The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 25:75–93 2003Copyright Taylor & Francis Inc.
ISSN: 1071-4413 printDOI: 10.1080/10714410390198949
Contemporary youth are major players in the postmodern ad-venture because it is they who will enter the future and fur -ther shape the world to come.1 The offspring of the babyboomers born in the 1940s, their identities are indelibly markedas “post”—postboomer, post-60s, posthistorical, postmodern.
Yet they live in a present marred by extreme uncertainty, fac-ing a future that is murky and unpredictable. For youth to-day, change is the name of the game and they are forced toadapt to a rapidly mutating and crisis-ridden world charac-terized by novel information, computer, and genetic technolo-gies; a complex and fragile global economy; and a frighteningera of war and terrorism. According to dominant discourses inthe media, politics, and academic research, the everyday lifeof growing segments of youth is increasingly unstable, vio-lent, and dangerous. The situation of youth is today markedby the dissolution of the family; growing child abuse and do-mestic conflict; drug and alcohol abuse; sexually transmitteddiseases; poor education and crumbling schools; and escalat-ing criminalization, imprisonment, and even state execution.
These alarming assaults on youth are combined with massivefederal cutbacks of programs that might give youth a chanceto succeed in an increasingly difficult world.
Hence, today’s youth are at risk in a growing number of ways
and survival is a challenge. Ready or not, they will inherit a so-cial world that is increasingly deteriorating and a natural worldthat is ever more savaged by industrial forces. Yet they also haveaccess to exciting realms of cyberspace and the possibilities oftechnologies, identities, and entrepreneurial adventuresunimagined by previous generations. Contemporary youth in-cludes the best educated generation in history, the most techni-cally sophisticated, and the most diverse and multicultural,making generalizations about youth in the present day precari-ous.
In this study, we develop some concepts to outline a critical
theory of youth
that articulates positive, negative, and ambigu-ous aspects in their current situation. We delineate some of thedefining features of the condition of contemporary youth to indi-cate the ways that they are encountering the challenges facingthem, and to suggest how these might best be engaged. Thereare obviously a wide diversity of youth experiences of varyinggenders, races, classes, sexualities, and social groups, and wewant both to suggest differences while also emphasizing whatthey share in common as a generation. Our argument is thatwithin the present social crisis, there are grave dangers for youth,but also some enhanced freedoms and opportunities. More posi-tive futures cannot be created, however, unless youth are able toachieve a variety of forms of literacy, including print, media, andcomputer skills and enhanced education (Kellner, 2002). Theseabilities will enable them to cope with a rapidly changing envi-ronment and can help the emergent generations to shape theirown future and remake the culture and social world they in-herit.
Today’s youth are privileged subjects of the postmodern
adventure because they are the first generation to live intenselyin the transformative realms of cyberspace and hyperrealitywhere media culture, computers, genetic engineering, andother emerging technologies are dramatically transforming allaspects of life (see Best and Kellner, 2001). It is a world wheremultimedia technologies are changing the very nature of work,education, and the textures of everyday life, but also whereprevious boundaries are imploding, global capital is restruc-turing and entering an era of crisis, war, and terrorism, whileuncertainty, ambiguity, and pessimism become dominantmoods.
Consequently, the youth of the new millennium are the first
generation to live
the themes of postmodern theory.2 Entropy,chaos, indeterminacy, contingency, simulation, and hyperrealityare not just concepts they might encounter in a seminar, butforces that constitute the very texture of their experience, as theydeal with corporate downsizing and the disappearance of goodjobs, economic recession, information and media overload, thedemands of a high-tech computer society, crime and violence,identity crises, terrorism, war, and an increasingly unpredict-able future. For youth, the postmodern adventure is a wild anddangerous ride, a rapid rollercoaster of thrills and spills plung-ing into the unknown.
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
Perhaps the cruelest joke played on our generation is the general beliefthat if you went to college, you’ll get a job and be upwardly mobile.
The prospects for youth have always been problematic, de-
pendent on class, gender, race, nationality, and the concrete socio-historical environment of the day. “Youth” itself is a social con-struct that takes on different connotations at different periodsin history. What is striking about the contemporary situation ofyouth is the totalizing and derogatory terms used to describethem. Youth have been tagged with terms such as the “Post-poned Generation,” the “13th Generation,” the “New Lost Gen-eration,” “The Nowhere Generation,” or most frequently, “Gen-eration X,” as well as “The Scapegoat Generation,” “GenNet,”“GenNext,” and other catchphrases.3 These terms have mainlybeen applied to the 80 million Americans born between the 1960sand 1980s who follow the “boomer” generation that emerged inpost–World War II affluence and who were the beneficiaries of anunprecedented economic expansion. Howe and Strauss (1993)see all of these young people as one cohesive group, yet theynevertheless draw distinctions between the older “Atari Wave,”born in the 1960s and raised on the first video games such asPacMan and Space Invaders, the “Nintendo Wave” who playedthe more advanced Super Mario II and Tetris games, and the“Millennial Generation” born in the 1980s who entered the com-puter world. While these distinctions serve to distinguish be-tween younger kids and those who are now thirty-somethingsand ascending, video games are obviously a poor marker of dis-tinction and do not adequately delineate important gender, race,sexual preference, and class differences among contemporaryyouth. Moreover, innovative computer, CD-ROM, and video tech-nologies render video games a decreasingly central aspect of youthculture, hence the term “GenNet” has become a popular phraseto define the current generation. This task of defining today’syouth, we believe, is best left to the generation in question, so weare just delineating some categories that others can take up anddevelop.
