“If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism,” media theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes in his new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, “the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.” For Rushkoff, we’ve ceased being a “future-focused culture” and instead morphed into one that can’t look past “the now.” The result, he says, is “present shock” — our panicky retort to an always-on, real-time society.
In the book, Rushkoff zeroes in on five principal ways present shock allegedly rears its head: narrative collapse, how storytellers are reacting to no longer having “the time required to tell a linear story”; digiphrenia, the uneasy ways “our media and technologies encourage us to be in more than one place at the same time”; overwinding, the “effort to make the passing moment responsible for the sorts of effects that actually take real time to occur”; fractalnoia, the “attempt to draw connections from one thing to another in the frozen moment, even when such connections are forced or imaginary”; and apocalypto, “the way a seemingly infinite present makes us long for endings, by almost any means necessary.”
I recently spoke with Rushkoff about how he sees present shock affecting the media, why he thinks we should refocus on what people are doing to others through technology, and whether writing books still matters in the Internet age. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
Eric Allen Been: You’ve said that “present shock” is in some sense a lens — a way of looking at the digital world and our condition in it. Could you describe what the current state of journalism looks like to you through that lens?
: Present shock is basically the human response to living in a world where everything happens at once. Where we can no longer think about the future, because this moment is everything. And it’s to some extent our anxious reactions to the pings of the digital media environment and its static quality.
In regards to legacy journalism, a lot of people are disconnected from it partly because of present shock. When they’re living on digital platforms that emphasize choice over any kind of prescriptive pathways, they tend to lose any sense of value in pretty much anything professional or authoritative. They sort of descent into a very relativistic view of things — where anybody who can blog or get on the net is pretty much as valuable as anybody else, so there’s no authoritative opinion.
It’s become hard for people to justify why to pay attention to one thing instead of another. So you end up with people — and this is young and old — wondering why we have professional journalists at all. There are reasons why I don’t like this situation. Governments and corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars creating false truths and there’s this society that’s not willing to spend a few hundred bucks so that reporters can find out the real story. To apply some professional skill at following and deconstructing what’s going on.
Been: Yet you’re pretty critical of the media in the book — for instance, writing that “media events tend to matter less for whatever they are purportedly about than for the space they fill.”
: Critical of some forms of it. Current events really only matter to the extent that they can fill this cultural standing wave that’s looking for a particular kind of content to fill it. It means that what’s driving our fascination is more primal or emotional or cultural than it is actual.
Why do we get fascinated with the Casey Anthony trial, as opposed to anything else that happened on the same day? Because it got picked. I’ve thought long and hard about that Deepwater Horizon oil spill video that was sitting in the top of the CNN news screen for so long. It was present and interminable at the same time. That weird kind of frozen, continuous, anxious presence that I’m talking about in Present Shock.
: Speaking of CNN, you recently announced in a column
on its site that you quit Facebook. Yet you kept your Twitter account and have a pretty active one. As a writer, why does Twitter still have value for you but Facebook no longer does?
Rushkoff: I think that they both have value — it’s just that Facebook actively misrepresents me to other people, to people who choose to “like me” on it and so on. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to be inviting them to make themselves vulnerable to all these kinds of misrepresentations — things like whether their image will be put in an ad that I may not condone myself. It’s a case in point of what I call in my book “digiphrenia” — namely, an instance of you doing something online you’re completely unaware of. On Twitter, I get the ability to broadcast ideas and links and messages to other people, but with far fewer strings attached. Twitter is much more about spreading and exchanging links — 140 characters are not where the real content lies.
Been: So you do think there are some media outlets that aren’t determined by presentism?
: Yes, I think some are recognizing that they’re better off explaining the news than driving it or trying to keep up with it. To some extent, even the evening newscast is realizing now that it’s not about the exclusive, up-to-the-second thing that no one can digest, but it is about making sense of the day, or making sense of what’s just happened. The ability to which they can anchor the day or a particular moment of the day. Just think about it: 6:30 p.m., you come to the TV, you get to watch someone explain what we already know about. That’s something they really shouldn’t lose touch with the power of. The cycle of it, the time of the day, the sun’s going down, and here we are gathering. It’s so powerful, especially compared to this world where everything’s streaming, the non-stop news crawls, the feeds.
The Wall Street Journal has held onto a lot of what the nightly newscast provides, shockingly even with Murdoch at the helm. There’s this sense that they understand. There’s a periodicity to what they’re doing, so they stay anchored in time. The New York Times, on the other hand, it’s so hard to even comment on them, because there are so many New York Timeses happening simultaneously. It’s schizophrenic. I don’t even know how to consume it anymore.
Been: So, to put into context with your book, you think The Wall Street Journal can still provide a traditional narrative, which you view as being by and large collapsed in our digital world, whereas the Times no longer does?
