Children of Chaos
Surviving the end of the world as we know it

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in World Review on 1 January 1997

A guy goes to the doctor, complaining of terrible tapeworm. He’s tried every known remedy, but to no avail. The doctor tells him not to worry–just to come back the next day with three bananas and a cookie. The man is perplexed, but he has faith in the doctor’s fine reputation and returns the next day as he has been instructed. The doctor asks the man to pull down his pants and bend over. He then proceeds to insert the three bananas, one by one, into the man’s rectum. He waits for one minute, then inserts the cookie.

The doctor tells the man to return every day for two weeks, and every day he does the same thing: insert the three bananas, wait one minute, and then insert the cookie. On the last day, the doctor tells his patient to return once more, with three bananas and a hammer. While the man cringes at the thought of having to take in a hammer, he dutifully returns with the requested items.

The doctor inserts the three bananas as before, and waits a full minute. The poor patient is trembling with fear. But the doctor just holds the hammer and waits a minute more. After the third minute, the tapeworm appears from the man’s rectum, asking “where’s my cookie?” Wham! Down comes the hammer on the tapeworm’s head.

The tapeworm is us: a culture so addicted to endings that we ‘d rather die in an all-consuming apocalypse than let the human story continue in uncertainty. There are bumper stickers in the Midwest United States proclaiming “In case of rapture, this car will be empty.” The passengers are looking forward to the end of the world! We like conclusions, certainty, finality. It is how we have been trained.

For all our heartfelt concern about the younger generation’s apathy and disconnectedness, they may just be a few steps ahead of us at coping with the uncertainty and inconclusiveness of our chaotic age. They are native in a hyper-mediated, electronic world where most adults are mere immigrants. Rather than despair at their seemingly mindless past-times–from video games to Beavis and Butthead–we might rather look to what these activities offer young people, the folks I call “screenagers”, to help them make sense of the bizarre world around them. For it is our youngsters who are immune to the conditioning of television and its sponsors, and our young people who may be able to break the hypnotic spell that the rest of us are under.


We call the stuff on television “programming” for a reason. No, television programmers are not programming television sets or evening schedules; they’re programming the viewers. Whether they are convincing us to buy a product. vote for a candidate, adopt an ideology, or simply confirm a moral platitude, the underlying reason for making television is to hold onto our attention and then sell us a bill of goods.

Since the time of the Bible and Aristotle through to today’s over-determined three-act action movies, the best tool at the programmer’s disposal has been the story. But, thanks to technologies like the remote, the joystick, and the mouse, it just doesn’t work any more. The traditional story works by bringing the audience into a state of tension. The storyteller creates a character we like, and gets us lo identify with the hero’s plight. Then the character is put into jeopardy of one sort or another. As the character moves up the incline plane towards crisis, the audience follows him vicariously, while taking on his anxiety as their own. Helplessly we follow him into danger, disease or divorce, and just when we can’t take any more tension without bursting, our hero finds a way out. He finds a moral, a product, an agenda or a strategy that rescues him, and us his audience, from the awful anxiety. The higher the level of tension the programmer has been able to create, the more preposterous the hero’s critical twist can get. Shirley MacLaine is only granted a minor insight in Terms of Endearment, while Arnold Schwarzenegger has the luxury of breathing on Mars in Total Recall.

But whatever solution the character finds, the audience must swallow it, too. Along with it, we swallow the sponsor or filmmaker’s agenda. This is what it means to “enter-tain”– literally “to hold within”–and it only works on a captive audience. In the old days of television, when a character would walk into danger and take the audience up into uncomfortable anxiety, it would have taken at least fifty calories of human effort for the viewer to walk up to his TV set and change the channel. The viewer was trapped. As long as the programmer did not raise the stakes too abruptly, the passive viewer would remain in his reclining lounge chair and go along for the ride.

The remote control changed all that. With an expenditure of, perhaps, 0.0001 calories, the anxious viewer is liberated from tortuous imprisonment and free to watch another programme. Although most well-behaved adult viewers will soldier on through a story, kids raised with remotes in their hands have much less reverence for well-crafted story arcs, and zap away without a moment’s hesitation. Instead of watching one programme, they skim through ten at a time. They do not watch TV, they watch the television, guiding their own paths through the entirety of media rather than following the prescribed course of any one programmer.

No matler how much we complain about our kids’ short attention spans, their ability to disconnect from programming has released them from the hypnotic spell of even the best TV mesmerisers. The Nintendo joystick further empowers them while compounding the programmer’s dilemma. In the old days, the TV image was unchangeable. Gospel truth piped into the home from the top of some glass building. Today, kids have the experience of manipulating the image on the screen. This has fundamentally altered their perception of and reverence for the television image. Worse yet, the computer mouse and the Internet turn the video monitor into a doorway. No longer just an appliance for passive programming, the monitor is a portal to places and ideas. Kids with camcorders do not even bother to watch programmes. They just make their own.

