Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff
Most simply, ‘present shock’ is the human response to living in a world that’s always on real time and simultaneous. You know, in some ways it’s the impact of living in a digital environment, and in other ways it’s just really what happens when you stop leaning so forward to the millennium and you finally arrive there.
The above quote is from journalist and author Douglas Rushkoff speaking to NPR in March 2013 about his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. It has been some time since I read a book that shocked me as much as this one did (pun intended). It’s not how Rushkoff points out how much attentional energy we spend on Tweets, texts, posts and digital beeps from our devices that shocked me.
Nor is it about the enormous energy that is spent in the media and in its social media wake poring over the salacious news item of the moment.
It wasn’t how he pointed out the near absence of historical context being places around the news of the day represented in media or policy discussions made in public reflecting a sense of perpetual crisis among our politicians and business leaders.
I also wasn’t surprised to read about the movement towards technological determinism, the singularity and the way some have abdicated their responsibility for shaping the world they live in today for a believe in a future that is already on course to a particular apocalyptic outcome.
The compression of time and its representation — from kairos to chronos – and how it changes the way we see our world (something I’ve discussed before) is also not new or shocking to me.
And it certainly isn’t about the way systems thinking, complexity, emergence and seeing the world as fractals is taking hold.
These are all areas I’ve spent a lot of my time thinking about, writing on, and studying.
What shocked me was the way this was all woven together and punctuated with a self-reflected note to the reader on the final pages of the text. It brought home the message of living in the present to the detriment of the past and inspiring some cautious thinking about how to create a future in a way no one else has done. Rushkoff is a journalist and thus is a trained storyteller and observer of the world around him and this book provides evidence of how well he does his job.
Sensemaking is a systems-level means of looking at feedback in light of history and possible futures and few books are best suited to Rushkoff’s masterpiece Present Shock.
Reflecting the future
Let me begin with the end. In the final pages of the book, Rushkoff reflects on his decision to write Present Shock and the challenges that it posed to him. He writes:
In the years it has take me to write this book — and the year after that to get it through the publishing process — I could have written dozens of articles, hundreds of blog posts, and thousands of Tweets, reaching more people about more things in less time and with less effort. Here I am writing opera when the people are listening to singles.
This is the crux of the book. Indeed, here I am writing a review that Rushkoff already foresees pre-empting readers’ interests in the book:
I began to think more of the culture to which I was attempting to contribute through this work. 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 on BoingBoing.net, interviews on Shareable.net, or — if I’m lucky — the review in the New York Times. The will get the gist of the argument and move on. (italics in original)
Rushkoff the soothsayer has proven correct. You can read about the book on BoingBoing, Shareable and reviews from the New York Times. Many bits have been utilized in reviewing Present Shock for what it says and I am hoping to add to that by reflecting on what the words in that book might mean, not just what it says.
For the record: I loved the book and suggest anyone interested in better understanding our present world, the media landscape within it, and how to appreciate the discussion of complexity in social life pick it up and read it to the point of seeing Rushkoff’s words above.
What Present Shock presents is a multidimensional view of how we view, live and manipulate time. It is about being in the present moment, but not in the way that is necessarily mindful. Indeed, mindfulness and contemplative inquiry is about being cognizant of the past, yet focused on present awareness of the here and now. Rushkoff writes of a present condition (the shock) almost devoid of history in its expression, one that amplifies everything in the present with little semblance of a narrative that connects the macroscopic patterns and rhythms of history.
Instead of a flow of narrative,our present shock offers a pieced-together set of truths that reflect the most convenient form of reality available to us. Whereas a system is often greater than the sum of its parts, present shock puts us back into a system that is all about parts and coherence created based on what is most present in the moment. Hence, we have conspiracy theories rapidly proliferating based on piecemeal information constructed through a lens of immediacy. We have exaggerated responses of shock, horror, delight and disgust at nearly everything from political decisions, celebrity fashions to cat videos.
