Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
by Douglas Rushkoff
Current/Penguin, 2013, 296 pp., $26.95
“Time”, one sagely old maxim holds, “is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.”1 This has always seemed as good as any other grand abstraction about time, which, along with its partner, space, rules over all that was, is or will be. But now along comes cyber-theorist Douglas Rushkoff with a new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and invites us all to reconsider. Only at the level of theory, of course. For it did still take me some hours back in the old-school space-time continuum to read the pages of his book. But in his realm of theorizing, Rushkoff does offer us some troubling recognitions.
The title, Present Shock, is an overt play on Alvin Toffler’s 1970 blockbuster Future Shock, which argued that the giddy-making rate of transformation of our post-industrial global world was threatening to overpower our more gradually evolved coping abilities. Rushkoff picks up the basic transformation narrative more than four decades down the road and puts his own neo-apocalyptic spin on it. The years preceding the millennium, he writes, setting the psychological context, were marked by an intensifying anticipation: We were all poised, anticipating, anxious to see what the rollover of digits would bring. “Well, the waiting is over”, he announces in his preface. “Here we are.” Which is to say: “If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.” Presentism: the overwhelmingness of the immediate.
Vast assertions like this are to be expected in works of uber-synthesis; they are part of the fun. We take them not as gospel, but for those parts of the provocation that ring true. And Rushkoff, author of a number of well-regarded books on media theory, including Life Inc. and Program or Be Programmed, is sufficiently observant of trends and reflective of implications that his scenarios call us repeatedly to attention. We may not have exploded the timeline just yet, but there is something in the metaphoric conception of it all.
Briefly, Rushkoff argues that an array of convergent forces, everything from computing to communications devices to neuroscience to global economic practices, has destroyed our old conception of time—and with it our private and collective sense of where we are. Everything is “now.” For the first time, we are without coordinates; we are victims of the shattering momentum unleashed by our technologies, stripped of whatever control we once believed we had. The author then identifies the five main ways that this “shock” affects us, and these form the basis for his five chapters. He considers “narrative collapse”; the effect of “digiphrenia”—being, or trying to be, in several places at once by multi-tasking; “overwinding”, which is the release, or exploitation, of stored time; “fractalnoia”, or the search for connections between things in a frozen-moment in the present tense; and, finally, “apocalypto”, the way in which being unmoored in time awakens a powerful longing for endings.
Divisions like this, complete with nomenclature, look to lay claim to the terms of debate. Alvin Toffler himself was a systems-maker, distinguishing great societal “waves” and coining terms left and right (“adhocracies”, “prosumers”), not that any of them finally defined the public dialogue. I fear Rushkoff’s will not, either. I can’t imagine extensive debates on “fractalnoia.” But these coinages clearly have their uses, and the ideas themselves, while maybe not fully mapping our situation, are nonetheless worth contemplating.
Rushkoff’s opening chapter, “Narrative Collapse”, blends postmodern theory with ruminations on the implications of the latest media technologies. Even before the great digital invasion, postmodernist thinkers were theorizing the fracturing of traditional myths and narratives—how in a global media culture these shared stories became ironized, self-referential, and subject to collage and pastiche. Putting his own focus more on the public sphere, Rushkoff considers what has happened in broadcast journalism. His argument is familiar to readers of Neil Postman’s work and that of others. Basically, story-telling in the heyday of the nightly news required time and authority. Networks needed to evaluate events and to carefully script the sequences of presentation by weighing the relative importance of the day’s developments.
All that is changed. The proliferation of recording technologies (smartphones, video-cams) as well as in-the-moment outlets, has exploded the public structure of the news cycle and undermined much of the former authority of network (and newspaper) offerings. News is now a 24/7 business. The pressures of immediacy have in all areas overthrown the old clarities (or illusions) of context.
Where once we had narrative premise, rooted in shared structures of meaning, now we have participatory, open-source unfoldings of the immediate and ongoing. These affect agendas of action even at the highest levels. Looking at government policy, Rushkoff cites what Pentagon officials years back dubbed “the CNN effect”, the way that real-time access to information has undone former paradigms of reflection and reaction. He writes,
Policy is no longer measured against a larger plan or narrative; it is simply a response to changing circumstances on the ground, or on the tube. Of course, the Internet, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds amplify this effect, bringing pings and alerts from around the world to people’s desktops and smart phones without even the need for a CNN truck or a satellite feed.
The gain for the news consumer is a greater sense of immediacy (the now) as well as a less authority-centered relation to the world. The loss is that we increasingly live with a sense of being unmoored, cut off from the past, from history, from everything but the mutating collage of the present. The old narratives no longer orient us in the world.
ushkoff’s second chapter, “Digiphrenia”, explores what might be called the wired-up version of schizophrenia. Though not an official DSM entry, it may yet be. Simply, obviously, it describes the collision of the naturally evolved human reflexes and the inundating claims of the information environment. “Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time”, writes Rushkoff, “our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities.” Just keeping up with ourselves becomes a source of escalating stress, to which we respond in various ways: by fragmenting our focus, by speeding up our technology, and in some cases by speeding up our own brains with enhancing pharmaceuticals like Ritalin. There is no chance that the flow of information will subside, or that we will somehow rein in the technology juggernaut.