Screenagers raised with interactive devices in their media arsenals, are native in a mediaspace where even the best television producers are immigrants. They speak the language better, and see through our clumsy attempts to programme them into submission. They never forget for a moment that they are watching media, and resent those of us who try to draw them in and sell them something. We mistake their ironic detachment for cultural apathy. It is not. They do care; they are just unwilling to take on some character’s anxiety and then swallow his agendas or buy his products.

Still, they do like TV, and there are ways for commercial programmers and television artists alike to appeal to their screenage sensibilities and viewing habits. In doing so, such programmers will be addressing a cultural agenda rather than foisting an agenda onto culture.

The shows embraced by the screenage generation accept the inherent discontinuity of the television medium rather than trying to smooth it out. For example, while we were all taught in film school how to bridge the jolt of an edit point, the screenager experiences each of these paved-over breaks as a lie. It is discontinuity pretending to be continuous, and it comes across as false. Where adults are challenged by gaps, kids thrive on them. Just consider the difference between the experience of an adult skier and a child snow boarder descending a slope. The adult, with his long parallel skis, looks for the smoothest, most powdery path possible. The kid seeks out the bumps, rocks and patches of ice.

Programmers who think they are hip have responded to this hunger for the chaotic by adding in superfluous jump-cuts and bumps of camera. Documentaries look real because they do not convince us that there is no camera. The reality of their production must be incorporated imo the film because there is no way around it when you only have one camera rolling at a time. But to fake the reality of a documentary by banging around the camera NYPD-style is a crude filmmaking technique that could only fool adults. The kids see right through it, and laugh out loud at this primitive imitation of low-budget documentarians. They do not want old stories in new packages. They want new kinds of stories.

The extended evolution of storytelling comes in three main stages. We start with a literal phase. For money, this was gold. It had actual, literal value. For Western religion, this was the Ten Commandments. Do this, do not do that. The second stage is metaphor. The metaphor for gold was the old certificate. Paper money represented a real value of gold. For religion, the metaphorical stage was Jesus and the parable. Jesus’s own life and his teaching stories, like the prostitute in the road about to be stoned, work as metaphors for the situations in our lives. If we can all identify with the character in the story, then the parable works. That is why they are called parables: a parabola is a curve that depicts the relationship of a single point to whole line. As long as we are in a simple, linear world, and all stand in a line, the point of story will relate to us all. Stories require heroes we all relate to–superbeings and allegiance.

But our world is too chaotic for us all to stand in a line and respect one authority. We barely even go to rock concerts anymore; we go to rave dances, where there is no sexy singer for everyone to ace. The rave dance–a spiritual event–is a great example of the third cultural phase, what I call “recapitulation”. Rather than relating to someone else’s spiritual story, we create their own. The rave event recapitulates a spiritual truth. It is spirituality. The monetary equivalent of recapitulation is the currency we now use in the United Stales called “the Federal Reserve Note”. It is cash, but it has no value in relation to some real metal. The dollar recapitulates the original function of money. It is money. How does television become recapitulatory? Check out Beavis and Butthead. The experience of those two animated boys recapitulates the experience of the person watching MTV. It is a screen within a screen. The viewer watches viewers watching television. Beavis and Butthead allow the screenager to maintain his distance from the programming. In fact, they encourage it. If a beautiful girl in an MTV video passes through the frame, a traditional viewer may be drawn into the trance. But before long Beavis will exclaim “Nice hooter!” The viewers are alienated from the sexy image, and forced to keep their distance.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 teaches an even more advanced lesson in media literacy. The object of the game is to make connections between different examples of media. Two robots and man watch a bad movie, and make constant wisecracks. Their jokes always hinge on an obscure media references. The delight of the show is making the connection between the seemingly distant references. It is the same style of comedy that has kept The Simpsons alive so long.

In recapitulated media, the audience’s moment of reward is shifted away from the hero’s daring escape, and onto the viewer’s own ability to orient himself in an increasingly complex mediaspace. Instead of experiencing vicarious relief from tension and absorbing the associated message, the screenager gets the joy of making momentary sense and associations in a chaotic culture. He gets his bearings. Of course the problem for programmers is that this brand of media makes viewers more aware, not less. Just as surely as “video killed the radio star”, Beavis and Butthead killed the rock video. Sponsors might not like us screenagers as much as the hypnotised audiences they enjoyed in the past. But they have already lost us.