Immediacy also provides a balm to complexity. It is easier for some to consider things like 9/11 as staged events rather than accept a more complex narrative that combines intelligence failings, misinterpretations, technical failures, noise, strategy and random chance. Many find comfort in believing in a nefarious governmental plot to harm its own citizens than to accept a more complicated, less controllable reality of individuals and groups acting unpredictably. Present shock keeps our focus on the ‘facts’ as presented to us in whatever biased, incomplete, ahistorical context and suggests the meaning of them rather than encourage us to step back and make sense of it ourselves.
Present shock also stuns our sensemaking capacities by creating attractors of immediacy amplified by social media. When you’re on Twitter and suddenly the feed gets overwhelmed by content around a particular event or phenomenon (e.g., Boston Marathon bombings) it is easy to see it as an incredibly powerful event. As callous as it might seem at first, the bombings had little impact outside of Boston. That’s how most of these events happen. As the world watches the events in Egypt unfold right now, the immediate impact on most of the world’s population is nil, yet there is a sense of urgency created among those around the globe who neither are from there, have friends or family there, or are economically or socially impacted by those events.
Now, we are drawn into every event as if it is life or death overwhelming our sense of what is really important to us — which will be different depending on who you are or where you are. Yet, present shock activities treat all of this as the same. We are all Bostonians now. We’re all Egyptians now. And when we are everything, we are nothing.
Last week the news was about Blackberry and its possible break-up, which seems urgent until one realizes that possibility has been discussed for years. Rushkoff points to how events are amplified through media to create a sense of urgency. It is ultra-important and not at all important.
The book begins with the collapse of narrative and how we’ve created ongoing storylines in work, games and media to keep us in the present moment. Even video games that once had clear goals, objectives and endpoints are being changed to accommodate to an ever-adapting co-construction of a present moment that simply continues onward until people leave the game for the next new title. This was made evident by commentary on fashions and how the dress of many 40 year olds is not that different from their 20 year old selves. Gone are the social markers of age and time that clothing once had and along with it are jobs, roles and responsibilities that are also no longer consistent with age. We are creating an ever-present world of presentism where people don’t age, but nor do they have a future or past.
None of this is presented as judgement as if there is some ‘appropriate’ way to dress, rather as a means of flagging that we are quickly blurring the lines between what is and is not appropriate by taking away the lines altogether. What does that mean for society?
The danger of this present shock is that it keeps us blinded to the impact of our present moment and ignorant of the past. By de-historicizing ourselves, we lose the knowledge gained from experience, but also fail to use that knowledge to enhance understanding of pattern shifts towards the future. It’s this thinking that gets us buying ever more consumer green goods to save the planet someday, but not today. But what happens to tomorrow when we only pay attention to today?
Many think that mindfulness is about the present only, but it actually acknowledges that we are products of our past. Psychodynamic theory looks at how past narratives shape present systems as does mindfulness. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness allows us to attune ourselves to our present situation, acknowledge what potential past narratives brought us to the present moment, and see things more clearly so we can shape the future through present action. It is not just the present devoid of context, nor is it wishful dreaming about an as-yet created world.
Rushkoff’s book wakes us up to how we’ve managed to conflate a mindful present with presentism. The book is not a rant against technology or attack on media or techno-futurists rather it is a call to be aware — perhaps mindful — of what this means for us personally and socially and to remind us that we still have control. We are not technological zombies, but we could be if we are not careful.
It is that reason that I was so taken by the end of Rushkoff’s book.
In the final pages, Rushkoff reflects on his writing he notes how much harder it is to pay attention, to stay focused and to create a work of depth in an era where that is against the norm and possibly against the market. Yet, as he points out this book could not be written as a series of Tweets and less a series of articles lest we miss the bigger narrative he wants us to pay attention to. This is systems thinking about reading and if we are to get into these kinds of complex, important issues we need to be willing to read books or take the time to listen, share, watch, study, reflect, contemplate and write about these issues in the depth that they need.
As Einstein is reported to have said about simplicity:
Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler
Rushkoff makes this complex argument as simple as possible and the book is thankfully not simpler.