May 2013

James Orbesen


Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff

Writing about the present can be a tricky proposition. Once you turn pen to paper, or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, the moment has already passed. If you're trying to capture the now now, when does that happen? Is it now? Or how about right... now? In Douglas Rushkoff's latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, now is very much at the heart of contemporary life. Yet it is a slippery, almost impossible thing to decode. Why? As Rushkoff says: "That is because there is no now -- not the one they're talking about anyway. It is necessarily and essentially trivial. The minute the 'now' is apprehended, it has already passed."

Rushkoff, celebrity media theorist and anatomist of contemporary culture, certainly has been around the block once or twice. His predictions and dissections on how information is transmitted have been largely spot-on. With a career spanning decades and focused on the increasing speed of communication and connectedness, who is more primed to examine the obsession with the present, the live, the what's-happening-now that has gripped so many people's lives?

Nevertheless, that seems to be the problem, doesn't it? How can the now be comprehended? Once one starts to contemplate, it has already passed. Rushkoff knows this. He is aware that his project might be flawed. Still, he asserts that we "have time for this."

But how can we when so much demands out attention each and every day? Not even each day, but every minute, perhaps every second. How can we, when so many feel, as Rushkoff points out, that "If we could only catch up with the wave of information... we would at last be in the now." Those constant pings, dings, and chirps are always egging us on, at least, those that are plugged in. And being plugged in is the only way to stay atop the world developing around us. Access to information, after all, is access to what's happening in the here and now, even though information has a funny way of buckling to new developments.

So the cycle continues. New information, stuff that more approximates the now, is consumed while the old is discarded. Then that goes away. More replaces it. There is never an end. Rushkoff, channeling Alvin Toffler, calls this sensation "present shock," where past and future have collapsed into an all-consuming present. In a way, it's not that far from addiction. One can never have too much data, too much of a hold on what's unfolding. For every new post, tweet, or feed, a newer, fresher one is guaranteed to be around the corner.

What Rushkoff describes as present shock is merely an old conflict: "The irony is that while we're busily trying to keep up with all this information, the information is trying and failing to keep up with us." It is our tools failing to keep up with the demands of a user. However, that failing is not placed on our tools, but on ourselves. We try to compensate by indulging, rather than examining. More tellingly, Rushkoff hints at something almost David Foster Wallacian: "The actual experience of this now-ness, however, is a bit more distracted, peripheral, even schizophrenic than that of being fully present." It is this confusion between the present and being present that has led us to our current cultural impasse.

But what form does this impasse take? Rushkoff has identified numerous symptoms of the fetishizing of the now. One particularly important, at least to writers and storytellers, is the collapse of narrative. A fixation on the now eschews a traditional narrative of rising and falling action. There just isn't time to focus. Instead, present shock leads to an embrace of the fragment, the aside, and the digression. Shows such as Family Guy, Lost, and twenty-four-hour news programs lack a cohesive, constructed narrative. Instead, information is conveyed through snippets, implied connections, and unfolding events. Few things are mediated or contemplated.

Lost is a show not with a narrative, but with an elaborate puzzle. A story emerges only after a viewer has pieced together disparate elements, something Rushkoff might call "pattern recognition" or, for those more zealous in the pursuit of connection, "fractalnoia." Family Guy, and to a lesser extent The Simpsons, are shows that highlight the aside, the reference, and the bit, jokes that aren't set up to end with a punch line but simply are. The joke is the joke itself. There isn't time to establish context within the show. Context comes from what exists in the present alongside the show. Lateral thinking has morphed into lateral viewing.

While these are simply trappings of postmodernism, twenty-four-hour news is far more dangerous, in that it is always on. There is no off. There is no pause. As Rushkoff relates: "Officials at the Pentagon eventually dubbed this phenomenon 'the CNN effect,' as then secretary of state James Baker explained, 'The one thing it does, is to drive policymakers to have a policy position. I would have to articulate it very quickly. You are in real-time mode. You don't have time to reflect." This makes present shock almost terrifying. It prevents leaders -- well, actually anyone -- from having the time to study and size up what one should do in the future. The result is the sensation that we can only respond, react, to a surge of ever oncoming crises. There is no management since there is no time. The flow of events is beyond our control, constantly happening, and can only be endured, not mitigated, at an ever-increasing pace.

"We may not know where we're going anymore, but we're going to get there a whole lot faster. Yes. We may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we're simply too busy to notice." This is perhaps the most persistent symptom of present shock, blindly hurdling forward to something, unable to look ahead for fear of missing what's around us.

Wait, maybe our tools can help us manage the onslaught of data brought down on our heads. Our processors and browsers can multitask, juggle the incoming ocean of disparate data. Why can't we, in order to handle the ongoing present shock? Again, that's a losing proposition:

It's much more difficult, and counterproductive, to attempt to engage in two active tasks at once. We cannot write a letter while reconciling the checkbook or -- as the rising accident toll indicates -- drive while sending text messages. Yet the more we use the Internet to conduct our work and lives, the more compelled we are to adopt its processors' underlying strategy. The more choices are on offer, the more windows remain open, and the more options lie waiting. Each open program is another mouth for our attention to feed.

Humans cannot become the machines that manage present shock the best. It's simple biology, no matter what marathon programmers might claim. Sure, caffeine and speed can get one through a two-day crunch period. But what costs are involved? What happens to the human body when our natural rhythms are cast aside, abandoned, to approximate the very devices that enable our heightened connectivity? Burnout. Depression. Maybe suicide. After all, "The digital can be stacked; the human gets to live in real time."

So what solution does Rushkoff propose for the "long present," as he calls it? A greater understanding of time and our relationship to it. And he finds this understanding not in the present or in speculation about it coming from the future. Instead, he looks to the past.

Anyone who has studied Einstein knows that time is relative. It is, as far as it influences humans, a construct. To the ancient Greeks, time came in two varieties: chronos, the clock time we are familiar with, and kairos, the timescale of humans. "Kairos is a more slippery concept. Most simply, it means the right or opportune moment. Where chronos measures time quantitatively, kairos is more qualitative. It is usually understood as a window of opportunity created by circumstances, God, or fate."

Rushkoff proposes that humans expand their minds to a greater understanding of time. The real trap of present shock is mistaking our devices that alert us to the now as approximating the now. It is the old "map versus territory" conundrum. Our representations are starting to be seen as the genuine article. Taking a step back, unplugging, just for a moment, might be the best way out. To understand the now, one needs to get away from it and become something more: aware.

Throughout his book, Rushkoff probes how humans interface with their technology. Some embrace it, fervently wishing for an approaching oneness with our devices when humanity will be shed like so much snakeskin. Others shun it, embracing apocalyptic scenarios of a coming techno-plague and throwing their life savings into bomb shelters. Rushkoff is neither, yet, he understands both sides. This fusion is what elevates his text from a simple endorsement of one side or the other and into an understanding that what we're experiencing is an all-too-human condition.

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
ISBN: 978-1591844761
256 pages