≡ Menu

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

Present Shock

RATING: 8/10…READ: April 18, 2013

An exploration of the “Always On” economy. Rushkoff breaks down our addiction to the always present moment and instant gratification culture over the long term, deep thinking work necessary for meaningful interactions. A great look at the evolution of technology and how we can slow down in a rapidly changing society

Get at Amazon

If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.

The story—from Rapunzel to War and Peace—is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

The word “entertainment” literally means “to hold within,” or to keep someone in a certain frame of mind.

it is no longer the writer’s job to “tell us how somebody felt about something, it is to tell us how the world works.”

Narrativity is replaced by something more like putting together a puzzle by making connections and recognizing patterns.

If Donald Trump’s “apprentices” are all working to brand a new hamburger, the audience understands that Burger King has paid for the exposure. In presentist TV, programmers lose the ability to distinguish between the program and the commercial—but they also lose the need to do so.

On a structural level—and maybe also an emotional one—reality TV mirrors much of this same dynamic. No, we’re not literally shocking people, but we are enjoying the humiliation and degradation of the participants, from the safe distance of an electronic medium. The question is not how much deadly voltage can we apply, but how shamefully low can we go? Besides, the producers bear the real brunt of responsibility—just as the men in lab coats did in the research experiments.

“In this era of exploding media technologies there is no truth except the truth you create for yourself.”

Everyone’s opinion may as well matter as much as everyone else’s, resulting in a population who believes its uninformed opinions are as valid as those of experts who have actually studied a particular problem.

It’s not about how digital technology changes us, but how we change ourselves and one another now that we live so digitally.

Indeed, if the Axial Age was coordinated by the calendar, and the clockwork universe by the schedule, the digital era subjects us to the authority of code.

Free will and autonomy are eventually revealed to us to be a simulation of some sort, while the reality we think we’re participating in is really just the predetermined dance of pure information.

These analysts are describing the new turbulence of a present-shock universe where change is no longer an event that happens, but a steady state of existence. Instead of managing change, we simply hope to be iterated into the next version of reality that the system generates. The only enduring truth in such a scheme is evolution, which is why the leading spokespeople for this world-after-calendars-and-clocks tend to be evolutionary scientists: we are not moving through linear time; we are enacting the discrete, punctuated steps of a program. What used to pass for the mysteriousness of consciousness is shrugged off as an emergent phenomenon rising from the complexity of information.

The eye’s photoreceptors sense the darkening sky, sending a signal to release melatonin, which makes us sleepy. Watching TV or staring at a bright computer screen in the evening delays or prevents this reaction, leading to sleeplessness.

The World Health Organization has suggested that shift work is a “possible” carcinogen. Women who work night shifts, for example, may have up to a 60 percent greater risk of contracting breast cancer.

The opportunity offered to us by digital technology is to reclaim our time and to program our devices to conform to our personal and collective rhythms. Computers do not really care about time. They are machines operating on internal clocks that are not chronological, but events-based: This happens, then that happens. They don’t care how much—or how little—time passes between each step of the sequence.

At the beginning of the new moon, for example, one’s acetylcholine rises along with the capacity to perform. Acetylcholine is traditionally associated with attention. “The mood it evokes in us is an Energizer Bunny–like pep. That vibe can be used to initiate social interactions, do chores and routines efficiently, and strive for balance in our activities.”

Nearer to the full moon, an uptick in serotonin increases self-awareness, generating both high focus and high energy.

If acetylcholine is the ultimate memory neurotransmitter, dopamine is the ultimate experiential one. Functionally, it serves us best when we’re doing social activities we enjoy.” In other words, it’s party week.

Finally, in the last moon phase, we are dominated by norepinephrine, an arousal chemical that regulates processes like the fight-or-flight response, anxiety, and other instinctual behaviors.

In the new moon phase, people will be most effective during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people do best in the afternoon.

Chronos can be represented by a number; kairos must be experienced and interpreted by a human.

Digital technology is more like a still-life picture. A sample. It is frozen in time. Sound, on the other hand, is audible only over time. We hear sound as it decays. Image may be thought of as chronos, where sound is more like kairos.

In the real world, 94 percent of our communication occurs nonverbally. Our gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and even the size of our irises at any given moment tell the other person much more than our words do.

Brand calls it the order of civilization. Nature, or geological time, moves the slowest—like the skater in the middle of the pinwheel. This is the rate at which glaciers carve out canyons or species evolve gills and wings—over eons. On the next level is culture, such as that of the Chinese or the Jews—which lasts millennia. On the next concentric ring comes governance—the rather long-lasting systems of monarchies and republics. The next level is infrastructure—the roads and utilities those governments build and rebuild. Faster yet is commerce that occurs through that infrastructure. And finally the outermost ring is that of fashion—the ever-changing styles and whims that keep the wheels of commerce fed.

we see further because we “stand on the shoulders” of the previous generation.

The wealthy needed a way to make money simply by having money. So, one by one, each of the early monarchies of Europe outlawed the kingdom’s local currencies and replaced them with a single central currency. Instead of growing their money in the fields, people would have to borrow money from the king’s treasury—at interest. If they wanted a medium through which to transact at the local marketplace, it meant becoming indebted to the aristocracy.

Grups wear the vintage sneakers of their own childhoods, put their babies in indie rock T-shirts, and use messenger bags instead of briefcases.

Accumulating knowledge and content took time, and that time was a good and necessary part of the experience. It didn’t simply make these nooks and crannies of culture more elitist; it helped keep them more like tide pools than oceans. Their stillness and relative obscurity helped these genres grow into unique cultures.

Where cubism compresses space, mashup compresses time. Cubism allowed us to be in more than one place at the same time; mashup allows us to be in more than one time at the same place.

