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What Kids Know About Chaos

Author argues that young people hold the keys to thriving in the new computer age


Can young people, with their technological fluency, help adults understand both the present and the future? Yes they can, Douglas Rushkoff asserts in his new book, "Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos" (HarperCollins, 1996, $25).

Rushkoff likens the experience of adults who grew up before computers to that of immigrants a generation or two ago: Adults today are foreigners, called on to watch in wonder as their children grasp the nuances of technology culture with ease.

Rushkoff, a social theorist and journalist, calls these young people "screenagers," and argues that the very trait that most educational pundits bemoan--shortened attention span resulting from too much time in front of the computer and the TV--has a positive side that we can all learn from.

Question: In your work, you refer to "discontinuity" as an integral part of our modern condition. What do you mean by discontinuity?

Answer: It could be as simple as [this]: You're a stockbroker trying to analyze 10 different pieces of information at once. You get a call from your wife that she's having a baby, and the boss has just been spun by the media in a negative way, so that you have to jump from idea to idea . . . .

The models and rules we've been using to understand our world have always been based in making things look simple, in reducing things down to the least common denominator. . . . What we're finding now, whether we're looking at the stock market or the weather or the economy or social conditions, [is] that by oversimplifying them, we end up causing much more trouble. . . . By looking at things in all of their complexity, in all of their chaos, really, we end up doing much, much better.


Q: What strategies have today's young people developed to cope with discontinuity as you define it?

A: Most of the strategies have been adaptations to things that haven't worked in their parents' culture. Television is really a programming device; they don't call the stuff on television "programming" coincidentally. It's made to program the viewers--to program their votes, to program their purchasing decisions, to program their moral outlooks.

Once people put a remote control in a child's hand . . . [he or she] resists the programming that's being imposed. . . . It's not that our children have such a short attention span, it's that they have a low tolerance for people who try to program them into submission. . . .

I think the three things that have changed children's relationship to the world are the television remote control, the Nintendo joystick and the computer mouse, which are all devices that change their relationship to the television screen.


Q: What about the concern that watching images--ranging from the violent to the inane--roll across a television screen desensitizes viewers, especially children?

A: I've thought a lot about that. I think desensitization comes when you can't do anything about what you're seeing. So if you look at a news report of people being attacked in Bosnia or children starving in Rwanda, and you see it every night on a television set to which you cannot respond, you will naturally desensitize.

But a kid who goes online and sees discussions about what's going on in Bosnia, sees ways that he can take action, or sees people talking about the starvation in Somalia and he learns about what kind of an economic and political system is leading to that starvation and joins groups of people who are trying to take action, then it has a very different effect.

I agree that people get desensitized to violence, pain and misery when it's conducted to them in a one-way media, a media to which they cannot react. But as we have more and more interactive sorts of media, I think we'll start to see a re-sensitization to the very same problems.


Q: In the '60s, the magic wand leading to freedom was drugs. In the '70s, it was books and political treatises like the Maoists' Red Book. Do you consider technology the magic wand of the '90s?

A: In the '80s, it became fashionable to say that computers were the LSD of [that decade] and that technology would be what liberates us. I think what technology really is is the easy . . . way for Western, white people to experience global community. Aboriginal people in Australia or the Native Americans of Canada already have a sense of mankind's relationship to the planet. They understand that all people are part of one organism and that we need to work with each other to promote a positive, planetary destiny.

Computers are a great remedial help for our culture because our culture has lost the ability to communicate without media. We don't really know how to communicate directly anymore; we're afraid of one another. So the computer is very liberating in that respect.


Q: In your book "Playing the Future," you mention that today's children are capable of "multi-tasking" because of their comfort with modern technology. What do you mean by multi-tasking?

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