When everything happens now
I recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book: Present Shock.
I found it enlightening and thought I could share a brief summary of it below.
What is Present Shock?
There are many sides to it but Rushkoff sums it up pretty well in the following conflict:
The faux present of digital bombardment
The true now of a coherently living human
The first manifestation of Present Shock identified by Rushkoff is the narrative collapse.
Reality TV, Lost, Friends, Seinfeld, action movies, extreme sports, news, video games are all symptomatic of the disappearance of the story.
It has been replaced by a meta-narrative creating a sustained tension with little expectation of final resolution. There is no journey through evidence anymore but a ‘making sense’ of the moment.
Who could seriously expect a ‘real’ ending to Lost after a few episodes or a anything else than a preposterous screenplay when watching Star Trek or Iron Man?
J.J Abrams and his mystery box are the perfect embodiment of this trend.
Intentionally withholding information is much more engaging for the viewer. It doesn’t require a story to work. It’s chaos cinema.
Extreme sports and video games are not about a story leading to a victory anymore, there are about the play itself. No fixed rules or seriousness, improvisation is what matters.
The disappearance of story incites sensationalism. We try to recreate the exhilaration of traditional narrative with provocation and humiliating imagery: present shock.
Closer to technology itself, digiphrenia is another face of Present Shock.
We want all access, to everything, all the time and be capable of matching this intensity and availability ourselves. Instead of demanding that tech conforms to ourselves, we strive to be more compatible with it.
But the quest for digital omniscience is self defeating. We are chasing after what has already happened and ignoring whatever is going on now.
We’re submitting ourselves to the computer clock: Chronos, when we should in reality leverage technology to be in touch with Kairos: the right or opportune moment aka timing.
The biggest sham Rushkoff uncovers is how we inaccurately describe our own technology. Digital time does not flow, it flicks. Our choices are dictated by a pulse, not a stream. It’s not a Twitter or a Facebook stream we’re showering ourselves with all day long. Let’s call it what it is: a Twitter flicker or a Facebook pulse.
We always talk about synchronization. The reality is we have never been so far from being in sync with our own human pace.
We’re frantically syncing with machines, alienating ourselves because we hop from choice to choice (should you get out your vibrating phone or ignore it?) but we forget the obligation to choose is no choice at all.
We’re just digging our own grave.
We’re mistaking sync with digiphrenia, a disordered condition of mental activity. We are not intellectually and emotionally equipped to be on Chronos clock. We are altering ourselves in a bad and mad way.
Overwinding is another manifestation of Present Shock.
It is time compression: the ability to squish really big timescale in smaller ones.
Hedge Funds with their complex derivatives have become overwinding masters, as reality TV with its instant catharsis.
But closer to our tech concerns, let’s take the common case of 15 minutes spent on Facebook.
Your friends from elementary school, your family, your ex-girl friends, your current friends, your future relationships, past and future parties are all mashed-up there, squished on your 13" screen.
Everything you have lived, everyone you have met is compressed in a virtual now. This shift from a historical sensibility to a presentist one is like being asked to shift our awareness away from the hard drive to the RAM.
We end up in a short forever, paralyzed by the weight of indelible history and the anticipation of a pre-orientated fate.
Facebook knows you so well that you’ve turned into an insignificant and highly predictable part of the machinery.
The same process is at work in the way we approach culture. When everything is instantly accessible, the entirety of culture becomes a layer deep. All knowledge is brought to the present tense. There is no cultural explores, no time for artists or genres to develop because there is no time to develop the layers and experiences.
Finally, Rushkoff writes:
The hardest part of living in present shock is that there is no end. It is a chronic plateau of interminable stress that seem to have always been there.
The logical consequence of this short forever with no end is we return to the simplicity offered by extreme scenarios: Apocalypto.
It relieves us from our responsibility by granting not only aspiration to technology but superiority.
Remember Ray Kurzweil’s singularity? It simply is another way to give in. Technology will end up making choices for us and move forward. Why bother?
The steady avalanche of disaster movies Hollywood is feeding us is yet another testimony of Apocalypto.
So how do you escape Present Shock? In the words of Rushkoff, you have to:
Accept responsibility and dominion over the moment in which you are living right now.
For technology, it means building a service which is not only in tune with our organic pace but helps us sync with it as much as possible, that cares more about timing than eyeballs.
In short, something making us more human.