They bred our ironic distance from the TV by abusing their privilege as the medium’s exclusive purveyors, and programming their audiences into a consumerist frenzy whose devastating cultural effects have not even fully played themselves out. Their only choice now is to provide us with television that addresses our anxiety in confronting a world as dauntingly chaotic as ours is.

Instead of celebrating this newly interactive mediaspace, most mainstream outlets warn against it. Time Magazine puts “Cyberporn” on its cover, and television news warns against electronic abduction.

Newspapers are quick to blame The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead for destroying our children’s minds, when these shows are actually responsible for their newfound media literacy. What is upsetting the traditional media is that youngsters are waking up.

Before we install “V chips” in our TV sets and padlocks on our Segas, we had better take a good look at why our children are devoting so much energy to channel surfing, Power Rangers, the Internet, and Doom, and what positive effects they may be having on them. Their fascination with new media is preparing them for the workplace and society of tomorrow. By learning from their example instead of shunning their activities, we, too, might gain the skills necessary to thrive in a highly technological and chaotic future.

Along with a screenager’s decreased tolerance for passive programming–the so-called decreased attention span–comes an increased attention range. A child can watch and comprehend five or more TV programmes at a time, deftly alternating between channels just in time to catch the important moments on each. How better to prepare himself for a hi-tech job where he may have to browse email, phone messages, the Internet, and stock quotes all at the same time?

Our children are already more mature media consumers and makers than we are. By playing video games they increase their hand-eye coordination and interface comprehension. Winning a game is really just mastering a new piece of software. Kids are demystifying the television image for themselves.

Today’s media-literate teenagers have access to the same technologies found in a state-of-the-art newsroom. A computer, a modem, and a TV set give them instant access to information from around the world. By navigating the World Wide Web, they are learning how to move through a discontinuous realm of data and opinions, as well as how to distinguish between the two.

Not surprisingly, our kids’ favourite media content is also filled with coping strategies for the world we will all soon inhabit. While parents can glean little more than violence from a show like The Power Rangers, it deals quite eloquently with the core issues facing a civilization co-evolving with its own technology. The underlying theme of The Power Rangers is evolution-as-a-team sport. The young Rangers only reach full power when they mutate together into a giant, cooperatively controlled robot. The monsters they fight are relics of our evolutionary past: dinosaurs summoned by their adult enemy, the evil Lord Zed, who is the victim of his own technological excesses and must remain connected to a complex life-support apparatus. He symbolizes the sad consequence of selfishly-exploited technology.

The Simpsons goes even further. The joy of the show, unlike traditional television, is not making it through to the climatic conclusion. It is understanding the many media references. The “aha” moment in the The Simpsons is not whether Bart will find a gun–it is understanding that a scene might be a parody of the X-Files or a familiar beer advertisement. The show helps its viewers find and recognise the underlying patterns in the media. It helps young people make sense of chaos.

Even the most violent of video games like Doom and Mortal Kombat may be serving a higher purpose than adults suspect. Our kids live in a world where waterguns must be coloured fluorescent green so that police don’t mistake them for real ones. This isn’t because TV and video games are so violent–it’s because adults can no longer distinguish between violence and play. Social theorists since Aristotle have understood that ritualised violence relieves the need for the real stuff. So far, at least, we have been able to invent games and programming sensational enough to compete with the slayings out the window or in the armories we call State schools–to my mind, this means we are winning the war.

If nothing else, let’s put to bed the myth that it’s our children who are at fault. Our new generation of fledgling screenagers are not the ones making the video games currently on the shelves of toy stores. These products were designed by adults using interface technology originally implemented for war simulation by the military. Once our youngsters grow into game designers themselves. we will be able to make a more accurate assessment of the effect of all this mediated play on their violent inclinations.

And that is the real challenge before us: to have the courage to put the tools in the hands of our children and see what they do with them. Whether it is game construction kits where kids can fashion their own adventures on the computer, or camcorders where they can make their own TV shows, kids should have the power and opportunity to design the entertainment environments that suit their needs. This is where the efforts of truly concerned parents should go. We might be pleasantly surprised by the generation we have spawned. They are the latest model in human being.

For children, in some sense, are our elders. They come from an older culture than we do–a culture that I believe is beginning its adolescence. They may be more difficult to programme into becoming the kind of adults we would mosl like to see, but their irreverence for authority and tolerance for uncertainty will no doubt help them journey beyond the apocalypse for which so many adults are prepared to settle.

Our children are not apathetic. They may be disconnected, but only from the illusion that their ending is predestined. They understand that anyone who tries to make them tense is not their friend–just a well-paid doctor with his hammer raised high.