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Present Shock – by Douglas Rushkoff – A Book Review

Human beings do not experience time in the same way that machines do. While this may seem laughably obvious it is nevertheless the type of simple truth that is easily overlooked in our technology loving age. And if we ignore this fact it becomes all too easy for us to seek to adjust our own (evolutionarily programmed) senses of time to accommodate the (truly programmed) timescale of our machines.

Your e-mail account is a post-office that is open at all hours, delivering you a continuous stream of messages instead of just giving you a simple pile once a day; your cell phone is always on (assuming you always leave it on [which you probably do {I do}]) pining you relentlessly and making you reachable at all times by equally chronologically confused humans; and the Internet simultaneously creates time-stamped freezing images of what has happened while keeping us always just one step behind what is actually happening at this very moment.

While savvy usage of new technologies can be exciting and freeing the experience of the time compressed world created by these devices (and the societal shifts that are part and parcel to this shift) can result in anxiety, sleeplessness, confusion, frustration, and a bevy of other new and exciting techno-aggravated-human ailments. These are some of the conditions that are critiqued by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in his latest book: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013).

The argument that Rushkoff constructs is a broad narrative, one that is not interested in scoring quick points but rather is focused upon laying out a larger historical context in which his readers can locate and understand themselves. Modern technologies, as they are described by Rushkoff, have greatly changed the way that we as individuals and we as a society experience time and the demands that time places upon us. The “present shock” with which Rushkoff is concerned is not a result of singular something dire and horrible happening in the present but rather the ongoing shock of our inability to keep up with everything occurring at once. We become so inundated by the demands of the now, that, in Rushkoff’s words:

“Instead of finding a stable foothold in the here and now, we end up reacting to the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands.” (4)

or, as he writes (in a line that begs to be quoted):

“Yes, we may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we’re simply too busy to notice.” (73)

Amidst the “present shock[ed]” world that Rushkoff writes about there is a constant desire for the new and the now. To be at the very best possible party going on, to make trades milliseconds before your competitors, to never miss an e-mail or a tweet. In this world of blog posts, tweets, texts, podcasts, social networks, you tube videos, and so forth, the very fact that Present Shock is a book comes in for comic analysis, as Rushkoff notes (on the second to last page):

“A book? Really? How anachronistic! Most of my audience—the ones who agree with the sentiments I am expressing here—will not be getting this far into the text, I assure you. They will be reading excerpts…they will get the gist of the argument and move on.” (265)

A funny sentiment to put on page 265 of a book that ends on page 266 (not including acknowledgments, bibliography, index, and other assorted back matter), but for members of Rushkoff’s “audience” who chooses the actual text instead of just a simple summary they will find Present Shock to be an interesting, well reasoned book, that requires a degree of internal mental wrestling that it is hard to derive from “reading excerpts” and getting “the gist of the argument.” Books like Present Shock, it seems, are meant to have the sort of impact that keeps a reader from simply being able to “move on.” Or, as is certainly the case with Present Shock, force the reader to “move on” with a different attitude.

The addled world of Present Shock is home, to five simultaneously occurring foes (each of which gets its own chapter):

  • Narrative Collapse – the failure of old meta-narratives and mythologies to provide meaning in our current age and their steady replacement by a warped mirror mythology of “reality television” and a strange panoptic pantheon of self referential programming (stories where characters know they are in a story). This collapse gives rise to a scrambling to build up new storylines be it the Tea Party, the Occupy movement, or devotees to video games.
  • Digiphrenia – as humans seek to adjust themselves to living and working in the forward rush of digital technology our ability to engage with the present is rattled and disordered. The demand to keep apace with the digital onslaught leaves us always behind, always struggling to keep up with the thousands of informational pings that assault us at all hours.
  • Overwinding – a symptom closely related to Digiphrenia, in Overwinding people struggle to use technology to condense into a matter of moments the work that once took much longer. A severe compression that forces all of our human time scales into the now, whether this is the development of an artistic subculture, a political movement, or a response to the constant exhortations not to delay but to act immediately.
  • Fractalnoia – the sometimes sensible, sometimes sensitive, and some times ridiculous attempt to make sense of all that is going on in the world. Fractalnoia is humanity’s propensity to seek out patterns and explanations for why “that thing that just happened” actually happened and then attempt to place it into a through line that allows us to make sense of it (which is difficult in a world also experiencing Narrative Collapse).
  • Apocalypto – the reaction to the above four scenarios that gives rise to apocalyptic urges be they the end of humanity in some cataclysmic doomsday (zombies), or the end of humanity as people become wholly integrated with their machines and digital technologies (singularity).

The above five descriptions do not do justice to Rushkoff’s arguments (my apologies to Mr. Rushkoff for this), but this only serves to highlight that works such as Present Shock need to be engaged with instead of skimmed in an attempt to get the “gist.” As a theorist Rushkoff has been very successful in being the one to “name” certain trends (“viral” for example is frequently attributed to Rushkoff’s book Media Virus), and this seems to play into Rushkoff’s section names (though we will need to wait to see if “Digiphrenia” or “Fractalnoia” become commonly used terms).

