Author's Note: This post originally appeared in April of 2014
Do you understand how media works? If not, it might control you. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s last book, Program or Be Programmed, took on this question about media and our comprehension of it. Without a working knowledge of how information systems work, Rushkoff argues, we run the risk of being easily duped. This is a common problem and one that is easily battled with a drive towards media literacy, something I teach my students about in undergraduate mass communication courses. The battle does not end here, however, because even if we have a strong grasp of media systems we are not immune to yet another pitfall.
Just about everyone has come across it, even if you don’t quite know what it is. That feeling you get when you sense there is never enough time and obligations are coming at you from every direction… that’s a piece of it. The good thing is we can fight back and Rushkoff has the tools we need to take control of our lives. In his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff addresses the problem with our “always-on” digital universe. Without a doubt, technology can lead to intellectual and psychological illness, usually in terms of addiction that can ultimately become destructive to every aspect of our life.
We are surrounded by technology and it can be overwhelming,” Rushkoff writes, “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on.
Unfortunately this gets truer every day. As a college professor I see kids in their late teens and early twenties constantly staring glossy-eyed into the nearest screen. However, to my relief, my mass communication classes are often filled with students willing to confront their generation’s addiction to screens and media of all kinds. Course discussions are often led with examples of how I have battled Present Shock in my own life.
The second half of the twentieth century, as explored by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock, was focused on the future. As time progressed towards the year 2000, things began to change and the focus started to shift towards the “now.” Rushkoff understands this and argues, “If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first century can be defined by presentism.” Present Shock is broken up into five different categories: narrative collapse, digiphrenia, overwinding, fractalnoia, and apocalypto. Each chapter focuses on another aspect of Present Shock that can, and should, be addressed in order to insure a sane existence in this digital age.
1. Narrative Collapse
Narrative has become the most important part of controlling the masses. Inducing a hive mind mentality relies heavily on finding, perfecting, and perpetuating a specific narrative. The more people know about information systems the harder it will be to force-feed ideas. However, this is not new and the latest problem today is a deconstruction of what we call narrative.
Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important – which is behavioristically doomed.
Rushkoff nails it here. Narrative has never been more important and we seem to be on the verge of losing it completely. Interest in complex story has been traded in for the up-to-the-minute update on usually unimportant stories or thoughts (in the case of a 140 character tweet). This is a problem that is also addressed in Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation where he talks about the shortening attention span of today’s youth and how it is limiting critical thinking potential. With a dwindling devotion to a single topic at any given time, the result of multitasking, it is important to think about what we may lose in the process.
For a long time, our society’s narrative has become obsessed with a determined future or end. Rushkoff mentions the endless amount of books found at any bookstore with titles with the future of or the end of this or that. One could also add all of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films and television shows that are out there. While these narratives are still enjoying popularity, some outlets have shown a steady move towards focusing on what’s happening now.
When narrative collapse occurs, people loose interest in stories and trade the drive for knowledge for a desire to have smaller snippets of information now. Look at the endless amount of reality television that is currently on the air. Each one of these shows, from American Idol and other talent shows, the Housewives shows, Pawn Stars, to Big Brother and the constant stream of non-singing competition shows all focus on the present over anything else.
While stories must follow certain plot conventions in order to make sense to their audience, reality is under no such obligation.
Storytelling is important in any culture, as it is a way to share, shape, and reflect on the values surrounding a society. However, with today’s overemphasis on the here and now, the interest in a more complex and developed story is diminishing. This is what we are seeing crumbling today; the sense of connection to our surroundings we get from stories. A perfect example, Ruskoff offers, is how “The 24/7 news cycle creates the sense of a constant stream of crises that are inescapable, no matter where we go.” This constant news stream is all too obsessed with getting a story first over getting it right. This rush to report every minute on the minute adds to the sense of never-ended emergency and need for up to the second information. This is simply not necessary.