Contemporary youth embrace a wide array of young people,
including those who helped create the Internet and others hookedon violent computer games; the latchkey kids who are home aloneand the mallrats quaffing fast food in the palaces of consump-tion; the young activists who helped generate the antiglobalization
and emerging peace and antiwar movements; the cafe slackers,klub kidz, computer nerds, and sales clerks; a generation com-mitted to health, exercise, good diet, and animal rights, as wellas anorexics and bulimics in thrall to the ideals of the beautyand fashion industries. Today’s youth also include creators ofexciting ‘zines and diverse multimedia; the bike ponies, valleygirls, riotgirls, and skinheads; and skaters; gangstas, low-rid-ers, and hiphoppers of the urban sprawl, all accompanied by adiverse and heterogeneous grouping of multicultural, racial, andhybridized individuals seeking a viable identity.
Certainly, in the age range of fifteen to thirty-something, in
young men and women, and in various classes and races, thereare important differences to note in an increasingly complex andhybridized “generation,” but they also have crucial things in com-mon. In standard media and socio-political representations, youthis pejoratively represented as cynical, confused, apolitical (or con-servative), ignorant, bibliophobic, scopophilic, and narcissistic.
Youth is typically portrayed in media culture as whining slack-ers and malcontents suffering from severe Attention Deficit Dis-order induced by MTV, remote control channel surfing, net cruis-ing, video and computer games, and tempered by Ritalin andProzac. Indeed, the cohorts of American youth over the past coupleof decades have been widely stigmatized as “the doofus genera-tion,” “the tuned-out generation,” “the numb generation,” “theblank generation,” “a generation of self-centered know-nothings,”and “Generation Ecch!” From the Right, Allan Bloom (1986) in-famously excoriated youth as illiterate and inarticulate adoles-cents blithely enjoying the achievements of modern science andthe Enlightenment while in the throes of a Dionysian frenzy,drugged by music videos, rock and roll, and illegal substances,and ushering in “the closing of the American mind,” the endgameof Enlightenment values. Such jeremiads constitute only the tipof the iceberg of hostility and resentment toward this generationby older generations, reopening a “generation gap” as wide asthat between 60s youth and “the establishment.”4
It is our argument that negative labels and characterizations
of youth are falsely totalizing. They eliminate, for example, youngpolitical activists and volunteers, bright students in oppositionto the values of media culture, and the technical wizards whodeveloped much computer software and pioneered the Internet.
Moreover, pejorative characterizations of youth fail to understandthat whatever undesirable features this generation possesses werein large part shaped by their present and past, and how theyounger generation is an unwitting victim of the economic reces-sion and the global restructuring of capitalism and the decline of
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
democracy. As Holtz says of his own generation: “We are, per-haps more than any previous generation, a product of the soci-etal trends of our times and of the times that immediately pre-ceded us. The years in which we were raised—the sixties,seventies, and eighties—saw unprecedented changes in the po-litical, social, and economic environment that, for the first timein American history, have made the future of society’s youngmembers uncertain” (1995, p. 1).
There is no widespread agreement concerning what concepts
best characterize contemporary youth. During the 1980s andinto the 1990s, the term “Generation X,” popularized by Cana-dian writer Douglas Coupland (1991) has been widely adopted.
For us, the “X” signifies the crossroads upon which the presentgeneration stands between the modern and the postmodern. Itsuggests an unknown and indeterminate future, a fluidity of iden-tities that are being redefined by new technologies and culturalexperiences, and a situation of uncertainty and social chaos. Yetif one needs a label to characterize this generation, then perhapsnot “Generation X,” which is vague and widely rejected by thoseit is supposed to characterize, 5 but “postboomers” is preferable,because they are the successors to those Americans born be-tween 1945 and 1960 and their identities in large part are shapedin reaction to them and their times. Moreover, they are the firstgeneration to grow up in the post-1960s Cold war era, charac-terized by the unfolding of the postindustrial society andpostmodern culture and have been living in the tensions andconflicts of the “post.”
