Anthony Wing Kosner, Contributor
I explore the art and science of producing and consuming content.
If you read one book next year to help you make sense of the present moment, let it be Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. Subtitled, “When Everything Happens Now,” the book is a contemporary rejoinder to Alvin Toffler’s seminal scripture of futurology, Future Shock, published in 1970.
What has happened in those 40 years has undermined our notions of the future. Indeed, one of Toffler’s tenets is that “change is non-linear and can go backwards, forwards and sideways.” Rushkoff takes this notion a step further an describes a present in which “there is no temporal backdrop against which to measure our progress, no narrative through which to make sense of our actions, no future toward which we may strive, and seemingly no time to figure any of this out.”
Rushkoff toes the line between apocalypse and ascension. He diagnoses the cultural problems engendered by our disorientation from traditional concepts of time and attempts to propose concrete steps we can take to recover some sense of control and purpose.
Program or be Programmed, Rushkoff’s last book, followed a similar arc, by explaining ten commands we can use to take control of our digital lives. The book inspired the founders of Codeacademy, Zach Sims and Ryan Bubinski, a free, online platform for teaching programming. Rushkoff is now Codevangelist in Residence at Codeacademy, where I interviewed him recently.
Present Shock is a big concept with profound implications for culture, politics and business. A simple visualization (borrowed from Adrian Bejan’s theories of flow systems) is to think of time as a river flowing at a certain pace. Below a certain threshold, the movements of things on the river are fairly linear and predictable. You launch a barge in the river here and three days later you have drifted to there. This is historical progress as we have come to know it over the millennia But when the speed of the flow increases beyond that threshold, the river becomes turbulent, non-linear, unpredictable. Such is the state of time in 2012.
What does this mean? Rushkoff breaks up “presentism” into five symptoms or challenges and matches each with constructive solutions for pressing the pause button. The “aha-moment-per-page ratio in Present Shock is high. Once you identify these concepts for yourself, you will start to see them everywhere.
Narrative Collapse: Rushkoff identifies both the sensationalism of reality TV and the meta-stories of The Simpsons and Family Guy as examples of how we no longer have the time or patience for linear stories. From entertainment to financial investment, the payoff has to be virtually instantaneous in order to justify our attention. Politically, he shows how these impulses play out both in the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. A news cycle divested of linear time, pushes politicians into present tense reactions with unsustainable results. Rushkoff’s sympathies are clearly more with Occupy who confounded conservatives and the mainstream press by having a large impact without an easily identifiable goal. In remix culture and contemporary activism, he sees the potential for us to seize the narrative frame and use them in new ways to invent innovative story forms and flexible agendas.
Digiphrenia: Because technology enables us to be aware of and have control over multiple conceptual spaces simultaneously, our attention is increasingly divided. Whether we are “multi-tasking” at work or piloting drone strikes in Afghanistan from a suburban office park in Las Vegas, we are not in the present moment (in a zen sense) but actually in fragments between moments that happen to be occurring at the same time. The key to avoiding these dislocation, Rushkoff suggests, is to understand the difference between time as data flow (like a Twitter feed) and time as data storage (like a book.) Knowing when to be in “the now,” and when to insulate yourself from it can help you reclaim control of your time and attention.
Overwinding: The “shock” part of future shock really comes from how much time we have “springloaded” into the present. From financial derivatives to the piracy of intellectual property, Rushkoff shows how we use leverage “to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones,” attempting to capture the value of (others’) labor in the click of a mouse. This is why Black Friday gets earlier and earlier each year or why shaving a couple of milliseconds off the time to execute a computerized trade confers significant advantage. But we can also use this fact in more constructive ways to “springload” time into things, like the example Rushkoff cites of the fully functional “pop-up” hospital that Israel sent to Japan after the Tsunami.
Fractalnoia: One of the biggest risks in the barrage of big data spawned by our digital lives is that our abilities of pattern recognition are imprecise. When we succeed at making sense of the world in one scale or time frame we easily apply that “fractal” pattern elsewhere, often inappropriately. As the pace of change increases, our feedback loops get shorter and shorter until all we have is feedback screech. Computers, operating out of human time, can in fact discern patterns in that noise, but it is up to us humans to put those patterns in the correct context. When we fudge the hierarchy we end up with conspiracy theories and unsupportable science.
Apocalypto: The time pressures are so great and our confidence in our own ability to solve the world’s problems so weak that apocalyptic finality has an unshakable appeal. Rushkoff links together not only “Preppers” in their bunkers and cryogenic “Singularity-ists,” but also the current cultural fascination with zombies as examples of our wish to “level up” (in game parlance) out of our present situation. These grand finales are fantasies, like the doomsday predictions about the end of the Mayan calendar, but they speak to a powerful yearning. Rushkoff suggest we resist these temptations and instead, “let up on the pedal just a bit… [and] envision slow paths to sustainability that don’t require zombies or the demise of the majority of the world’s population.
For all of these impacted symptoms of time distress, Rushkoff proposes actionable solutions. I noted in the acknowledgements section the thanks he gave to Courtney Young for “encouraging me to keep considering the positive implications of present shock.” It is tempting, of course, to merely be critical. Rushkoff has something of the old-testament prophet about him, full of honest indignation—but he balances that with an awareness of what people, businesses and governments need in the present moment to solve their immediate problems.
To the problem of narrative collapse, Rushkoff suggests that young people have reacted to the loss of storytellers by realizing they have to become the storyteller. The gamer can write his own next level. We can be fragmented by allowing ourselves to operate on the (non-temporal) time scale of computers or we can program our computers to keep us in sync with our own goals and our own lives. Technology is, in fact, neutral. It doesn’t “want” things to be a certain way. But all technologies are ste up by people with certain biases, but those biases are often unclear until they play out in the real world. So civilians do have an opportunity to intervene in technologies that they dont’t fully understand because they do have the capacity to understand the impact of those technologies on their lives.
Rushkoff sees that technology and financial opportunism have strengthened each other in ways that are ultimately not in the greater good. But he doesn’t see this overwinding of certain values as opposed to others as inevitable or apocalyptic. Now that we see how these things work Rushkoff argues, we can begin to “unwind” them into more sustainable, egalitarian shapes. But as with a computer program, it is important to understand where you are in the code at any given point. Each part of a hierarchically nested system has a certain scope, and assuming global functions or variables can lead to errors.
Most importantly, the end of time as we have known it is not the end of the world. It is a new world that we can assert control over in new ways. So get over your doomsday hangover and get to work!