Douglas Rushkoff is a man ready to talk. As a media theorist, he has a lot of ideas about everything, and he’d like to share them with you. His new book, Present Shock, is his effort to describe "right now," whatever that is — and how we deal with it. What’s most surprising about the book is perhaps the fact that he wrote it all. He mentions the difficulty he had, with all the hustle and bustle of current society distracting him, and is very grateful to any theoretical reader for ignoring that noise long enough to make it through all 266 pages. It’s entirely counter to the way he sees our society exchange and consume information these days. ("A book? Really? How anachronistic!"). He assumes you’re much more likely to receive its ideas in a blog post or magazine review — much like this one you’re about to read.
In Present Shock, Rushkoff describes our current state of information-saturated, always-on, technology-conformed being. He defines a number of syndromes or symptoms of this problem, and gives them fancy names like "Digiphrenia" and "Fractalnoia." They sound like mental disorders, which is sort of the point.
"Prophecy no longer feels like a description of the future."
The term Present Shock is a direct reference to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock published in 1970. Rushkoff and many others believe the futurism of the 20th century, most spectacularly displayed in the space race, has given way to a myopic obsession and focus on the present in the 21st century. He writes, "Prophecy no longer feels like a description of the future, but, rather, a guide to the present." The danger of futurism was an overwhelming consideration of what could be, the danger of presentism is an overwhelming consideration of what is.
His first chapter focuses on what he calls "Narrative Collapse," a result of our short attention spans and need for instant gratification. It’s better in concept than the evidence he gives for it. He lumps most of modern entertainment (including, oddly, Seinfeld and Beavis and Butt-head) into something he calls "Now-ist Pop Culture," that’s more concerned with making sense of the present, with self references and cyclical plots, than conveying the traditional Western story arcs we’ve known since Homer. We go for "heightened states" and problem solving in lieu of narrative.
It’s an odd assertion to make at a time where narrative television is just hitting its stride — thanks to DVRs and Netflix, an audience is able to enjoy a television equivalent of a novel, instead of a self-contained half hour sitcom with no continuous plot line. Even the NFL uses narratives — the two coaches are brothers! — to sell itself. But Rushkoff would argue that most emergent narratives are insulated and present-focused because a "captive audience" is increasingly anachronistic (he points out the word "entertainment" means "to hold within").
The solution, he says, is to allow the audience to become a part of the narrative. New forms like video games and Twitter let passive viewers become active participants.
Of course, there’s a danger to becoming part of the narrative. Humans, he explains, live in linear time, while the internet and our computers can do everything at once, and so in the digital, everything happens at once (many of Rushkoff’s thoughts on time vs. humans parallel Nicholas Carr’s writings in The Shallows). He calls this sensation "Digiphrenia." It’s like "a dance partner who doesn’t see or feel us," he says, and we’re frustrated as we try to sync up.
Messages arrive on everyone else’s schedule rather than our own
Similarly, all information is available to us simultaneously, so it can begin to feel similarly weighted. A single Google search can present a Tweet from 15 seconds ago alongside a heavily researched article on the topic. We get emails and text messages that don't matter to us simultaneously with — and in the same box as — ones which do. "Messages arrive on everyone else’s schedule rather than our own."
For Rushkoff, the way to deal with these problems is to differentiate "storage" and "flow" — an idea you might’ve heard of back in 2010 as "stock and flow" from Robin Sloan. Something like Twitter, Rushkoff echoes, is a flow of data, which can’t be dealt with comprehensively, only dipped into. A slower medium like email can work as storage, where each item can be given its appropriate amount of attention in time. "The digital can be stacked; the human gets to live in real time." It’s the difference between adhering to a television programming schedule and using a DVR to watch shows at a time convenient to you.
Similarly, Rushkoff thinks we need to pay more attention to the rhythms of our bodies (as opposed to the CPU clock), the unforced conversations of consumers (as opposed to top-down corporate messaging), and try not to bite off more than we can chew. He encourages us to take our eye off the ball at times to see the bigger picture. To take the time we need to understand and react.
And then, of course, we’re lead to another problem: we simply have too much data, and too many connections between those points of data, to make sense of it all. Rushkoff calls it "Fractalnoia." One succinct way to put it: "The ultimate complexity is just another entropy."
After talking to Rushkoff for an hour, I still can’t tell if he thinks we’ll win this war with the machines. In Present Shock he quotes himself from another book, Media Virus: "the spread of a particular virus depends no more on the code within the virus than it does on the immune response of the culture at large." So far, our culture doesn’t seem to have much immunity to these new mediums. As I mention in my interview, much of what he describes manifests in my own life as stress. I hope to use some of his coping mechanisms as weapons and his definitions as armor when I return to the internet and have to fight these problems once more.
"I suggest we intervene on our own behalf — and that we do it right now, in the present moment."
Present Shock seems like it was written frantically, and some of its topics and examples seemingly chosen at random. The book’s style seems a symptom of this cultural attention deficit / overstimulation he describes — almost like it was written in an attempt to capture the "now" before it slipped out of even Rushkoff’s careful hands. I think some of his examples suffer because of this, which is a pity, because I really enjoyed chewing on his big concepts and well-named syndromes. Ultimately, the book is more for armchair theorists than a primer on our present technology-conformed culture — a high level book like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, or a blow-by-blow account like Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, might be a better introduction to the state we find ourselves in.
Still, I loved Present Shock for its audacity and attempts to succinctly describe the cumulative effects technology has on us. Rushkoff’s not as much listing problems he sees, as he’s describing our reaction to and attempts to cope with those problems. I found the book worth taking a few hours away from video games and Redbox to finish. And that’s Rushkoff’s greatest hope for humanity, as he writes in his preface:
"I suggest we intervene on our own behalf — and that we do it right now, in the present moment. When things begin accelerating wildly out of control, sometimes patience is the only answer. Press pause. We have time for this."
Check out the full hour-long interview below:
Directed by: Billy Disney
Camera operators: Billy Disney, John Lagomarsino, Jordan Oplinger
Edited by: Regina Dellea
Sound mixing by: Brendan Murphy