The postboomer generation could also be labeled as “bust-
ers,” for with this generation the American dream, enjoyed bymany boomers, went bust and they were thrown into a world ofuncertainty, disorder, and decline. The baby-boomers came ofage during the optimism which followed World War II with therise of suburbia, cheap education, good job opportunities, abun-dant housing, the Age of Affluence, and the exciting and turbu-lent events of the 1960s. Their children, in contrast, maturedduring more troubled times marked by recession, diminishingexpectations, the conservative reaction led by Ronald Reaganand George Bush Senior, an explosion of shallow greed and ma-terialism, the disillusioning drama of a dot.com boom rapidlyfollowed by a dot.bust. The e-boom was a boom period for youthand by youth, and quite significant for this reason. Though bal-looned out of proportion by the financial industries, the Internetboom represented a new economy lead by a young vanguard.
The Bush II regime can be seen in many ways as a return to theold guard, the old extraction-based economy that sees economic
advancement as a win-loss game best advanced through imperi-alist expansion—a shift from the consumer, innovation, and ser-vice-driven economy that envisioned (at least) a win-win worldeconomy based on national comparative advantage and worldtrade. Thus, the restoration of the old order is also an attack onthe Young Turks, which also has the flavor in many ways of re-venge.
Moreover, dramatically worsening social conditions in the
current situation emerged following the September 11 terroristattack on the U.S. and the subsequent “war against terrorism.”After declaring war against an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State ofthe Union speech, in early 2003 Son of Bush assembled hisfather’s legion of doom and a gigantic military machine to wagewar against Iraq in an unfolding millennium of perennial war,one that will sacrifice another generation of youth (see Kellner,2003). Hence, while postboomer youth faced a life that was morecomplex, insecure, risky, and unpredictable than boomer youth,today’s youth face even more dangerous and anxious times withthreats of terrorism, war, and large-scale apocalypse on the ho-rizon, as the global economy sputters and possibilities for a bet-ter life diminish. Post-postboomer youth has lived through thefallout of the rising expectations of the “new economy” and glo-balization, finding that dotcom.bust, terrorism, and a reaction-ary U.S. administration bent on a return to the past and threat-ening unending war has imperiled their future as well as theprospects for survival of the human species.
We grew up as America, in many ways, fell down.
Rob Nelson and Jon Cowan
Ultimately, it will be up to the contemporary generation to defineitself, and it is time for youth and critical social theory to reflecton the Gen-Next that follows the “postboomer” generation. Whilethe term “postboomer” helps indicates the experience of comingafter the boomer generation and entering the postmodern ad-venture and living out the drama of the “post,” the new millen-nium produces novel social conditions for today’s youth who areengaging innovative and challenging cultural forms, and a dra-matically worsening economic and political situation, and evermore complex and unpredictable life. This generation faces thechallenges of forging careers in a declining economy, surviving
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
the threats of war and terrorism, and overcoming the conserva-tive hegemony that threatens their future.
There were earlier signs that postboomers were coming to
resent the elderly,
the “G.I.” and “Silent” generations, born re-
spectively between 1901-1924 and 1925-1942, who, through
various federal programs, have grown richer as youth have grown
poorer, and today’s youth are bracing for a shock when 56 mil-
lion boomers retire in 2010, seeking social and medical benefits
that are becoming increasingly costly and scarce. 6 Moreover, the
postboomer/postmodern generation has been stuck with the
highest federal deficit in history that it will be forced to pay off.
Despite efforts of the Clinton administration to cut back on the
federal deficit, future youth faced paying off a $6 trillion debt by
the year 2000, more than twenty times what it was in 1960. This
enormous mortgaging of the future is arguably the product of
unwise and unfair government spending that benefited upper
and middle classes over lower classes, and the middle-aged and
elderly over the young (Nelson and Cowan, 1994, p. 20). During
the two Reagan administrations, the national debt doubled and
the Bush I administration managed to further double the deficit
in one term. Further, Bush Junior is wracking up record $304
billion dollar deficits for 2003 while $307 billion-plus deficits are
projected for the following year, and a staggering trillion dollar
deficit is projected for the next five years.7 Consequently, future
generations will be forced to pay for the parties for the rich and
greedy thrown by Reagan and Bush administrations and will
have to clean up the mess.
And so the post-generations share in common a difficult fu-
ture. As Holtz realized (1995), whatever new freedoms and possi-bilities are available to contemporary youth—from education tojobs to housing—the opportunities to enjoy them are vanishing.
The postboomers are not only the largest and most diverse of allAmerican generations, they are “the only generation born sincethe civil war to come of age unlikely to match their parents’ eco-nomic fortune” (Holtz, 1995, p. 7). The brief exception of thedot.com boom put Holtz’s analysis in temporary question butunfortunately his subsequent comment seems appropriate wherehe describes the current generation as “the only one born thiscentury to grow up personifying (to others) not the advance, butthe decline of their society’s greatness” (Holtz, 1995, p. 7). Onceseen as a birthright of American children to inherit a better fu-ture, it is now a rite of passage to grow up in a age of decline.
