Way back in 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler, the author of the best-selling Future Shock, warned us that “too much change in too short a period of time” was certain to cause both individuals and societies “shattering stress and disorientation.” No kidding. Today, however, we’re no longer obsessed with the future because the urgency of the present moment — everything from stock prices to texts to tweets — distracts us from both the lessons of the past and our plans for the future.
You probably don’t need a 296-page book to tell you what living in this frantic present tense feels like. Heck, you probably don’t have time to read a 296-page book at all. But in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, technological deep thinker and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff takes a look around and says:
We remain poised and frozen, overwhelmed by an always-on, live-streamed reality that our human bodies and minds can never truly inhabit. And our failure to do so has had wide-ranging effects on every aspect of our lives.
That’s something we all need to understand.
What is now, anyway? It’s not the newspaper, it’s tweets. It’s not email, it’s text messages. It’s not the party you’re at now, it’s the possibility of a better party from which a friend just sent you some photos. Better get there fast. It’s not the story of a company that matters, it’s today’s opening stock price. Our bodies are still analog, Rushkoff notes, but our minds have become slaves to digital speeds, and we can’t keep up. That’s what “present shock” — or what he also calls “digiphrenia” — feels like.
Deploying a hardware metaphor, Rushkoff says:
We have, in a sense, been allowed to dedicate much more of our cognitive resources to active RAM than to maintaining our cerebral-storage hard drives. But we are also in danger of squandering this cognitive surplus on the trivial pursuit of the immediately relevant rather over any continuance of the innovation that got us to this point.
In other words, Twitter is eating away at your brain and distracting you from the bigger picture.
Even if you could keep up with Twitter, what’s the point?
If we could only 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 a legitimate sort of present.
At times Rushkoff does veer off course, especially when he dabbles in pop culture criticism and gives Beavis and Butthead and Mystery Science Theater 3000 a little too much credit as catalysts of cultural change. His theory that we’re all obsessing about zombies and apocalypses these days simply because we want the world to slow down seems facile. He’s right, though, when he says that we must cling to our pasts and our stories and resist the “narrative collapse” that our obsession with the now can cause.
When we can no longer learn from an endless past full of accumulated knowledge, we will have lost our way. “Now there is no bud. Just pollen.” It’s a sobering thought.
Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushkoff, paperback, 296 pages. Published by Current.