Our technology, beginning with the advent of the clock tower, has forced us to plan everything according to time. The problem is technology does not live in time, only we do. It is easy to forget that, as Rushkoff writes, “our bodies are not quite as programmable as our schedules.” When we feel there is never enough time, Present Shock is upon us. The truth is that time is not the issue and instead it is our perception of how we deal with time in a digital world.
If we could catch up with the wave of information, we feel, we would at last be in the now. This is a false goal. For not only have our devices outpaced us, they don’t even reflect a here and now that may constitute any legitimate sort of present tense.
There has always been an endless amount of information. The problem today is that the never-ending stream is constantly at our fingertips, resulting in Present Shock. News and entertainment have never been so accessible, but this availability is both a blessing and a curse. How are we to keep up with it all? We can’t and we shouldn’t even try. As a film historian, getting old and previously unreleased movies is easier than ever with streaming them on Netflix or buying the cheap used films on Amazon. The difficulty is reminding myself that I don’t have to catch up on the last 100 years of movies in the near future. This “I can do it all right now” feeling is part of Present Shock.
In this age of constant message flows, this stream comes directly to us, in our smartphones that we carry with us at all times. What this does, argues Rushkoff, is “turn a potentially asynchronous technology into a falsely synchronous one.” It is important to remind ourselves regularly that we cannot catch up with everything. For me, doing this has helped keep me focused on specific tasks which has led to more productivity and less frustration. A grounded mindset is what one needs to avoid suffocation from Present Shock.
This chapter in Rushkoff’s book is perfectly subtitled “the short forever.” In the previous section I gave my own personal example of trying to get everything accomplished in an unrealistically short amount of time. When we try to accomplish such impossible tasks we fall victim to another form of Present Shock.
This weight on every action – this highly leveraged sense of the moment – hints at another form of present shock that is operating in more ways and places than we may suspect. We’ll call this temporal compression overwinding – the effort to squish really big timescales into much smaller or nonexistent ones.
We’ve seen this regularly, and most of us suffer or have suffered from overwinding. A great example is how cleaning out your inbox can give you a “clean feeling.” However, how important is this really? Is it worth the time spent? And what are we actually cleaning? Most working professionals get enough legitimate email and junk messages to spend all day, every day dealing only with email. The problem is that email is a communication tool and most of us have jobs that require actions outside of the email loop. To fight overwinding, spend a minimal amount of time in your inbox. Reply to what needs attention, ignore the rest and get on with your day.
In this chapter, Rushkoff emphasizes the importance of different kinds of time. There is stored time, which we can get from a history book. A reader is in control and can spend as much or as little time gathering this information. There is also flowing time that we can get from streaming news feeds. The feeling that one must catch up with such a feed is where control is lost and Present Shock takes over.
When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media of flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.
This ties back to Rushkoff’s ideas on narrative collapse. It is important to break flowing narratives apart, focusing on them separately, to avoid Present Shock via overwinding. Trying to fit everything we want to engage with into one constant flow sounds great. The problem is it doesn’t work. Those who think this works are victims of the myth of multitasking. Rushkoff addressed this problem in a documentary called Digital Nation where, along with Rachel Dretzin, he explored the low productivity and distracted mindset that comes along with multitasking. The end result is that the better you think your multitasking is, the less productive you are.
Even though I’ve worked hard to deemphasize social networking and other distractions in my life, overwinding is something that happens to me. It is a constant battle but I believe I’m winning. The key is keeping focus on what is necessary and leaving everything else alone. Facebook has come up in many discussions with students, friends, and colleagues. Rushkoff left Facebook and discussed his reasoning in an article for CNN. Using his usual intelligent wit, Rushkoff writes, “Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does.” Agreed, and I encourage everyone to read his case.
This chapter is about finding patterns. This can be in a desperate form of sense making such as conspiracy theories. According to Rushkoff, conspiracy theories truly matter because of the same need driving each one, the desire “to make sense of the world in the present tense.” While we see narrative collapse, we can also find a yearning for narrative in some places, however far afield from reality they may be.