Indeed, various statistics add up to a grim picture of decay thatshapes the cynicism and pessimism of many postboomers andcontemporary youth. From cradle to the seminar room, their lives
have been far more difficult and troubled than past generations.
Childhood poverty rates, family divorces, living and educationcosts, taxes, violence and incarceration rates, teen pregnancy,mental illness, drug rates, obesity, cigarette smoking, and sui-cide rates are way up
, as school performance, job prospects,median weekly earnings, unemployment benefits, and prospectsof future home ownership rates are down
By the time the boomers’ children reached puberty, opti-
mism had thus given way to pessimism, boom to bust, opportu-nity to crisis, and they were “lost” in the shuffle. For many, youthwas artificially prolonged as even college graduates could not getgood jobs, or lost their jobs after the dot.com bust or the disas-ters of the post-Enron corporate collapse and catastrophe ofBushonomics. Many young people have been forced to go backto live with their parents and a second adolescence, as the perksof adulthood become ever more difficult to achieve. Yet for Holtzand others of the postboomer generation, the situation is notentirely negative. He prefers to call contemporary youth, muchtoo optimistically, the “free generation” because “with the break-down of many gender-based traditions and racial stereotypes,we enjoy a much broader range of lifestyle and career choicesthan any generation that preceded us” (1995, p. 3). But he alsorealizes that this generation is “free” of any social, cultural, orpolitical defining generational experience that provides a com-mon collective identity.
Indeed, in many ways, the current generation of youth is
living in an especially depressing political environment. Wherethe boomers had the idealism of the Civil Rights movement, theVietnam war, the counterculture, solidarity with groups involvedin liberation struggles, and dreams of social revolution, theirchildren had Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Contraaffair, CIA wars in Central America, S&L scandals, cynicalconservativism, dreary materialism, anxious narcissism, and theparanoia of additional terrorist attacks and the promise of a cycleof Terror Wars. Boomers watched Neil Armstrong plant a flag onthe moon; postboomers and contemporary youth witnessed theChallenger
space shuttle explosions. Boomers facedthe threat of bullies in the schoolyard, postboomers pass by metaldetectors and security guards on their way into school and faceshootings such as in the Columbine massacre. Where the boomersenjoyed Woodstock and the utopia of free love, their childrenhad Woodstock II and then the simulacra of Woodstock III, asoulless, commodified parody of the original orchestrated by MTV,as well as “safe sex” necessitated by the specter of AIDS in aworld where Eros and Thanatos are increasingly fused.
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
Perhaps most crucially, while boomers enjoyed the luxury of
well-funded government services, contemporary youth in theUnited States must now live with the consequences of the 1996welfare reform bill, which began the process of making deep cutsin funding for women, children, and education. Of course, thereare gains and advantages shared by the current generation andgenerational experience varies according to class, gender, race,region, and individual. While racism continues to fester and ra-cial differences intensify, many youth of color have opportuni-ties today denied to their parents. Although sexism continues toprevail, younger women have absorbed feminist consciousnessinto their everyday lives and also have more opportunities forindependence than their mothers and grandmothers. And whilehomophobia continues to oppress gays, gay youth are out inrecord number and enjoying solidarity and support denied toprevious generations. Also, as we indicate below, there are pro-liferating spaces of youth subcultures, including cyberspace,which provide opportunities for self-expression and participa-tion denied many in the previous generations.
Crucially, the postboomers and contemporary youth share a
common identity—as products and users of mass media and in-formation technologies and a common social and political envi-ronment. They are not the first TV generation (their boomer par-ents had that honor), but their media experience is far moreintensive and extensive. Where boomers were introduced to a TVworld with limited channels in black and white, postboomersexperienced the cornucopia of 50 plus channels in living colortransmitted by cable and satellite television, a wealth of videocassettes, remote control devices, interactive video games, DVDs,and Kaaza. Whereas much boomer TV watching was rigorouslysupervised and circumscribed by concerned parents, post-boomers were parked in front of the TV as a pacifier, often withboth parents at work, indulging themselves in a media orgysupplemented by video and computer games.
Postboomers therefore watched much more TV than boomers,
competing with the time they spent in school and with othermedia.9 The shows postboomers watch are of a far different na-ture, filled with images of sex and violence the likes of whichwere not seen in the 50s and early 60s, substituting in the 1990sMelrose Place
, Beverly Hills 90120
, and Baywatch
for Ozzie andHarriet
, Dobie Gillis
, and Lassie
. Younger viewers of the past de-cade watched shows like American Gladiators
, The Mighty MorphinPower Rangers
, Beavis and Butt-Head
, and Pinky and the Brain,
compared to The Howdy Doody Show
, The Mickey Mouse Club
,and Mr. Ed,
which entertained young boomers. And the current
wave of “reality TV” shows feature young contestants strugglingfor survival, prizes, and celebrity against older players in Survi-vor
, locked up in a panopticon of surveillance in Big Brother
, andsubject to the degradations of sexual and social rejection in thehighly competitive personality/sex contests of Temptation Island
, The Bachelorette
, or Joe Millionaire
. These lattershows feature narcissism and sadism, depicting a highly Dar-winist neo-liberal struggle for the survival of the fittest and sexi-est, while losers are rejected and cast aside as unworthy.
