence in the U.S. court system, and an impromptu Internet conference can make kids feel better about learning from strangers than from their own teachers.

If we can’t come to understand the fact that our personal evolution and survival is dependent on species survival, then the battle against our own extinction is already lost. This is where the experience of a developing child can inform our cultural transition.

Because they are less entrenched in and committed to business-as-usual, young people appear much more willing to accept cultural change as a natural, even pleasurable, evolutionary process. From young people’s perspective, the new sorts of games, sports, television programs, fashions, and interactive media that they have embraced over the past decade all teach them coping strategies for the chaotic, highly networked culture of which we are fast becoming a part.

When I first wrote this book, in 1995, the kinds of activities and media I explored as examples of youth culture’s self-education were considered “fringe,” at best. Since that time, however, many of these seemingly esoteric areas of culture — the many unrelated film genres, sports, toys, and television shows — have developed into popular and interdependent mainstream activities. This is not evidence of my own predictive powers, but rather an indication of just how much the need for these outlets and experiences has intensified during these last few years before the millennium.

When I wrote this book, for example, the word “snowboarding,” came up as spelling error in my word processor. Today, it is an official Olympic event — even though a few of the sport’s top athletes refuse to participate (sacrificing millions of dollars in endorsements) for fear that submitting to standardized judging categories will stunt snowboarding’s evolution.

Alternative brands, from microbreweries to independent sneaker companies, have grown from obscure, local labels into NASDAQ-listed empires, often surpassing their larger competitors and turning their young entrepreneurs into millionaires. Innovative hackers who developed useful utilities for their small networks of peers have had their inventions adopted by giant Silicon Alley firms and incorporated into best-selling programs. Obscure and cult film genres like anime (Japanese animation) and Hong Kong action movies have gained huge followings and mainstream distribution. Anime is now an accepted staple of Saturday morning kids’ programming, while Jackie Chan and James Wu are among the most bankable names in Hollywood. The action heroes and camera techniques of Hong Kong martial arts pictures have even found their way into the James Bond franchise.

Many cult activities have become mainstream. A fantasy role-playing card game called Magic: The Gathering, devised by an unknown mathematician and sold exclusively by stores catering to game fanatics, is now available at the check-out line in WalMart. House and ambient music, formerly distributed only in specialty DJ shops or through bootleg tape exchanges, now comprise a huge and still-growing section of Tower records called “Electronica.” Beavis and Butt-head, a cartoon which began as a segment on MTV’s late-night animated anthology, Liquid Television, grew, in spite of parents’ fears, into an international hit ands a major motion picture. It cleared the way for even more pointed and delightfully crude animated hits from inexperienced but inspired animators, such as Comedy Central’s infamous Southpark. Satirical art films of the early 90′s like Pulp Fiction defied prevailing notions of film grammar and structure by juxtaposing the sensibilities of several movie genres at once, their humor depending largely on the audiences’ knowledge of recent film history. The success of these self-conscious film experiments inspired a flood of mainstream hits, like the Scream series, which grossed hundreds of millions of dollars by celebrating its young audience’s ability to enjoy a movie made up of a pastiche of cultural references, and to watch it all with detached irony.

The reason the many subcultures described in this book have grown in popularity is because they were so affective in appealing to a youth population intent on adapting to the coming cultural shift — a shift characterized by an increasing dependence on technology and media, as well as an awareness of the many challenges and opportunities such networking and its resulting interdependency will pose. Like our children, we will be required to step back from the seemingly disjointed and conflicting experiences in which we find ourselves, and to see them instead in the context of the new, chaotic landscape on which we will be conducting human affairs.

Since I wrote this book, several phenomena have risen to prominence, that take the role of preparing young people for the future even more seriously have emerged. Teletubbies, for example, developed by the English children’s television programmer Ann Wood through years of painstaking research, was conceived to address the anxieties of growing up in a technology-dependent world. Four cute, plush, and colorful creatures — aliens, really — inhabit a futuristic flying saucer nestled into the hillside of an idyllic English country garden. Observed by a happy baby — a proxy for the child viewer — the teletubbies receive instructions from a loudspeaker that rises out of the ground, interact with roving, vacuum-cleaner-like machines, and, most impressively, receive television broadcasts through antennae on their heads and then display them to one another on monitors imbedded in their stomachs.

Understandably, confused parents and educators around the world have been fearful of the impact the technophilic Teletubbies might have on their youngsters. Making matters worse, the characters speak in a pre-verbal gibberish which, though actually based on phonemes that have been shown to help toddlers develop language skills, alarms adults who feel that, as role models, the characters will promote poor speech. In reality, however, in addition to helping babies learn to speak, the program helps them come to recognize technology as a natural component of modern life. By watching the program, young viewers come to understand that, like the TV’s in the Teletubbies’ tummies, technological innovations can offer us ways to commune, to learn about each other, and to share our ideas. By accepting the seemingly alien as friendly or even loving (the Teletubbies are fond of hugging one another) out kids can find appropriate uses for our newest technological arrivals instead of being intimidated by them.

The Teletubbies exemplifies the three main features of every evolutionary kids’ activity. It promotes the humane use of communications technology, it is wildly and unexpectedly popular with children, and it is misunderstood and reviled by a majority of adults. For while young people are embracing every strategy offered to them with renewed eagerness, their parents, for the most part, are only growing more afraid of what they see as their own impending doom.