Fifteen minutes spent on Facebook, for example, mashes together our friendships from elementary school with new requests for future relationships. Everything we have lived, and everyone we have met, is compressed into a virtual now.

Yes, a skilled shoemaker might be required to help devise the machine in the first place, but after that he is expendable—particularly for a company that has no need to innovate,

The consumer must never feel completely at home in his present, or he will stop striving toward a more fully satisfied future.

The consumer is no longer truly consuming anything, but experiencing and paying for a constant flow of user rights to things, services, and data owned by others.

We get so much better and faster at consuming all the time that there’s no point in actually having anything at all. In a certain light, it sounds almost communal. Except we are not building a new commons together where everything is shared; we are turning life into a set of monetizable experiences where the meter is always on.

In return for the privilege of going into debt, the borrowing nations would also be required to open themselves to unrestricted trade with lending nations’ corporations. This meant foreign companies were entitled to build factories, undercut local industry or farming, and otherwise turn these fledgling nations into colonies—now called beneficiaries.

Behavioral finance is the study of the way people consistently act against their own best financial interests, as well as how to exploit these psychological weaknesses when peddling questionable securities and products.

When a bank wants to move a big quantity of shares, for example, it doesn’t want everyone to know what it is doing. If news of a big buy leaked out before the big buy could be completed, the price may go up. To hide their motions, they employ the same technique as stealth planes: they use algorithms to break their giant trade into thousands of little ones, and do so in such a way that they look random.

This algorithmic dance—what is known as black box trading—accounts for over 70 percent of Wall Street trading activity today.

How many generations before our own asked people to earn and save enough money while young in order to accumulate a nest egg big enough to live off for the last third of one’s life? It’s a bit like asking an animal to get fat enough not to have to eat again for the rest of its natural life.

think of it this way: the individual is flow, and the community is storage. Only the individual can take actions. Only the community can absorb their impact over time.

The way to move beyond the paralyzing effects of the short forever is to stop trying to look so far into the individual futures of people or businesses, and instead to become more aware of what connects them to everyone and everything else right now.

Charlie Sheen did not rise to Twitter popularity merely by being fired from his sitcom and posting outlandish things; he was filling an existential vacuum created in the wake of the Arab Spring story immediately preceding him. In effect our highly mediated culture creates a standing wave; the next suitable celebrity or story that comes along just happens to fill it.

The world is like a table covered with loaded mousetraps. If one trap snaps, the rest of the table will follow in rapid, catastrophic succession. Like a fight between siblings in the back of the car on a family trip, it doesn’t matter who started it. Everybody is in it, now.

brand mythology; it was not developed to enhance the truth, but to replace it.

On social networks, we are at once consumer, producer, citizen, parent, and lover.

In a nonfiction, social media space, only reality counts, because only reality is what is happening in the moment. A company or organization’s best available choice is to walk the walk. This means becoming truly competent. If a company has the best and most inspired employees, for example, then that is the place people will turn to when they are looking for advice, a new product, or a job. It is the locus of a culture. Everything begins to connect. And when it does, the org chart begins to matter less than the fractal of fluid associations.

The fractal acts like a truth serum: the only one who never has to worry about being caught is the one who never lied to begin with.

Yet the overriding urge to connect everything to everything pushes those who should know better to make such leaps of logic. To ignore the special peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, and paradoxes of activity occurring on the human and cultural level is to ignore one’s own experience of the moment in order to connect with a computer simulation.

The arts may be touchy-feely and intuitive, but in eras of rapid change such as our own, they often bring more discipline to the table than do the sciences.

The artists are the geeks, and the programmers are the performers. The programmers conceive and create with abandon. The artists try to imagine what humans may want to do with these creations, as well as what these creations may want to do with us.

The engineers write and launch the equations; the liberal artists must judge their usefulness, recognize the patterns they create, and—oh so very carefully—generalize from there. For the artist—the human, if you will—this care comes less from the accumulation of more and more specific data than the fine-tuning of the perceptual apparatus. In a fractal, it’s not how much you see, but how well you see it.

he’s living in a world where he’s expected to accomplish more tasks each minute than I did in an hour or a whole day at his age. Functioning in such a world does require getting the “gist” of things and moving on, recognizing patterns, and then inferring the rest.

The space between things matters more than the things themselves. We are thinking less about tinkering with particular objects than about recognizing or influencing the patterns they create and the connections they make.

In a more practical sense, it’s the difference between trying to change your customer’s behavior by advertising to him, or changing the landscape of products from which he has to choose; trying to convince people in a foreign nation to like you by crafting new messaging, or simply building a hospital for them; planning by committee where to pave the paths on a new college campus, or watching where the grass has been worn down by footsteps and putting the paths there.

Empathy isn’t just studying and understanding. It’s not something one learns but a way of feeling and experiencing others. It’s like the difference between learning how to play a song and learning how to resonate with one that’s already being played. It is less about the melody than the overtones. Or in networking terms, less about the nodes than the connections between them.

In a fractal landscape, nothing is personal. This may be the hardest lesson for victims of present shock to accept: it’s not about you.

Where the basement model railroad once gave the underachiever a chance to build and run a world, the doomsday apartment gives the overwhelmed present-shock victim the chance to experience the relief of finality and a return to old-fashioned time.

I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology. Facebook’s reduction of people to predictively modeled profiles and investment banking’s convolution of the marketplace into an algorithmic battleground were not the choices of machines but of humans.

We humans are not the medium for information; information is a medium for humans. We are the content—the message

Without a compelling story to justify a sustainable steady state for our circumstances, we jump to conclusions—quite literally—and begin scenario planning for the endgame.