But postboomers are also the first generation to grow up
with personal computers, CD-Roms, the Internet, and the WorldWide Web, providing for exciting adventures in cyberspace andproliferating technological skills, making this generation the mosttechnologically literate in history and offering unprecedentedopportunities for them to create their own
culture. Peer-to-peer(P2P) sharing of music, video, computer programs, and otherdigitized products represents more communal and social shar-ing than is evident in the reality TV shows, and programs likeNapster and Kazaa represent social technologies designed byyouth to create a participatory and shared digital youth culture,one currently at war against the adult world of copyright litiga-tion and the net police.
By the 1990s, forms of postmodern culture were thus a cen-
tral part of youth culture. The style of MTV has influenced mediaculture as a whole, which absorbs and pastiches anything andeverything, turning oppositional cultural forms such as hip hopand grunge into seductive hooks for fashion and advertising. Thepostmodern media and consumer culture is alluring, fragmented,and superficial, inviting its audiences to enter the postmoderngame of consumption, style, and identity through the construc-tion of look and image. Postmodern cultural forms are becomingdominant—at least for youth—with genre implosion a recurrentfeature of contemporary film and TV, as are pastiche, sampling,hyperirony, and other features of postmodern culture. Novel formsof electronic music such as techno and rave clubs also producecultural artifacts where youth can intensely experiencepostmodern culture, as they indulge in designer drugs, chemi-cal and herbal ecstasy, and psychotropic drinks. Thus, for con-temporary youth, postmodernism is not merely an avant-gardeaesthetic, or academic topic, but is the form and texture of theireveryday lives.
Most crucially perhaps, the experiences of the Internet have
brought postmodern culture into the homes and lives of contem-porary youth. Hooking into the World Wide Web, individuals canaccess myriad forms of culture, engage in discussions, create
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
their own cultural forums and sites, establish relationships, andcreate novel identities and social relations in a unique cyberspace(see Turkle, 1995). Internet culture is on the whole more frag-mented, diverse, and interactive than previous media culture,and as sight and sound become more integral parts of the Internetexperience individuals will increasingly live in a space signifi-cantly different from previous print and media culture. Beingpropelled into a new cultural matrix is thus an integral part ofthe postmodern adventure with unforeseen results. Contempo-rary youth constitutes the first cybergeneration, the first groupenculturated into media and computer culture from the begin-ning, playing computer and video games, accessing a wealth ofTV channels, plugging into the Internet, and creating communi-ties, social relations, artifacts, and identities in an entirely origi-nal cultural space for which the term “postmodern” stands as asemiotic marker.
Youth culture is thus today intersected by media and com-
puter technologies, and the current generation has grown upin postmodern culture. Yet in opposition to the dominant me-dia and consumer culture, youth subcultures have emergedwhich provide autonomous spaces where they can define them-selves, creating their own identities and communities. Youthsubcultures can be merely cultures of consumption whereyoung people come together to consume cultural products,like rock music, that bind them together as a community. Yetyouth subcultures can also be countercultures in which youthdefine themselves against the dominant culture, such as inpunk, goth, or hip hop culture. Youth subcultures can com-prise an entire way of life, involving clothes, styles, attitudes,and practices, and be all-involving ways of living. Youth sub-cultures contain potential spaces of resistance, though thesecan take various forms ranging from narcissistic and apoliti-cal to anarchist and punk cultures, to activist environmental,animal rights, and Vegan groups, to rightwing skin-heads andIslamic Jihadists. Thus, although there might be elements ofopposition and resistance to mainstream culture in youth sub-cultures, such counterculture might not be progressive andmust be interrogated in specific cases concerning its politicsand effects.
Of course, one needs to distinguish between a postmodern
culture produced by youth itself which articulates its own vi-sions, passions, and anxieties, and media culture produced byadults to be consumed by youth. One also needs to distinguishbetween youth cultures that are lived and involve immediate,participatory experience as opposed to mediated cultural experi-
ence and consumption, and to be aware that youth cultures in-volve both poles. Moreover, one should resist either reducingyouth cultures merely to cultures of consumption or glorifyingyouth culture as forces of resistance. It is best instead to ferretout the contradictions and the ways that youth cultures are con-structed by media and consumer culture and the ways that youthin turn constructs its own communities and cultures.
THE INTERNET, COMPUTER CULTURE, AND NEW POLITICS
A community will evolve only when a people control their own communi-cation.
