Kid culture

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Chicago Herald on 25 July 1996

Daily Herald Staff Writer

Today’s kids are mastering the intricacies of a computer mouse at the same age their moms were first putting crayon to coloring book.

Their older brothers and sisters are seeing the world without ever leaving their bedrooms. They’re doing their term papers without cracking the cover of a dictionary. They’re e-mailing pals in cities they’ve never visited, zapping demons in cyber worlds their parents can barely comprehend.

Raising a kid today is a bit like dwelling in the Twilight Zone. Kids have zoomed headfirst into the cyber age, leaving many of their parents behind in the dust.

That today’s kids are so at home in a modern culture that embraces the World Wide Web, Nintendo, body piercing and “Beavis and Butt-Head” is amazing to their dazed parents. And more than a little scary.

Ask Douglas Rushkoff.

A single 35-year-old with no kids of his own, he seems a tad old to be so at home with kids’ culture. But he’s familiar with both the intricate plots of “The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and the lure of cyberspace.

Rushkoff, a contributing editor for Virtual City magazine, is the author of the recently published “Playing the Future: How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos” (Harper-Collins, $25).

He’s out to explain kids’ culture to bewildered parents and to ease fears about the dangers of what lies ahead.

Today’s kids feel isolated, he explains. And much of their culture can be linked to their attempts to connect, to establish a sense of community, to make sense of our rapidly changing world.

“To most adults, it’s like that Christopher Reeve movie ‘Village of the Damned,’” Rushkoff says. “These alien children come and they’re super, super smart…. We’ve got a little bit of that feeling with our kids now.

“They seem like Superkids. At the same time, they seem somewhat disillusioned at the culture they’ve been born into, they also seem super smart and super able. Almost threateningly so.”

Rushkoff’s not worried. Sure, he says, today’s kids have less national and institutional allegiance than their parents and grandparents. But that’s not all bad, he says.

“What they get for that is increasing tolerance and openness to people from Bosnia or Russia or Ethiopia or the inner city,” he says. “You talk to anyone… the task at hand, if we’re going to thrive in the future, is to somehow forge a global, cooperative future.”

And our kids are going to lead us there, Rushkoff says.

In a recent phone interview, Rushkoff talked about kids’ culture, their attraction to new media and how technology is changing the parent-child dynamic.

Here is an edited transcript:

DAILY HERALD: How do you define “kids’ culture”?

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: I consider kids’ culture to be anything directly addressing our cultural anxieties through play. What I’m saying is there is a distinction between kids’ culture and childhood behaviors. There are childhood activities that have always been around and then there’s this unique contribution that kids today are making to culture at large.

DH: For example?

RUSHKOFF: For example, they’re breaking free of the addiction to simplistic endings and they’re becoming much more tolerant to the generally open-ended quality of life and the complexities of the modern experience. The specific ways or the specific activities that give them this new-found power would be television - from “Beavis and Butt-Head” to “The Power Rangers” – toys like Gak and activities like fantasy role-playing or going on the Internet.

DH: There’s some concern about kids getting addicted to some of the things you just talked about such as watching TV or spending time on the Internet. What do you say to that?

RUSHKOFF: When we look at kids watching TV, we tend to think that they’re watching it the same way we did, that they’re looking at the image, that they identify with the character and they attempt at some later point to emulate that character’s behavior – in other words, that they’re using television like a drug, sucking the content in like we did when we were kids. But kids aren’t watching television anymore; they’re watching THE television in a sense.

What they’re doing is watching the way that TV is put together – the way different shows say the same things or the way newscasts do the same stories at the same time. So I think that when they’re watching TV they’re observing America’s media-making, they’re observing America’s self-image.

If it looks like they’re addicted to these things, it’s because they’ve been starved – as our whole culture has – for contact with other people and for some perspective on our experience. We’ve been living with blinders on for almost a couple thousand years by now. So when technologies arise that give us the chance to see things differently and, most importantly, to express our opinions, and share who we are with other people, there’s going to be a lot of people flocking to those activities until they get their fill initially.

DH: Do you really think the Internet provides a perspective on our experience? And furthermore, do you think that’s what kids are doing there?

RUSHKOFF: In terms of perspective, it does that for sure because rather than just having to hear one kind of coverage of an event in the real world, they can hear 50 or 100 different points of view.

But the main thing kids are getting on the Internet is a sense of community.