Indeed, if Rushkoff is wary that many of his readers will simply scan summaries and reviews rather than actually engage with the full text, well, at least some of the responsibility for this may rest with him. In choosing to neatly break “present shock” (the syndrome and the book) down into five catch-word ready sections, Rushkoff helps ensure that his is a book “the gist” of which can be re-packaged for easy summarizing to his audience that “will not be getting this far in the text” (a funny thing to be assured of after reaching that sentence in the text). Thus Rushkoff, as writer and theorist, emerges as a figure who recognizes the world inhabited by himself and his readers: he may prefer to write in a less “gist” worthy way, but he knows that if he wants his ideas to have maximum impact than it makes sense to write in such a way.

While Present Shock may appear at first glance to be a book about technology and the digital world, it is at its core less a book about technology than it is a book about people using and being used by technology, or as Rushkoff himself writes (italics in original):

“As I have come to understand technology, however, it wants only whatever we program into it. I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are doing to one another through technology. Facebook’s reduction of people to productively modeled profiles and investment banking’s convolution of the marketplace into an algorithmic battleground were not the choices of machines but of humans.” (257)

Running through Rushkoff’s book is a sense that he truly grasps the wonderful potential that technology can have, but this is matched by a balanced recognition that this potential is frequently either mismanaged, misunderstood, or so deliberately misapplied as to make technology harmful. Rushkoff’s book is less a polemic than an attempt to critically portray our contemporary situation. It is, as I quoted earlier, to say that:

“we may be in the midst of some great existential crisis, but we’re simply too busy to notice.” (73)

Present Shock recognizes that this “great existential crisis” is one that is personal, political, public, and something that we must face in the present tense before one of the five chapter titles spins truly out of control. It is recognizing, as is the case with existential problems that what is required is:

“accepting responsibility and dominion over the moment in which we are living right now.” (264)

So what does one do to counteract “present shock?” It would probably be fair to describe Present Shock as a book that is big on problems and rather small on solutions; however, Rushkoff still offers the following solution to those unsettled by the content of his book:

“The solution, of course, is balance. Finding the sweet spot between storage and flow, dipping into different media and activities depending on the circumstances.” (265)

Frankly, Rushkoff’s book suffers for concluding in such a way (one that he seems to acknowledge the obviousness of by writing “the solution, of course”). By the time one reaches this “solution,” assuming that one has read the actual book (and not a summary to get the “gist” of the work), one has read over the myriad ways in which contemporary society makes this balance nearly impossible to find. Indeed, one of the strengths of Present Shock is its commitment to being nuanced in its reading of technology and contemporary society, a reading that also acknowledges how the omnipresence of digital technology makes getting away from it ever more of a challenge. Rushkoff does not urge his readers to swear off technology, but coming so near to the end of the book and lacking further explanation a call to “balance” is, shall we say, an unbalanced argument.

It could certainly be argued (and I would make this argument) that Rushkoff wrote his “solution” book before he wrote his “problem” book. For Rushkoff’s previous book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2010) provides ten excellent bits of wisdom for helping to lessen the impact of the five horsemen of Present Shock. Indeed, the solution seems less likely to be “balance” and more likely to be a healthy understanding of the biases inherent in given pieces of technology (as is advocated by Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed). At the very least, in attempting to make “balancing” decisions it seems helpful to first navigate through the type of thinking advocated by Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed.

Yet what makes Rushkoff’s “balance” solution particularly interesting is actually an action the author took shortly before the publication of Present Shock when he penned (or probably typed) a post titled “Unlike – Why I’m Leaving Facebook” (about which I wrote at the time of its posting). The post by Rushkoff was interesting, but reading it before reading Present Shock and revisiting it after reading Present Shock made me come away with a slightly different response. As reading his post when it was originally put up, prevented me from reading it with Rushkoff’s call for “balance” in mind.

Perhaps Rushkoff’s leaving Facebook was an action taken in keeping with:

“accepting responsibility and dominion over the moment in which we are living right now.” (264)

Or to put it another way, in a technological society we are all tightrope walkers trying to maintain our balance, but we can at least choose how much crap we want to lug on our back as we traverse the tightrope – if you choose to carry Facebook, or Pinterest, or a smartphoen that is always on, it may make this balance harder to maintain. Therefore the solution might not simply be “balance” but to recognize that there are certain technologies and services that make balance nearly impossible to maintain. Present Shock may make you wobble on the wire a bit as you read it, but grasping the ideas Rushkoff presents may ultimately provide you with the critical framework necessary to confidently walk the technological tightrope.

But keep in mind that being a bit more balanced on the wire is not the same as safely reaching the other side.

The Book Reviewed:

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now

Douglas Rushkoff

(Current, 2013)

More Book Reviews:

The Riot Grrrl Collection

Digital Disconnect

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2013 by in Books, Culture, Philosophy, Reviews, Society, Technology, The Commons, The Internet and tagged , , .

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