The Internet and multimedia computer technologies and
cultural forms are dramatically transforming the circulation ofinformation, images, and various modes of culture, and theyounger generation thus needs to gain multifaceted technologi-cal skills to survive in the high-tech information society (Bestand Kellner, 2001; Kellner, 2002). In this situation, studentsshould learn both how to use computer culture to do researchand gather information, as well as to perceive it as a culturalterrain which contains texts, spectacles, games, and interactivemedia which require a form of critical computer literacy. Youthsubcultural forms range from ‘zines or websites that feature anever-expanding range of video, music, or multimedia texts to sitesof political information and organization.10
Moreover, since the 1999 Seattle anti-corporate globaliza-
tion demonstrations, youth have been using the Internet to in-form and debate each other, organize oppositional movements,and generate alternative forms of politics and culture, some ex-amples of which we discuss below. Consequently, we would ar-gue that computer literacy involves not merely technical skillsand knowledge, but the ability to scan information, to interactwith a variety of cultural forms and groups, and to intervene in acreative manner within the emergent computer and political cul-ture. Whereas youth is excluded for the most part from the domi-nant media culture, computer culture is a discursive and politi-cal location in which youth can intervene, engaging in discussiongroups, creating their web sites, producing multimedia for cul-tural dissemination, and generating a diversity of politicalprojects. Computer culture enables individuals to actively par-ticipate in the production of culture, ranging from discussion of
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
public issues to creation of their own cultural forms, enablingthose who had been previously excluded from cultural produc-tion and mainstream politics to participate in the production ofculture and socio-political activism.
After using the Internet to successfully organize a wide range
of anti-corporate globalization demonstrations in Seattle, Wash-ington, Prague, Toronto, and elsewhere (see Best and Kellner,2001), young people played an active role in organizing massivedemonstrations against the Bush administration threats againstIraq, creating the basis for a oppositional antiwar and peace move-ment as the Bush administration threatens an era of perpetualwar in the new millennium. Obviously, it is youth that fights anddies in wars which often primarily serve the interests of corrupteconomic and political elites. Today’s youth is becoming awarethat its survival is at stake and that thus it is necessary to be-come informed and organized on the crucial issues of war, peace,and the future of democracy and the global economy.
Thus, as the Bush administration carried out unprecedented
wars of aggression under scary preemptive strike doctrines anda new unilateralism whereby the U.S. strives to become the world’spoliceman and Hegemon, youth is organizing against the Bushimperialist war machine, along with veterans of past antiwarmovements. And as the Bush administration carries out unprec-edented attacks on democracy and civil liberties (see Kellner,2003), some young people are exerting their civil liberties speak-ing out against the Bush Reich and struggling for a more demo-cratic and egalitarian social order (while others join many of theirelders in collapsing into fear, apathy, and confusion).
Likewise, groups are organizing to save endangered species,
to fight genetically-engineered food, to debate cloning and stemcell research, to advance animal rights and environmental causes,and to work for creating a healthier diet and alternative medicalsystems. The Internet is a virtual treasury of alternative infor-mation and cultural forms with young people playing key rolesin developing the technology and oppositional culture and usingit for creative pedagogical and political purposes. Alternativecourses in every conceivable topic can be found on the Internet,as well as topics like human rights or environmental educationthat are often neglected in public schools.
Thus, we would argue that a postmodern pedagogy requires
developing critical forms of print, media, and computer literacy,all of which are of crucial importance in the technoculture of thepresent and fast-approaching future. Indeed, contemporary cul-ture is marked by a proliferation of image machines which gen-erate a panoply of print, sound, environmental, and diverse aes-
thetic artifacts within which we wander, trying to make our waythrough this forest of symbols. And so we need to begin learninghow to read these images, these fascinating and seductive cul-tural forms whose massive impact on our lives we have only be-gun to understand. Surely, education should attend to themultimedia culture and teach how to read images and narra-tives as part of media/computer/technoculture literacy.
Such an effort would be linked to a revitalized critical peda-
gogy that attempts to empower individuals so that they can ana-lyze and criticize the emerging technoculture, as well as partici-pate in producing its cultural and political forums and sites. Thechallenge for education today is thus to promote computer andmedia literacy to empower students and citizens to use a widerange of technologies to enhance their lives and create a betterculture and society. In particular, this involves developing Internetprojects that articulate with important cultural and politicalstruggles in the contemporary world and developing relevanteducational material (see Best and Kellner, 2001; Kellner, 2002;Kahn and Kellner, forthcoming).
Yet, there is also the danger that youth will become exces-
sively immersed in a glittering world of high-tech experience andlose its social connectedness and ability to communicate andrelate concretely to other people. Statistics suggest that moreand more sectors of youth are able to access cyberspace andthat college students with Internet accounts are spending asmuch as four hours a day in the seductive realm of technologicalexperience. The media, however, has been generating a moralpanic concerning allegedly growing dangers in cyberspace withsensationalistic stories of young boys and girls lured into dan-gerous sex or running away, endless accounts of how pornogra-phy on the Internet is proliferating, and the publicizing of callsfor increasing control, censorship, and surveillance of commu-nication—usually by politicians who are computer illiterate.
