Screenagers and networked beings:
Rushkoff sees our society in a state of 'preadolescent' crisis; children will be the first to grow beyond this awkward phase. He describes the evolution of a 'new species', 'networked beings', 'screenagers' who are already nibbling at the edges, pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo.
They are growing up into an age of discontinuity and chaos, and their sophisticated visual literacy skills will be one of the main tools that will allow them to deal with this society - simply by embracing it.
So who is Rushkoff?
Rushkoff is an American commentator and bestselling author who has a healthy disregard for academic pundits (whom he accuses of mystifying technology to preserve their positions of power), and a healthy regard for 'screenagers' whom he depicts as taking naturally to the anarchic, naturally subversive non-hierarchical world of cyberspace like 'cyberdenizens' to the galaxy born.
Rushkoff sees reductionism as the ultimate enemy, leading inevitably to chaos. Those who understand that underpinning chaos and discontinuity are patterns like Mandelbrot's fractals will grasp the new reality. He claims that: "By focusing on discontinuity, rather than avoiding it, we can come to understand its nature".
The nature of chaos:
What is this nature? The point is that there is no point... It is purely experiential: "Chaos is the character of discontinuity." It makes sense in its own terms. He claims that many 'screenagers' instinctively understand this, and he gives a compelling, almost poetic, picture of how skateboarders surfing the city, snowboarders surfing the slopes, "screenagers surfing the Net and channel surfing live the "discontinuous complexity of the man-made cityscape."
He uses skateboarding as a metaphor for the way kids surf TV channels and surf the Net: "It is as if the kids are developing a series of resonant fields, each impressing a set of values - however topically inane - on an otherwise completely meaningless concrete wasteland." He suggests that the Internet is a world to be mapped in the same superficial 'I been there' anarchic way.
"By focusing on discontinuity, rather than avoiding it, we can come to understand its nature."
Romanticised claptrap? I think not?
Rushkoff would be the first to reject any absolutist suggestion that his views were THE answer. They are one extremely plausible way of explaining the students in our schools whose fascination with superficial surfing translates into indifference to or rejection of many of our approaches to literacy - including print. He recognises the 'topical inanity' of much of what interests the surfing screenager.
When you see it through Rushkoff's eyes you are forced to understand how media saturation has affected reading habits and preferences. He discusses the influence of MTV in destroying the linear model' of TV and moving to what he describes as 'disassembled mediascape" where "the texture of programming is more important than the content."
It makes sense, and I liked his notion of the postlinear grammar of modern media formatting requiring different and more sophisticated skills:
"But the skills we need to develop in order to become adept at surfing channels (and computer networks, online services, the world wide web, even our own e-mail Messages for that matter) are the very opposite of what we traditionally valued in a good television viewer. We are coming to understand that what we so valued as an attention span is not a power of concentration or self-discipline in the least, but rather a measure of a viewer's susceptibility to the hypnotic effects of linear programming. We see now, though, that the viewing style of our children is actually the more adult... the ability to piece together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act of a higher intellect, not a lower one."
Attention span vs attention range:
Rushkoff agrees that 'screenagers' have a shorter attention span, but claims that they compensate for this by developing a broader attention range and suggests that the skill to be valued in the next century is not length of attention span, but the ability to multitask - to do many things at once, well.
Screenagers can flick between channels or web pages and manage to build several 'plots' in their heads simultaneously. "The other key viewing skill... is the ability to process visual information very rapidly... Kids process the visual language of television directly and are so adept at this skill that they hunger for images of greater complexity." The same could be said for Internet images?
Rushkoff describes this new language of visual information which, Depends as much on the relationship of different images and the images within images as it does on what we generally understand as content. it suspends the time constraints of linear reasoning in order to allow for a rapid dissemination of ideas and data, as well as the more active participation of the viewer to piece it together and draw conclusions for himself."
Rushkoff then turns his attention to the art of comic reading. There's a simply brilliant section on the language of comics in which actions, emotions and events are represented iconically, in which storytelling is freed from the constraints of linearity, allowing comic book readers to understand the world in new ways, reading the taps to get the meaning: "The moment that the character comes up with the idea occurs in the space between the two frames, the empty space called the gutter." In other words, the visual equivalent of reading between the lines...
How do we get them to translate this into reading for learning?
Have good metaphor.., will surf..,
Having struggled unsuccessfully for years to get teachers to model precisely these skills with text so that students would be able to 'surf through books, periodicals and screen- based information sources and synthesise and relate ideas to construct knowledge, Rushkoff has left me with two powerful ideas.
• Firstly, teach kids to apply existing screen and comic skills, and we'd be half way home.
• Secondly, persuade teachers to give up, for once and for all, the stupid question-answer paradigm that underpins the noxious 'project method' (you ask a question or questions and use information sources to find information to copy - never mind analysis, synthesis, interpretation!)
We've proved how much more effective the detective metaphor is at primary school. So what about the 'surfing' metaphor at secondary? Rushkoff's work suggests that students already have well-established cognitive patterns and visual literacy skills to build on; How do we harness these skills?
So, is there no room for the teacher? Has the English Curriculum got it wrong? If kids are already in possession of visual literacy skills which leave ours for dead, why bother?
Rushkoff paints a VERY clear picture of how he sees the teachers' roles when they are "liberated from the rote task of supplying information - a machine can do that." He says:
"Teachers must discover what they can offer that a computer cannot" Unlike a computer a human teacher can be a partner in learning and dedicate himself to giving his pupils the necessary criteria to judge their data's integrity, make connections between different facts and formulate opinions and arguments of their own. The best teachers will instill in their pupils the confidence and enthusiasm to express themselves as widely and articulately as possible."
Instead of working from a deficit model (the assumption that students lack visual literacy skills and we need to teach them what they lack) Rushkoff signals that we might need to look for what they CAN do - better than we can - point this out to them so that they feel self-efficaceous, and then invite them to transfer their skills to print-based text. There's a thought! We can start by looking at how screenagers surf channels, the Net, their environment. "It's chaotic, but there's an underlying order to it", he says.
And before you shoot the messenger, read Rushkoff yourself. I don't agree with all his ideas, but there's enough here to make me want to rush off and try things for myself. I am! I have just had a mixed-age class doing an exercise whereby they were given three minutes to scan a text and 'pass the parcel'. Younger students did better than older students (in terms of how many ideas they could synthesise), and enjoyed it much more.
"Children are leading us in our evolution past linear thinking... toward a dynamic, holistic, animistic, weightless and recapitulated culture. Chaos is their natural environment."
We who grew up convinced that it was better to read from left to right slowly, to make meaning sequentially as we plodded along, might need to rethink a lot of things? And we need to do some of this re-thinking before we assume that visual literacy is something we have and students don't.