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Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos

Author: Douglas Rushkoff
Publisher: New York: HarperCollins, 1996
Review Published: February 2000

 REVIEW 1: Vanessa E. Domine
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Douglas Rushkoff

Gen-Xpert Douglas Rushkoff's book has gained additional significance since it was first published four years ago. Digital media continue to advance rapidly, along with increased public concern over the effects of media violence upon youth. Playing the Future addresses the question, "What can adults learn from the ways in which kids interact with digital media?" Rushkoff takes a constructive (and arguably constructivist) approach to kids and media -- a welcomed contrast to the current status quo dictating what kids should know and how they should learn it.

Rushkoff's main argument is that screenagers, young people raised on electronic and digital media, have a significant advantage over adults in understanding and coping with the world as it exists today. Screenagers do not passively receive media, but instead adapt and interact with a media landscape that includes cable channels, camcorders, satellite dishes, computers, and modems. While their parents sit in the living room merely watching network programming, screenagers are actively changing the image on the screen via video games, for example. Since most video game consoles now come equipped with modem ports, players can find co-combatants anywhere in the world. While the world may be increasingly technological, screenagers adapt by using technology to seek out human relationships.

While adults may complain about the short attention span of the screenager, Rushkoff reframes it as an evolutionary survival mechanism that in reality helps kids process the massive amounts of information currently available to them. Kids are leading us in our evolution -- past linear thinking, duality, mechanism, hierarchy, metaphor, and God himself toward a dynamic, holistic, animistic, weightless, and recapitulated culture. It is these six evolutionary shifts that comprise the main chapters of Playing the Future.

In McLuhanesque style, Rushkoff calls attention to the important message of a medium. It is the texture of a program like MTV that is of significance. Once unconventional but now standard programming among teenagers, MTV uses a language of rapid fire segments and discontinuity -- the very embodiment of chaos. The audience act of piecing together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act of a higher intellect, not a lower one, argues Rushkoff. Similarly, screenagers have the ability to assemble images and ideas from very disparate media sources and make them relevant to one another. Like snowboarders, skiers, and skateboarders, their goal is to "thrash through, around, and over the impediments and imperfections the real world offers" (29). Kids are "developing a series of resonant fields, each impression a set of values . . . on an otherwise completely meaningless concrete wasteland" (30).

The screenager experiences media at a higher state of complexity and at a greater level of awareness than his or her predecessor. The by-products of this evolution are an increased amount of interactivity and authority for the screenager. Rushkoff acknowledges that along with the increased authority also comes an ability to exercise the worst in ourselves -- as manifested by child pornography on the Internet, breaches of security, and perpetuation of distrust surrounding new media. In one sense, Rushkoff believes that going on-line may be dangerous to one's worldview, but not to one's physical being. Yet the danger of rap music, for example, is that it fosters a tight-knit subculture of kids who are "willfully reprogramming themselves with ideas they feel are more appropriate to survival in the modern urban landscape" (p. 218). The reader is left wondering about the extent to which screenagers can harm themselves, since the physical and psychological are inextricably bound to one another in the life of a teenager.

Rushkoff's writing in Playing the Future is the epitome of what he praises in the screenager. He makes sense of a wide range of seemingly disconnected media sources (e.g., Barney the Dinosaur, Japanese animation, comic books, tabloid news, video games, and rave culture) and weaves them into a brilliant tapestry for the reader. Ironically, he successfully achieves his post-modern critique of linearity via a linear medium (a printed book). On this macro level, Rushkoff's analysis of mediated kid culture is both effective and entertaining.

Readers expecting micro-level empirical data, however, will be disappointed. Rushkoff fails to differentiate among "kids," "children," and "Gen-Xers," leaving quite a disparity among audiences that watch Barney and those that participate in rave culture, for example. Neither does the reader get to experience firsthand the voices of real kids, but instead has to take Rushkoff's word for it. Some readers may view this as a contradiction to Rushkoff's overall premise that we should listen, watch, and learn from kids.

The most interesting and hopeful aspect of Rushkoff's analysis is that digital media afford kids (and adults) the opportunity to playfully experiment through trial-and-error. Adults are missing the value of play because "we are afraid of the universal wash of our media ocean, because unlike our children, we can't recognize the bigger pattern in its overall structure" (194). It is through playful experimentation decades ago upon which today's communication infrastructure is built. As such, Rushkoff mourns the loss of play and the sad truth that children are taught today merely the application of computers, rather than how to program them. Rushkoff's point is a powerful epistemological one that perhaps is most useful for parents. Afterall, educators are currently bound by educational bureaucracy, technological inadequacy, and traditional pedagogy that prevent students from playfully experimenting with these new media in a formal school setting.

Playing the Future is a reminder that if we foster a media climate of playful experimentation, we can then appreciate and learn from the natural adaptive skills of kids and look to them for answers to some of our social problems. At the very least, this involves listening to kids. Rushkoff's goal is not to give the reader definite answers, but to assist the reader in tolerating the ambiguity that currently exists in this millennial age of chaos. To those readers who want answers, the book may read as a curse rather than blessing. Either way, it's a thrilling ride.

Vanessa E. Domine:
Vanessa E. Domine is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Ecology at New York University.
She has worked as a media education consultant in the New York City public
school system and is founder of Project
Literacy Among Youth
(PLAY), an online media literacy resource. She
is currently researching how teenagers make sense of commercial media in
the classroom.  <medialit@mindspring.com>

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