Douglas Rushkoff: Present Shock, the Boing Boing interview
A real-time, always-on existence without past or a future, origins or goals.
Over twenty years, ten books, and multiple PBS documentaries bOING bOING pal and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has proven himself to be a provocative pattern seeker with a mastery at connecting the dots between popular culture, technology, and the complex underpinnings of modern society. Inspired by the likes of Timothy Leary, Marshall McLuhan, Robert Anton Wilson, and Neil Postman, Doug's message has always been about the empowerment of the individual. He is a quintessential happy mutant. Whether he's writing about social contagions, video games, advertising, religion, or the Occupy Movement, his focus is on how narrative can be used by Control to coerce, and as a tool of resistance. William S. Burroughs once wrote, "Is Control controlled by its need to control? Answer: yes." And therein lies the secret to undermining it. Doug's new book is Present Shock, about how everything is happening now. Right now. As Doug said, "It is kind of panicked, untethered sensation that comes with living a real-time, always-on existence without past or a future, origins or goals. Just the present."
BB: The book's title is a riff on Alvin Toffler's classic 1970 book "Future Shock." He used that phrase to describe the feeling of "too much change in too short a period of time." What is present shock?
Rushkoff: Present Shock is what happens when the future Toffler described finally arrives. It's the initial human reaction to living in a world where everything is happening now…
In one sense it's the first response to a digital media environment - or, more specifically, the digital temporal environment. While analog time (itself just one kind of representation) had a continuous, almost narrative quality as the second hand swept through one minute and into the next, digital time just sits there poised at 3:23, 3:24. We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day. But a digital second is less a part of greater minute, and more an absolute duration, hanging there like the number flap on an old digital clock.
In the other, bigger sense, though, it's about reaching the end of the millennium. We spent the latter part of the 20th Century leaning towards the year 2000, almost obsessed with the future, the dot com boom, the long boom and all that. It was a century of movements with grand goals, wars to end wars, and relentless expansionism. Then we arrived at the 21st, and it was as if we had arrived. People stopped thinking about what their investments might be worth in the future, band began to consider what they were worth right now. And the market crashed. We came to realize the expansion was over - at least in the colonialist way we understood it. Obama told us we are the change we had been waiting for.
So between those two related shifts, we arrived in a present. Only instead of seizing this new "now," we tend to get disoriented. Instead of using digital technology to time shift our schedules to our real preferences, we respond to the insistent pings of our devices as if we were 911 operators or air traffic controllers. We chase the moment they offer, and forget that we are the ones in real time, and the devices (and the corporations behind them) are chasing us.
But "present shock" is also as simple as the botox addicts on Real Housewives of Orange County, desperate to lock in the moment when they were 29 years old. All succeed in doing is paralyzing their faces in a poor imitation of that moment, and making themselves unavailable to the social moment in which they are living. They can't register emotions on their faces, which is why they never believe one another. They are "overwinding" the present moment.
The book is broken up into five "symptoms" of present shock? Can you give an example of each?
Narrative collapse is what happens when we no longer have time to tell a traditional story. Whether it's remote controls or DVRS that allow us to break the trance of a story, or simply our inability to grasp a story when we no longer have linear time in which to tell it. In one way it's great thing, because it disables the kinds of stories that were used to pull us out of the moment, and fix our eyes on some future goal. We can't be fooled into destructive, ends-justify-the-means battles because we don't do things for the ends, anymore. It wreaks havoc on brand mythologies and origin stories, alike.
At first, the response was television like The Simpsons and MST3k, which seemed less about whatever story was being told, and more about the individual associations we make along the way, comparing a scene with some other moment in media. The satisfaction wasn't getting to the end, but making all those connections.
Then we see video games as an even more presentist response, giving the user a real-time experience of making choices instead of watching some character move through a story that already happened. We get "infinite" games, where we play not to win and end the play, but in order to keep the play going.
Digiphrenia is a digitally induced mental confusion. I've never had a problem with information overload. Where I think we run into trouble with digital technology is its ability to make copies. Human beings don't copy well - but I've got i don't know how many "instances" of myself functioning independently at any moment. My Twitter account, my email inbox, my Facebook profile (well, I surrendered that one), all act on my behalf, sometimes when I'm not even there. Especially when Zuckerberg decides to market something using my likeness, or that of someone who has chosen to "like" me.