To be sure, there are perils in cyberspace as well as else-
where, but the threats to adolescents are significantly higherthrough the danger of family violence and abuse than seductionby strangers on the Internet. And while there is a flourishingtrade in pornography on the Internet, this material has becomeincreasingly available in a variety of venues from the local videoshop to the newspaper stand, so it seems unfair to demonizecyberculture. Indeed, attempts at Internet censorship are partof the attack on youth which would circumscribe their rights toobtain entertainment and information, and create their own sub-cultures. Devices like the V-chip that would exclude sex andviolence on television, or block computer access to objectionable
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
material, is more an expression of adult hysteria and moral panicthan genuine dangers to youth which certainly exist, but muchmore strikingly in the real world than in the sphere of hyperreality.
Yet there is no doubt that the cyberspace of computer worlds
contains as much banality and stupidity as real life and one canwaste much time in useless activity. But compared to the bleakand violent urban worlds portrayed in rap music and youth filmslike Kids
, the technological worlds are havens of information,entertainment, interaction, and connection where youth can gainvaluable skills, knowledge, and power necessary to survive thepostmodern adventure. Youth can create more multiple and flex-ible selves in cyberspace as well as alternative subcultures andcommunities. Indeed, it is exciting to cruise the Internet and todiscover how many interesting websites young people and othershave established, often containing valuable educational mate-rial. There is, of course, the danger that corporate and commer-cial interests will come to colonize the Internet, but it is likelythat there will continue to be spaces where individuals can em-power themselves and create their own communities and identi-ties. A main challenge for youth (and others) is to learn to usethe computer and information technology for positive culturaland political projects, rather than just entertainment and pas-sive consumption.
Reflecting on the growing social importance of emerging tech-
nologies and cultural sites makes it clear that it is of essentialimportance for youth today to gain various kinds of literacy toempower themselves for the emerging cybersociety. To survivein a postmodern world, individuals of all ages need to gain skillsof media and computer literacy to enable themselves to negoti-ate the overload of media images and spectacles. We all need tolearn technological skills to use the multimedia and computertechnologies to subsist in the emerging high-tech economy andto form our own cultures and communities. And youth espe-cially need street smarts and survival skills to cope with the drugs,violence, and uncertainty in today’s predatory culture (McLaren,1995) and emerging era of Terror War (see Giroux, 2003b).
It is therefore extremely important for the future of democ-
racy to make sure that youth of all classes, races, genders, andregions gain access to multimedia technology and criticalpedagogies. They need training in media and computer literacyskills in order to provide the opportunities to enter the high-techjob market and society of the future, and to prevent an exacer-bation of class, gender, and race inequalities. And while multipleliteracy skills will be necessary, traditional print literacy skillsare all the more important in a cyberage of word-processing, in-
formation gathering, and cybercommunication. Moreover, train-ing in philosophy, ethics, value thinking, and the humanities isnecessary now more then ever. Indeed, how
emergent technolo-gies will be used depends on the overall education of youth andthe skills and interests they bring to the technologies that canbe used to access educational and valuable cultural material, orpornography and the banal wares of cybershopping malls.
Of course, cyberlife is just one dimension of experience and
individuals still need to learn to interact in a “real world” of school,jobs, relationships, politics, and other people. Youth—and all ofus—need to learn to interact in many dimensions of social real-ity and to gain a variety of forms of literacy and skills that willenable us to create identities, relationships, and communitiesthat will nurture and develop our full spectrum of potentialitiesand satisfy a wide array of needs. Our lives are more multidi-mensional than ever, and part of the postmodern adventure islearning to live in a variety of social spaces and to adapt to in-tense change and transformation. Education too must meet thesechallenges and use multimedia and information technologies topromote empowering learning and devise strategies to create amore democratic and egalitarian multicultural society.
1. This analysis was to be included in our book The Postmodern Adventure,
the study was cut from the final version because of space considerations.
Examples here are drawn from our studies of youth in the United States,but in an increasingly globalized world such specificities often have moregeneral relevance. Thanks to Richard Kahn and Andrew Thomas for ex-tremely useful critiques of an earlier version of this text and to Henry Girouxfor long-time support of our work.