Our only choice, if we want to preserve some vestiges of our natural human selves, argues Rushkoff, is to stop trying to match the pace of the digital, and to make it serve us instead. He offers a few examples of how this might work: the clothing chain Zara, for instance, uses technology to more efficiently synchronize demand with production, creating a marketplace ecology. But while his cherry-picked instances are sensible enough, Rushkoff’s insistence that solutions are readily at hand is not persuasive. The greater part of the chapter has effectively painted a Sorcerer’s Apprentice scenario, with all of us, like Mickey Mouse in the Fantasia segment, futilely battling cataracts of water with broom and bucket. Detaching from any part of the system, never mind getting it to match our more natural rhythms, is more of a challenge than Rushkoff will allow.
Of the remaining chapters, the most interesting (and diagnostically suggestive) is “Fractalnoia: Finding Patterns in the Feedback.” On the one hand, it showcases what might be Rushkoff’s most important weakness: the tendency to subscribe too readily to his own quasi-apocalyptic rhetoric. In order to sell the “fractalnoia” concept—the idea that complex fractal patterns emerge in any inspection of an isolated moment of time—he needs to convince us that his opening gambit was not a mere trope, and that linear time in fact no longer exists. “When there is no linear time”, he asks, “how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way they are.”
I won’t dispute that the timeline of old is being subjected to unprecedented stresses, and that we have a harder time buying the consolations of the “master narratives.” But it’s a long way from such instability to what is billed as the complete eradication of all former coherence. We are not in free-fall yet. Linear time is still our dominant paradigm, and explanatory narratives—and myths and cultural archetypes—are very much with us, if often in altered form. I don’t know that we need to accept an “end of days” scenario in order to make valid Rushkoff’s various next points.
The chief of these points, it seems to me, is presented in his chapter opening, a quote attributed to woman calling in to a late-night talk-show. “Everything is everything”, she ventures. Though we are supposed to shake our heads at such an absurd tautology, Rushkoff sets out to show that it makes sense. And to a degree, he succeeds.
Basically (and again, these assertions work best when construed as metaphors of a sort), the idea is that in our digitized world, where everything is increasingly monitored and reacted to instantly, we experience a kind of instantaneous feedback loop. In a digital information environment, results are fed into a system right away and there is instant course correction. Moreover, solutions are now collective efforts, produced by groups working in synch, wiki-style. We are pulled together ever more closely, en route to becoming elements in a single functioning order, a hive. Here Rushkoff calls on the philosophizing of Gregory Bateson, who “saw the individual, the society, and the natural ecology as parts of some bigger system—a supreme cybernetic system he called ‘Mind’, which was beyond human control and to which human beings must in some sense surrender authority.”
With this we are tapping the thematic subtext of the book. “Everything is everything” maps perilously close to Rushkoff’s subtitle “when everything happens now”, so it’s not surprising to find in the final chapter, “Apocalypto”, multiple references to end times and the “singularity.” Rushkoff begins “Apocalypto” by linking the book’s major themes to various current expressions of the survivalist mentality:
At least the annihilation of the human race or its transmogrification into silicon—resolves the precarious uncertainty of present shock. So far in our journey, we have seen the human story collapse from a narrative into an endless preoccupation or infinite game. We have seen how digital technology continually challenges our coherence and connection to the natural rhythms that used to define our biology and psychology alike. We have watched banks and businesses compress time into time, leveraging the moment like an overwound spring. And we have seen identity itself devolve into a nonlocal pattern in a depersonalized fractal. Apocalypto gives us a way out. A line in the sand. An us and a them. And, more important, a before and an after.
Here follow brief discussions of the zombie craze, and then, as if connected, the fantasies of the technocrat fringe, including thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly, who believe that our fate is to acquire a kind of transpersonal immortality through the progressive uploading of matter into machine. He quotes Kelly, who views humans not as a culmination, but rather as “an intermediary, smack in the middle between the born and the made.” Rushkoff sees that Kelly’s vision proposes an either/or: “We must either accept technology as our inevitable offspring and successor or ‘reject technology as a whole.’”
But Rushkoff will not accept this wager. He finally lays all logics to the side and confesses: “I find myself unable to let go of the sense that human beings are somehow special, and that moment-to-moment human experience contains a certain unquantifiable essence.” His own position proposes commonsense compromise—not rejecting technology (as if we could or would), but intervening to set the pace, which is to say asserting a considered control. We should “let up on the pedal just a bit. This doesn’t mean stopping altogether or stepping on the brakes.” The logic of the metaphor keeps us in the driver’s seat, “accepting dominion over the moment in which we are living right now.”
Though most of the argumentation of the book grows directly out of Rushkoff’s dramatic and, of course, untenable assertion that we have entered the time of no-time, that assertion is really more of a hook, an instigating premise that allows him to organize and develop his various concepts. And many of these are interesting. Rushkoff has a trend-spotter’s eye, and is not afraid to freely extrapolate from what he has observed. He delivers an unsettling look at life in the information age, one that gets us all but uploaded into silicon, before he decides to bring us back home. It’s good to be back home. Dorothy was right: There’s no place like it.
1My go-to online source says that no less a philosopher than Woody Allen coined this maxim. He didn’t: The American science fiction author Ray Cummings did, in The Man Who Mastered Time (1929).