The promise of digital technology was that it would give us more authority over our time. Remember those early conversations on the Well? We got to sound smarter than we were in real life, because we had all the time in the world to respond. They were asynchronous conversations, fully consonant with the asynchronous character of digital technology. When we strap this stuff to our bodies and respond to each vibration, we are turning them into something very different.
Digiphrenia is also simply mistaking digital clock time, and its seemingly generic quality, to the very contoured and specific qualities of human time. Biologically, psychologically, and culturally, we are guided by all sorts of cycles that make one time different from another. Emerging research (cited in the book) seems to indicate that we are collectively biased toward a different neurotransmitter during each week of the lunar cycle. No, it's not new age weirdness (though I bet most aboriginal cultures knew this - the early Jews certainly did). Digiphrenia is a disconnection and devaluing of these underlying rhythms for the illusion of chronologically equivalent pulses. We lose our coherence, because we're no longer in synch with our most basic biological clocks.
Overwinding is trying to shove really big time scales into tiny little presentist moments. When I read Stewart Brand's The Long Now I was inspired by the idea of thinking of things in 10,000 year spans. But for me, that experience felt less like a long now than a short forever. It was just too big a scale, too big a sense of responsibility to throw onto each moment. At the very least, it was a hard argument to make in a presentist culture with no sense of long-term goals and impacts.
Overwinding is the effort to get long-term effects out of immediate actions. It's happening most clearly on the stock market, where people want to make money not by investing, but on the trade itself. They buy Facebook in the morning of the IPO and are disappointed when they haven't made a profit fifteen minutes later. It's the ultra-fast trading algorithms that make money by trading in your future.
Fractalnoia is when we try to make sense of things in the present moment, rather than having a cause-and-effect chain of events through which to understand how something happened. It's making sense of a static picture. Like CSI. Drawing connections and making equivalencies between things that are essentially unconnected and definitely not equivalent.
I took the term from fractals, of course, because so many of us seem to make the error of mistaking self-similarity for being exactly the same. We need to develop pattern recognition, which is a softer and less exact skill than finding true congruence. Fractalnoia is also the panic at trying to parse feedback. Our feedback cycles have gotten so tight in a presentist society that it's really hard to parse causes from effects. All we hear is the screech of the microphone in the speaker.
Finally, Apocalypto is our intolerance for living in an interminable present. We are so used to beginnings and endings, that many of us would rather imagine a zombie apocalypse or human-obsolescing singularity than try to carry on sustainably into the future.
When you started writing this book, you told me you thought it was your most important one. I've never heard you say that before. Do you still feel that way now that it's done? Why?
In some ways I feel like it's my last book. (Don't applaud - that's not polite.) It certainly brings me to the end of the journey I began with Cyberia in 1994 (a book that got canceled by its commissioning publisher because they thought the net would be "over" by the original 1993 publication date). I wrote that "time was speeding up" and that we were "on the event horizon of the strange attractor." It was heady and optimistic, but it was also Mondo and Boing Boing.
It didn't seem to me I was writing about something that was coming, but something that had arrived. This was it. The tools were in our cyberpunk hands, and we could create what we wanted, exchange it directly, build a peer-to-peer culture and economy, and liberate ourselves from centuries of time-is-money industrial corporatism. The digital age seemed to be the great release from the yuppie nightmare, and the ultimate generator of slack.
But then Wired got ahold of it, and all of sudden the digital age wasn't something with us, to celebrate; it was something on the horizon. Louis Rosetto wrote in the editorial to the first issue of Wired that we were facing a "Bengali Typhoon." Like it was this big wave that was about to happen and you better watch out. And you better read this magazine (and hire some digitally inspired futurists) to do some scenario planning so you don't' get wiped out.
And from then, digitally seemed less about transcending the industrial age economy, and more about preserving it. Internet companies were going to save the Nasdaq. And, sure enough, we used digital technology largely to make us into better consumers. And our applications - the way so many of them take our time instead of free it, make us work round the clock instead of when we want, or convince us that we have to tend to them night and day - they exacerbate the worst sorts of time-is-money principles of industrialism.