2. On postmodern theory, see Best and Kellner (1991, 1997, 2001).
3. Coined by Strauss and Howe (1993), the term “13th Generation” refers to
the thirteenth generation of American citizens, born in the 1960s. As coin-cidence would have it, their’s is an unlucky number. “Generation X,” popu-larized by Douglas Coupland (1991), signifies blankness and confusion,and is taken from a British boomer rock band. Mike Miles (1996) uses theterm the “scapegoat generation” for those youth who are blamed for thesocial ills which were in large part produced by older generations. Manypeople, however, do not feel part of either the boomer or postboomer gen-eration, and are somewhere in between, hence they are baptized “tweeners”(USA Today
, March 22, 1996). Technically, by their date of birth, they be-long to the boomers, but in their cynical and pessimistic mindset they aremuch closer to the postboomers.
4. Exceptions to the negative image of the cynical, apolitical slacker stereo-
type, include Nelson and Cowan (1994), which features an analysis of thedebt crisis and suggestions for how youth can intervene politically to help
Contemporary Youth and the Postmodern Adventure
others and shape a brighter future for themselves, moving from unpluggedto plugging back in; but their “Lead or Leave” foundation has been heavilyfunded by conservative sources and they have stressed cutting back on thefederal deficit through cutting back on social security and welfare programs—precisely the Republican agenda (see the critique in Extra!
, Vol. 7, No. 2(March/April 1994), pp. 6-7). See also Males (1996) who explodes the mythsthat contemporary youth are themselves responsible for exploding violence,crime, teen pregnancies, and social disorder, and for recent studies andcritiques of the escalating attacks on youth, see Giroux (2000, 2003).
5. A Newsweek
cover story on “The Myth of Generation X” already by 1994
claimed that “a recent MTV poll found that only one in 10 young peoplewould ever let the phrase ‘Generation X’ cross their lips” and cited severalwho rejected the label (June 6, 1994, p. 64).
6. See Coupland (1991: 181-183) who cites statistics indicating the growing
amount of federal wealth and programs directed toward the elderly andincreased tax burdens for younger generations. Third Millennium founderJonathan Karl noted that in 1995, the federal government spent 11 timesmore on each senior citizen than it did on each child under 18 and warnedof generational warfare if the budget deficit and high tax burdens on theyoung are not dealt with; in Swing
(September 1996): 53f. Obviously, as wenote here, the Bush administration is creating staggering deficits that willconstitute a daunting challenge to future generations.
7. Elizabeth Bumiller, “Bush’s $2.2 Trillion Budget Proposes Record Deficits,”
New York Times
(February 4, 2003). Although the U.S. economy has goneinto decline since the 1970s, this skid has hit the young generation thehardest, and they remain the poorest and most exploited. According to theU.S. Bureau of the Census, only 0.3 million Americans over age 65 lackedhealth insurance in 1990, while 14.8 million between ages 18 to 34 did, asdid 8.4 million under age 18 (Howe and Strauss, 1993, p. 108). As Nelsonand Cowan warn, “unless America dramatically shifts our budget prioritiesover the next 10 to 15 years to create new policies that are fair to all gen-erations, we will confront an unprecedented battle between the baby boomersand everyone born after 1960” (1994, p. 58). The U.S. Bureau of the Cen-sus found that childhood poverty rates rose from 15 percent in 1970 toover 20 percent in 1990, as poverty rates for the elderly plummeted from25 percent to 12 percent during the same period (Howe and Strauss 1993,p. 35). In the United States today, more than one out of every five peopleunder the age of 18 lives in poverty, a number a Tufts University studypredicts will rise to more than one out of four by 2021 (Nelson and Cowan1994, p. 40). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 1960,only 20 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6 worked, anumber that tripled by 1990. For mothers with children ages 6-17, thesenumbers rose from 43 to 76 percent during the same years (Howe andStrauss 1993, p. 58). Children born in 1968 faced three times the risk ofparental break-up as children born in 1948 and fewer than half of bustersreach their mid teens with two once-married biological parents (ibid., pp.
59, 61). Other relevant statistics can be found in Howe and Strauss 1993;Nelson and Cowan (1994); Holtz (1995); and Giroux (2003) who traces outthe growing impoverishment of youth and expanding class divisions in theBush administration.
8. See the statistics on these issues in Howe and Strauss (1993); Holtz (1995),
9. By the age of five, boomers had seen little or no TV, compared to the 5,000
hours of viewing by their post-boomer children (Howe and Strauss 1993).
According to some statistics, “the average 14 year old watches on averagethree hours of television a day, and does one hour of homework” (Howe andStrauss, 1993). Data on time spent by teenagers on TV is available inRobinson (1992); Robinson and Godbey (1997); Robinson, Kestnbaum,Neustadtl, and Alvarez (2000); Larson, and Verma (1999); and Larson,Richards, et al. (2001). On youth Internet use, see Fox, and Rainie ( 2001)and Jones (2000).
10. See Jones (2002) and Kahn and Kellner (forthcoming). Some good sites that
exhibit youth voices, participation, and response include http://www.moveon.org; http://www. raisethefist.com; http://www.tao.com; andthe youth blog site at http://www. bloghop. com/topics.htm?numblogs=14566&cacheid=1044419966.3569.
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