Tech-tube children

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Men's Health on 1 October 1996

Did you ever wonder what happened to those computer nerds who spent years glued to their CRTS? You’ll probably end up working with one–if you aren’t already. “The screenagers are here, and they will take no prisoners,” says Douglas Rushkoff, author of Playing the Future and a leading consultant and lecturer on technology. Weaned on computers, video games and cable TV, younger Generation Xers–whom Rushkoff prefers to call “screenagers”–have evolved into highly adaptable, multitasking humanoids. “Screenagers will teach you how to prosper in the information age, if you let them,” says Rushkoff, 34. “But if you’re intimidated by them, they’ll steamroll you.” We decided to ask Rushkoff what we can learn from these young guns.

How can we boomers safely exist with screenagers, without wanting to vaporize them?

The key is to make the screenagers feel like participants rather than a threat to the status quo. They can’t believe in job security, so their only satisfaction comes from feeling like part of the company organism. Listen to their suggestions and ask them to explain their technical skills to you. In return, try to share your experience with them. Above all, don’t attack them–even if they repulse you. Boomers should regard screenagers with admiration. They’re the new model of human being.

Why, exactly, do they handle technology and chaos so much better than we do?

Thirtysomethings grew up with shows like Bonanza that made us interpret our world in terms of predictable beginnings, middles and endings. Screenagers, on the contrary, think more like Pulp Fiction. The Internet and MTV have taught them to find meaning in complex messages and, most important, to recognize patterns. Screenagers love Mystery Science Theater 3000–a late-night show in which a man and two robots cut up movies with rapid, left-field wisecracks. One of the robots might see a guy swinging his arm in an old karate movie and start humming the theme to My Three Sons. This ability to make wild, nonlinear inferences is a key to making sense of chaos.

We all grew up with television, so don’t we already have this media training?

Not like the screenagers. Growing up with hundreds of channels, interactive video games and especially the remote control has made screenagers much more media-literate. Unlike us, screenagers zap away before they get suckered into a state of anxiety for the benefit of advertisers. People laugh at me when I say that Beavis and Butt-head teaches media literacy. Beavis and Butt-head rip apart rock videos, and kids learn to ridicule media’s attempt to suck them in. Screenagers prefer to use television as a portal to the world, a remote view they can change at whim. If you want to learn to use television like they do, perpetually click through 40 or 50 stations for a week or so. Stop only for a few seconds. Develop your ability to see patterns in incongruent things.

We thought our ability to stay focused for more than 10 seconds was our big advantage.

The short attention span is a misconception. Screenagers have immense powers of concentration. Could you play SimCity for 10 hours straight? They process information much differently than we do. Their linear attention span has evolved into a nonlinear attention range.

A screenager can watch nine TV shows simultaneously, and he can work on three different projects while talking on the phone. This is multitasking, and it’s a pivotal capability for thriving in the chaos. To develop this ability, you need to fine-tune your attention filter. Try to watch three or four TV shows at once, and always open your E-mail in the order you want–not in the order received. Resist the need to have all the answers before you go on.

What else can we do to gain the skills of the screenagers?

Always go for the experience, the journey. Not conclusions. Not winning. For example, we played Chutes and Ladders, a biblical allegory in which you rolled the dice and either won or lost. The object in Doom, however, is not to win but to keep the experience going as long as possible. It’s about getting as far as you can. Where adults will say a good game is easy to win, screenagers will say–and I’ve heard this a million times–it’s hard to die. Do you see the difference? That’s why screenagers love never-ending chaos. They’re in it for the struggle. And you want them on your side.