So when I started this book, I realized I had (at least for me) come upon the essence of our relative power in this situation: Time. We are witnessing yet another iteration of the age old interplay between Chronos, or clock time, and Kairos, which really means timing. Timing is the human part - the indefinable aspect of time. A kind of readiness. What's the best time to tell dad you crashed the car? 5:02? No, that's chronos. It's not a time on the clock. It's after he's had his drink but before he's opened the bills. Kairos.
And all my work has really been about this - from Playing the Future, which was about the breakdown of cause and effect narrative, to Nothing Sacred, which was about Jewish continuity as less of a thread to some historical past and more about the willingness to engage with fresh eyes today.
So this book is less about a particular thing, and more about the whole thing.
For years, you and I joked that you were like an "optimism engine," always able to find the brighter side of any negative situation. I'm not sure if you've become less optimistic, but you are certainly less positive about the present. Why?
Well, I'm still really hopeful. And I play the optimism game to this day - where I take an awful phenomenon and try to recast it in a positive frame. It's a bit harder now that I have a kid and I think about the world she'll inherit. But I'm still hopeful.
The only negative side of Present Shock is that we're mostly in shock rather than true presentism. But that's to be expected because this is brand new, and we have a good five hundred years to go before presentism becomes something else. These things last millennia. And there are some great example in the book of people and groups who are embracing presentist, steady-state models. From Occupy to time dollars, Makerbots to spiritually inspired social activism, we see the emergence of some terrifically, post-industrial post-narrative approaches to life. We are finally ready to look at less climactic, more sustainable solutions to the world's problems.
Contending with a society biased toward the present is just going to take some time.
One of the most soundbitey bits in the book is the statement "I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology.” What does that mean?
I accept that technology has biases. Guns don't kill people, but they are much more biased toward killing people than pillows.
Digital technology has biases, too, but I don't think they are biased toward taking our time, fracturing our awareness, and making us anxious. I think they are more biased toward doing the opposite. The thing that gets me anxious is not the email piling up in the inbox - it's the expectations of the people on the other end of those emails. It's the expectation that I'm supposed to respond in seconds or minutes. It's the boss who thinks a computer is a good enough reason to watch every one of his worker's keystrokes.
But you see, the only reason the boss thinks that is because he's back in the industrial age mentality of believing that he has bought your time. Digital technology should be giving the worker more choice of how he uses his time, not the boss more authority over that time.
Since at least 1998, and most recently in your Good post, you've ranted that "futurists suck." As you know, I'm a card-carrying futurist myself with Institute for the Future, an organization that you've expressed a desire to associate with more closely. So I need to ask, how do you define "futurist"?
Well, "why futurists suck" was a bad headline on an otherwise heartfelt little piece. I've gone and apologized for it on my blog. It's no excuse - particularly for me - but I was in a bit of present shock, myself, when I was going back and forth about it (typing on a smart phone during an NPR station break on publication day, correcting for a snafu that had delayed the piece) and I wasn't paying proper attention to how it was going to be framed.
The title actually came back from the past - a talk I gave at SXSW in 1997 (you were there!) called "Renaissance Now!" (satirically subtitled, "or why futurists suck"). It was meant as a humorous swipe against the long-boom-boosters I saw turning the internet from a real-time, p2p2, Maker phenomenon into the poster child for NASDAQ. It was aimed at a particular, digerati-style of consultants who I believed weren't genuinely looking to figure out what might happen; they were propagandizing the net as a market phenomenon in order to extend the lives of the corporations to whom they were consulting. Their purpose was not to usher in the digital age, but to perpetuate the industrial age by digital means.
And then they necessarily went off in really dehumanizing directions, envisioning information's inevitable transcendence beyond humans in its own quest toward greater complexity. People were only valuable to the extent they could enable information's evolution. To me, this has the medium and the message reversed.
Writing Present Shock finally taught me what it was I was ranting about back in 1997 but not fully understanding. This really isn't about the future; it's about the now - in more ways than one.
As for real futurists - and science fiction writers - I love them. I'm probably one, myself. But futurism today means being truly grounded in the present, and then building possibilities from there. Those are the only possibilities that are bound by nothing but the human imagination.
Douglas Rushkoff will talk about Present Shock at San Francisco's City Lights Books on April 4 at 7pm and Brooklyn's Greenlight Bookstore on April 11 at 7pm.
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