When I was growing up, the year 2000 was the temporal touchstone everyone used to mark the advances of modern life. Oh, by then we’d be doing so many technologically enabled things: Cars would fly and run on garbage, computers would run everything, school wouldn’t exist. We were all looking forward, and Y2K gave us a point on the horizon to measure it all by. When it came and went without incident, we were left with what we had in the present. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013), Douglas Rushkoff argues that the flipping of the calendar to the new millennium turned our focus from the future to the never-ending now. “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,” he tells David Pescovitz, “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.”
“We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day,” he continues, “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.” A digital clock is good at accurately displaying the time right now, but an analog clock is better at showing you how long it’s been since you last looked. Needing, wanting, or having only the former is what present shock is all about. It’s what Ruskoff calls elsewhere “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” As the song goes, when you say it’s gonna happen “now,” well, when exactly do you mean?
Michael Leyton (1992) calls us all “prisoners of the present” ( p. 1), like runners on a temporal treadmill. He argues that “all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present” (p. 2), and those objects often linger longer than they once did thanks to recording technologies. In 1986 Iain Chambers described the persistence of the present through such media, writing,
With electronic reproduction offering the spectacle of gestures, images, styles, and cultures in a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration, the ‘new’ disappears into a permanent present. And with the end of the ‘new’ – a concept connected to linearity, to the serial prospects of ‘progress’, to ‘modernism’ – we move into a perpetual recycling of quotations, styles, and fashions: an uninterrupted montage of the ‘now’ (p. 190).
Needless to say that the situation has only been exacerbated by the onset of the digital. In one form or another, Rushkoff has been working on Present Shock his whole career. In it he continues the critical approach he’s sharpened over his last several books. Where Life, Inc. (Random House, 2009) tackled the corporate takeover of culture and Program or Be Programmed (OR Books, 2010) took on technology head-on, Present Shock deals with the digital demands of the now. A lot of the dilemma is due to the update culture of social media. No one reads two-week old Tweets or month-old blog posts. If it wasn’t posted today, in the last few hours, it disappears into irrelevance. And if it’s too long, it doesn’t get read at all. These are not rivers or streams, they’re puddles. All comments, references, and messages, and no story. The personal narrative is lost. It’s the age of “tl; dr.” The 24-hour news, a present made up of the past, and advertising interrupting everything are also all about right now, but our senses of self maybe the biggest victims.
“Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time,” Rushkoff writes, “our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities” (p. 72). Our online profiles give us an atemporal agency whereon we are there but not actually present. On the other side, our technologies mediate our identities by anticipating or projecting a user. As Brian Rotman (2008) writes, “This projected virtual user is a ghost effect: and abstract agency distinct from any particular embodied user, a variable capable of accommodating any particular user within the medium” (p. xiii). Truncated and clipped, we shrink to fit the roles the media allow.
Mindfulness is an important idea cum buzzword in the midst of all this digital doom. Distraction may be just attention to something else, but what if we’re stuck in permanently distracted present with no sense of the past and no time for the future? If you’ve ever known anyone who truly lives in the moment, nothing matters except that moment. It’s the opposite of The Long Now, what Rushkoff calls the “Short Forever.” Things only have value over time. Citing the time binding of Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, Rushkoff illustrates how we bind the histories of past generations into words and symbols. The beauty is that we can leverage the knowledge of that history without going through it again. The problem is that without a clear picture of the labor involved, we risk mistaking the map for the territory.
James Gleick summed it up nicely when he told me in 1999,”We know we’re surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don’t quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened — our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember.” Well, here we are. What now?
The existence of this book proves we can still choose. In the last chapter of Present Shock, Rushkoff writes,
…taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready; and we can slow or even ignore the seemingly inexorable pull from the strange attractor at the end of human history (p. 265-266).
We don’t have to stop or run, we can pause and slow down. Instant access to every little thing doesn’t mean we have to forsake attended access to a few big things. Take some time, read this book.
Chambers, Iain. (1986). Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience. New York: Routledge.
Leyton, Michael. (1992). Symmetry, Causality, Mind. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Morrissey, Steven & Marr, Johnny (1984). How Soon is Now? [Recorded by The Smiths]. On Hatful of Hollow [LP]. London: Rough Trade.
Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Rushkoff, Douglas. (2013). Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. New York: Current.