Young people’s increasing comfort with a chaotic future has been matched only by their parents’ intensifying fear. A networked culture portends a loss of privacy and lack of order. The cultural immediacy offered by interactive media like the Internet, as well as the way the computer has insinuated itself into areas as diverse as healthcare and banking, has led the fearful to long for an excuse to retreat. We are now obsessed by the “millennium bug,” a simple programming error that has given survivalists an excuse to build new, fortified camps in the hills of Wyoming and Colorado. Appealing to an anxious, technology-inspired fantasy of independence from the “system,” the hype over the Y2K glitch has given evangelists hard evidence of the coming apocalypse, and their followers justification for withdrawing from the global society their kids are hoping to build. Adult media has made a similar descent into hopelessness. The simple, almost playful paranoia of Chris Carter’s X-Files has been upgraded to the fetishized Satanism of his spin-off, Millennium, in which a group of Bible-toting psychics prepare for our inevitable immersion into darkness.

The few grown-ups who sense that their kids may be onto something, on the other hand, are attempting to adopt what they see as the playfulness and adaptability of young people by buying into the youthful innovations of marketers. Adult products designed to look like toys — from Volkswagen’s New Beetle to Apple’s iMac — offer plastic facsimiles of the open-mindedness and childlike adaptability of youth. Unsure of how to develop these attributes in any other way, baby boomers hope to incorporate the values of youth culture into their lives by purchasing them.

Some of the very same marketers, meanwhile, are feeling threatened by the ironic stance of their young targets and the protection it affords them from traditional advertising techniques, and have developed new styles of persuasion designed to penetrate this self-conscious defensive strategy. Many of them actually bought the first edition of this book, less to learn how to help young people in their quest to cope with an increasingly manipulative mediaspace than in the hope of staying one step ahead of their efforts. The result has been a new onslaught of advertisements and marketing strategies that acknowledge and praise young people’s suspicion of marketing techniques in an effort to captivate them with new ones. TV commercials for Sprite, for example, satirize more primitive soft drink ads while begging kids to reward a more virtuous appeal to their sensibilities: image is nothing, thirst is everything. Likewise, the current frontier in Web design is to create sites and interfaces that lull young users into passive complacency so that they may be herded away from interactive exchanges and towards the “buy” button. The “community” areas on many music industry Web sites, for example, exist merely to gauge users’ tastes, and then present them with more customized advertising. The Internet’s original promise as a medium for communication is fast giving way to an electronic strip mall that will trade the technology’s potential as a cultural catalyst for that of a controlled and monitored marketplace.

Mainstream publications from Time to USA Today run cover stories lamenting the adaptive strategies of young people, painting a picture of today’s youth as amoral, despondent, and unreachable. Attention Deficit Disorder, a rare but real affliction, is being used as a blanket explanation for a myriad of adaptive maneuvers that kids have developed to free themselves of the hypnotic spell of coercive media and advertising. Instead of looking for the root causes of these often debilitating reactions, educators and doctors convince worried parents to medicate their children with Ritalin and other stimulants, a treatment that, when used in this inappropriate fashion, amounts to an indoctrination into a culture on the brink of collapse.

This is not a mature approach to the profound shift we are facing at the dawn of a new millennium. For if, like immature children, we steadfastly maintain our allegiance to the obsolete institutions of the past, then we will certainly go down with the ship. On the other hand, if we can come to understand this tumultuous period of change as a natural phase in the development of new kinds of intelligence and cross-cultural intimacy, then our imaginative and creative abilities are the only limits on our capacity for adaptation. Our civilization is embarking on a kind of adolescence — when, in the history of mankind, have we seen so many different people and societies making their first tentative steps toward joining the global community? — and we need to learn to see the new intrusions into our lives as a teenager experiences those first flirtatious gestures from an attractive suitor. We are not being invaded — we are being courted.

As in any society in crisis, it is the children who first learn to incorporate the worst of threats into the most basic forms of play. When the black plague threatened Europe with annihilation, the children sang “Ring Around the Rosie” as they ritualized the appearance of rose-colored sores, stench-camouflaging “posies,” and piles of burning bodies in the streets. “Ashes ashes,” goes the simple refrain before it concludes in straightforward frankness: “We all fall down.” While adults were surely horrified by their children’s seeming indifference to disaster, civilization somehow survived, aided in no small part by people’s ability to confront their challenges together.

What I’ll attempt to show in this book is that the more frightening aspects of a non-apocalyptic future are being addressed today, and quite directly, by the most pop-cultural experiences of children and young adults. Whether it’s the Teletubbies showing us how to accept our co-evolution with technology, or a vampire role-playing game calling for us to acknowledge the hellraising beast in each of us, these new forms have the ability to assuage our worst fears, confirm our most optimistic scientific theories, and obliterate the religious and cultural absolutism that so often undermines our ability to adapt to the uncertainty of our times. The oldest of the media-empowered young people — the screenagers — have already developed into fledgling filmmakers, computer programmers, and social activists, whose worldviews are beginning to have a positive effect on our cultural values.

So please let us suspend, for the time being, our grown-up function as role models and educators of our nation’s youth. Rather than focusing on how we, as adults, should shape our children’s activities for their better development, let’s appreciate the natural adaptive skills demonstrated by our kids and look to them for answers to some of our own problems. Kids are our test sample — our advance scouts. They are, already, the thing that we must become.

That is, if in fact we choose to carry on beyond the end of our world, into theirs.

–Douglas Rushkoff, New York, 1999

US: Riverhead, UK: Flamingo

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