Rushkoff: Yes! But that’s because the Times hasn’t quite sussed out what’s leading what. There’s too many different ways to consume it. I just feel like they haven’t distinguished between that which is fit to print and that which is part of the stream of whatever they have to keep up with.
: This makes me think about how you differentiate in the book between “stored information” and “flowing information.” That is, stored information being something that can be fully consumed, like a physical copy of The New York Times, whereas flowing is something that can’t be, like the @nytimes
Twitter feed. You write: “When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media or flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.” That seems to be a good description of what newspapers are currently grappling with.
Rushkoff: For sure. You just can’t use the newspaper to keep up in society any longer. And you can’t use live blogging to make sense of anything. This is digressing a bit, but I was just talking with my friend about rock concerts. And I said, “Why can’t I just be at the show and experience this thing? Why am I supposed to be recording it? Tweeting about it? Why am I assuming that responsibility? Is it even more fun?” No, we don’t all have to do that. And when you put your phone on your arm and have it vibrate every time something’s coming through, what are you? Are we air traffic controllers? Are we Associated Press emergency journalists? Why do we live at that heightened level of expectation and readiness? We don’t need to be there.
Been: You’re pretty hard on futurists who emerged in the 1990s, saying they “became less about predicting the future than pandering to those who sought to maintain an expired past.” Can you talk about what you mean there?
Rushkoff: When the digital renaissance first started to occur, it looked as if we were going to have a break from corporate capitalism. I then thought people are now going to exchange value directly and create value in decentralized ways. It looked like a true disruption. But the futurists who got in the headlines were ones who didn’t want to disrupt corporate capitalism, but ones who made predictions that would be the salvation for corporate capitalism. And a lot of this is what led to us using digital technology in a way where we’re trying to maximize the efficiency of humans rather than give us some slack.
: You write that you’re “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.” Yet some media seems to fixate on the former. I have The Atlantic’s most recent issue in front of me and the cover story
is about what tablets are “doing to toddler’s brains.” Why, in your mind, should we refocus on the latter?
: When we blame technology, it makes it seem as if we’re powerless to do anything and as if we’re not responsible. Your email is not doing anything to you. It’s a bunch of people who are doing something to you. They’re sending you all that damned email. Email doesn’t expect you to respond to it — the people who’ve sent you the email expect you to respond to it.
What I’m trying to do is replace the blame where the blame goes. Once we accept responsibility, we’re empowered to do something about it, to change the level of expectation that we have of our employees. There are employees who are supposed to sit there and live tweet and respond to everything for eight hours straight, and you wonder why that person’s fried. That person needs to be given the same kind of breaks that an air traffic controller gets. It’s unreasonable.
But no, it’s almost never the technology. Different technologies are biased to particular things — for example, guns are biased towards killing more than pillows are. But it’s still people — at the gun companies, shareholders of the gun companies, still human beings — that are responsible for the unnecessary proliferation of weapons into our society. The more we focus on the object, the less we can do as humans to change any of this.
Been: You conclude Present Shock by calling books “anachronistic.” But a lot of statistics show that reading books is not declining but rising. And people seem to still really care for longform journalism.
: There’s a fascination with books, the same way there’s a fascination with mid-century furniture that’s made in the United States by craftspeople or designed by Heywood-Wakefield
or something, as opposed to just going to Ikea or Walmart and getting something that was made in China.
So there is a reading or a word fetish, but today, longform is not a book. Today, longform is a 1,500-word article. Evan Williams has this online publishing platform called Medium, which is these little essays, but it’s longform compared to tweets or Facebook updates. In reality, if I write an 800-word piece on CNN, it goes up the day I wrote it and I reach a couple million people. With a book, it takes me two years to get it together and it takes a year for them to publish it. I’ve got to work like hell to even get 20,000 people to read the thing — or buy the thing, and half of them actually read it.
It does feel like I’m writing opera when people are buying singles or MP3s. And yeah, opera is on the rise too, people are going, but it doesn’t feel like a central cultural force. Especially books as “books.” There are more books today than ever, but most of them are kind of calling cards from startup consultants more than they are meant as books.
Been: Why write books, then?
Rushkoff: It’s partly how I was raised. But it’s also that there are certain kinds of arguments you can make in them that you can’t make in an article. Most books today aren’t even books, they’re these series of articles. People don’t have the stamina to write a real book anymore. I wanted to do two things. One, I wanted to say something that couldn’t be said in a list of bullet points. And second, it’s kind of a radical act in saying: “I’m giving two years of my human life to put together a single text artifact, and I’m going to request that you seize authority of five or six hours of your life so you can read it.” So a gateway to understanding present shock is to somehow figure out a way that you have five hours. Just in getting people to take that stand — five hours against the torrent of distractions — is itself an act against present shock.