Fractalnoia can also manifest in a less stressful version through making connections and sense out of a complex film or TV series. Either way, searching for patterns is part of what we do in order to make sense of the world around us. Look at the intense following Lost had. Today, people are talking regularly about True Blood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Such television shows allow viewers to find and engage with patters they see, acting as a much needed cohesive in a fractured reality:
The fractal is the beautiful, reassuring face of this otherwise terrifying beast of instantaneous feedback. It allows us to see the patterns underlying the seeming chaos, the cycles within the screechy collapsed feedback of our everything-all-at-once world. Such engaging narratives can be refreshing because we are so used to people taking deep personal interests in mundane happenings through Facebook and Twitter updates.
As Rushkoff notes, social media users are rarely sharing stories and more often regurgitating facts of the moment. From my experience, social media sites are most rewarding when the rare, lengthy discussions take place. Of course, by the nature of the platform, those discussions are broken up over time and space that lack the unity of a real time conversation.
So how else can we find unity of communication in the digital age? It begins with a self-conscious effort to seek the proper context in every situation. The problem regarding Fractalnoia is an overemphasis on the self:
The fractalnoid is developing the ability to see the connections between things but can only understand them as having something to do with himself. This is the very definition of paranoia.
From here it is easy to see how our culture can fall into a perpetual loop of self-referencing. Sometimes this can be really fun, for the sake of entertainment. However, often times it can distract from useful, intelligence-building conversations. Take a popular television show like Community that is about a diverse group of college students constantly in the middle of schemes and plots that revolve around popular culture references. The show is fun but it is also an example of the kind of media effect that stems from Fractalnoia. Though Community is a guilty pleasure of mine, I am aware that the entire premise is held together by esoteric pop culture references.
Another problem, Rushkoff argues, is that in a fractal state nothing is personal. Not everything is about us. However, that is often how we view things. After all, this is what makes the self-referential humor funny. This may also be why we find it refreshing to follow a narrative that is not about us. Even if we can relate to the characters (a common reason to watch a show or film), the act of viewing something outside of our own lives reminds us how interesting and engaging a coherent narrative can be. We should remind ourselves that this cohesion is great for our entertainment but it could also be helpful in our own lives.
This brings us to the final chapter in Rushkoff’s book, aptly titled “Apocalypto.” When in a state of Present Shock there is certainly an apocalyptic or cataclysmic feeling constantly lurking. The goal of this book, and I believe it does a marvelous job, is to lay out the tools one needs to battle and defeat Present Shock.
The hardest part of living in present shock is that there’s no end and, for that matter, no beginning. It’s a chronic plateau of interminable stresses that seem to have always been there.
This common, apocalyptic feeling may have led to the resurgence in the zombie and vampire genres that we see everywhere today. Rushkoff muses on the idea of living in a post-apocalyptic hideout having time to read everything he has always wanted, being able to spend time with family without outside distractions, and (my favorite) having time to watch the entire Criterion Collection. Of course this is all a great dream, but it’s not a reality – it’s fantasy.
It is difficult to pin down the source of any one problem we face. Stress is coming from everywhere these days, but without pinpointing the cause how do we combat it? Present shock can easily lead to apocalyptic and destabilized thinking. When in this state, everything is problematic and solutions evade us. This is where the term Apocalypto comes in. No wonder zombies are so popular again.
For all of the flesh eating going on in the zombie genre, there’s something positively flesh loathing about the psychology underlying it. People are the bad guys. Apocalypto seems less about transforming the human species than transcending it altogether.
The solution Rushkoff provides to all of these problems is balance. This is easier said than done, but it all starts by addressing the above issues. We must understand the root of any problem before having any hope of defeating it. Everyone can relate, directly or indirectly, to at least one of the main points from this book. Each one is as important as the next and with the digital age far from over, the threat of Present Shock is not going away.
This book is not meant to be a eulogy for reality, as we once knew it. Instead, it is a lifeline for those who want their reality back. It is important to remember that we cannot go back to a simpler time. We are here, in a world surrounded by a digital unreality. The only thing we can do is learn how to live in the here and now. We can — and will — beat Present Shock.