I know to adults it looks weird and very narrow and very technical and very cold, but the Internet is the closest thing to community that kids have right now. They don’t have social halls and places to hang out. And usually their parents are scared for them to go hang out in those places anyway. Especially kids who are raised out in the suburbs are raised isolated from one another. Their counterparts in the city are trying to forge community by creating street gangs and doing some really awful stuff. At least the kids with the money for electronic means of community can experiment in community and begin to express who they are to each other in the seeming safety of the electronic realm.

And then hopefully, with any luck, they’ll begin to do the same things in real life, start to express who they are to real people when they’re in the flesh and realize it’s great to have friends.

DH: It probably saddens the average adult to hear you think of socialization as something that is not face to face.

RUSHKOFF: It is sad indeed. But what is sad is not the fact that kids are reaching out to each other electronically. What’s sad – and it’s OK to be sad for a moment, but we’ve got to move on – is that we’ve brought our culture to a point that that has become necessary.

DH: How has all this technology, culture etc. affected the parent-child dynamic in this country?

RUSHKOFF. It’s interesting. Children have always represented the new prototype of human being to the parent. Parents have always been both slightly overprotective of and slightly afraid of their children. The world has always been changing. Older people are always threatened by the change. And younger people always tend to embody that change and incorporate the new values first. In that sense, there’s nothing new.

But today, because of the magnitude of change that we’re all experiencing, we’re really moving through a great hinge moment in human history where technology for the first time is being used to express nature and to express complexity rather than to try to stifle it and quell it. It just so happens that the kids who are raised in a period of this much change will be even more foreign and more threatening to parents.

DH: Why is it that so much of kids’ culture today – when you look at things like body piercing, for example – seems to make adults squirm?

RUSHKOFF: We look at the things our kids are doing and they are extreme expressions of cultural intimacy, but that’s all they are.

We complain that our kids are coach potatoes – sitting and playing with Nintendo, Sega and watching TV all day. Well, they’ve reacted to that culturally with piercing, with new primitivism. Kids are trying to experience nature and the body in the midst of the cyber age. Yes, it’s an extreme expression. But when you look underneath it you see it is an extreme expression of a very healthy urge. And if anything, the reason it looks so extreme at times is because that urge has been so denied over time.

DH: Many adults are concerned about the seemingly short attention span of today’s kids. You’re not. Can you elaborate?

RUSHKOFF: Most adults have what could be called a longer attention span than their children. And that’s because we are well-behaved media consumers. The well-behaved long attention span of the adult has been abused by programmers for a long time. They call this stuff programming for a reason. And the way you get programmed by TV is you get put into a state of tension by the television program, as much tension as you can tolerate, and then they give you the answer – which is always translatable into a product purchase or an ideology or a moral of some kind.

Kids refuse to be put into that state of tension by the media because they know, whether consciously or not, that that tension is being used to exploit them. So what they do when they’re watching a program and feel themselves being drawn into the hypnotic tent, they zap out of it.

Kids in some sense have a longer attention span than adults. I challenge any parent to ask a 9-year-old kid who watches “Power Rangers” why the Green Ranger is now the White Ranger. They will be treated to a 45-minute treatise on how this happened. And it happened over a period of two or three years. If the parent can sit through the entire explanation, they’ll see that their kid has managed to follow a plot over a time longer than most soap operas.

DH: Do kids today look down on adults who aren’t computer literate and who aren’t as up to date on the current technology?

RUSHKOFF: Surprisingly no. The only thing that they get upset about is how afraid parents are for them, how much parents want to guard them, how much parents believe the cover of Time magazine when it tells them that their children are going to be drawn into cyber pornography. The kids realize that it’s the mainstream media trying to scare kids away from the Internet because the mainstream media is going to lose its exclusive hold on them. The kids are upset that we adults fall for these scare tactics.

If you look at a show like “Barney” – which most adults hate and most little kids like – I think Barney is really directly addressing their questions That show is really teaching kids how to deal with adults who seem like dinosaurs to them. The only adult in the program is Barney, a dinosaur. That’s us. He’s obsequious, and he’s patronizing.

But on the other hand, what the kids realize is that Barney can teach them some facts. He can teach them some numbers. He can help organize their games a little bit. So I think that kids are learning to be tolerant of our clumsy attempts to move through the culture that they are part of.

DH: Overall, you sound very encouraged about the future.

RUSHKOFF: I really am. It comes from, I think, taking a good. hard, critical and wary look at their activities and finding under each one of them, no matter how gross and perverse they seem, the same urge toward local and global community understanding. And that is the supreme adaptive challenge to a society attempting to evolve past the end of the 20th century.