Presidents—and the rest of us—can’t get anything done anymore.
The crises arrive from everywhere, and all at once. The responses do, too. New allegations about NSA eavesdropping, for instance, pop up on Twitter before the White House has had a chance to fully spin the last set. A Cabinet secretary is presumed ripe for firing over a botched health care website even before the site’s problems are fully diagnosed. The pauses between an event and a response to it—the space in which public opinion was once gauged—is gone, and now the feedback is indistinguishable from the initial action. The verdict, the takeaway, the very meaning behind what is happening is more elusive than ever before. We cobble together narratives and hunt for conclusions. Millions of social media posts per minute are parsed and analyzed as if those vast bits of opinion, conjecture and fancy somehow coalesce into a story.
But they don’t.
Welcome to the world of “present shock,” where everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big now. The result for institutions—especially political ones—has been profound. This transformation has dramatically degraded the ability of political operatives to set long-term plans. Thrown off course, they’re now often left simply to react to the incoming barrage of events as they unfold. Gone, suddenly, is the quaint notion of “controlling the narrative”—the flood of information is often far too unruly. There’s no time for context, only for crisis management.
Sure, the rate at which information spreads and multiplies has accelerated, but what’s taking place now is more than a mere speeding up. What we’re experiencing is the amplification of everything that happens to be occurring at the moment, and a diminishment of everything that isn’t. It’s not just that Google search results favor the recent over the relevant; it’s that suddenly an entire society does.
I feel myself chasing the “now” all the time. Last June, on my way to the stage to speak about the phenomenon of present shock at the Personal Democracy Forum, the NSA scandal hit the wires and CNN began pinging my phone for me to appear on air. Sensing a kind of meta-moment, I switched the approach for my talk and wove the emerging news story into my remarks, reading live updates from my phone as I talked about our urge to be caught in the now. Using any other example of a fast moving news story would have felt past tense. My talk became more of a demonstration: an example of present shock about present shock, on a day of present shock.
It wasn’t always like this. As recently as the end of the 20th century, the zeitgeist was animated by a kind of forward-leaning futurism. There was a sense that we were accelerating toward a big shift fueled by new technologies, networks and global connectivity. Today, that shift may have finally occurred, but rather than encouraging us to look further ahead, it has instilled in us a pervading “presentism.” Our old obsession with the pace of progress has been drowned out by the onslaught of everything that is happening right now. It’s impossible even to keep up, much less to look ahead.
This new paradigm is fundamentally scrambling our politics. Our leaders’ ability to articulate goals, organize movements or even approach long-term solutions has been stymied by an obsession—on their part and ours—with the now. Unless we adapt to this new presentism, and soon, we may edge more dangerously close to political paralysis.
As you might expect, we can blame our current condition, at least in part, on digital technology. Consider the remote control, DVR and even YouTube, which in their own way have each eroded the traditional storytelling functions of television, rendering instead a deconstructed landscape of independent memes. The typical story arcs on which both news and entertainment used to depend no longer function when the audience can dart away—or move forward and backward—with the press of a button. Traditional stories with beginnings, middles and ends just don’t work anymore. The looping mini-movies on Vine, for instance, don’t even attempt to adhere to them. And when we’re not engaged with disjointed mashups like that, we gravitate toward epic, endless sagas—such as “Game of Thrones” or even “Breaking Bad”—which move more like fantasy roleplaying games than the TV shows of old.
Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be able to rally people to realize his great dream today. He would be as desperate for hourly retweets as the rest of us, gathering “likes” from followers on Facebook as a substitute for marching with them.
Our relationship with social and political movements is changing much the same way. Gone are the days when we could follow a charismatic leader on an ends-justify-the-means journey toward a clear goal. A person like Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t be able to rally people to realize his great dream today. He would be as desperate for hourly retweets as the rest of us, gathering “likes” from followers on Facebook as a substitute for marching with them. Imagine John F. Kennedy attempting to rally national support for a decade-long race to the moon? The extreme present is not an environment conducive to building lasting movements.
But without a guiding narrative to make sense and create purpose, we end up relying too much on whatever happens to be happening in the moment. When it occurs, we over-respond to the latest school shooting. But over the long term, we lack the resolve or attention span to do anything to stop others from occurring. Terror and rage replace our ideological goals; we end up reacting only to the latest crisis. And, because of what we can find (and what we can say) on the Internet, we react with a false confidence in our command of the facts. Just because we can all blog in the same size font doesn’t mean all of our opinions are equally valid or informed.
Consider the movements that have gained the most attention so far this century. The Tea Party may have originated as an almost libertarian anti-tax movement, but it gained steam the more it became characterized with an impatience for action. As a movement, it has focused on seeing direct results, now. Better to shut down the government in the present, as proof of what can be done, than to quietly persist without knowing whether one’s action are having an effect. Create a plot point, no matter the outcome.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the Occupy Wall Street movement began, similarly, as a protest against financial excesses, but it quickly morphed into a new style of political activity. Where the Tea Party yearned for results, the Occupiers seemed almost allergic to them. Process mattered as much or even more than product. The “general assembly” protocol that the demonstrators instituted required total consensus. When asked by reporters about their demands, occupiers insisted these would emerge at some point in the future, if it all. The Occupiers saw the movement not as something that would end, but as a new normative state. A permanent revolution.
Neither of these movements may augur the emergence of a third political party, but they both point to a hunger for a new way of doing things—and they suggest approaches that fit with the modern presentist landscape. People are willing to try something new. Are their leaders?
As I see it, the very technologies that brought us into this state of present shock offer two contrasting ways to contend with it in our politics. The first is simply to ratchet up the polling, the metering and the analysis we’ve been using to probe voters. Politicians have been doing this since the late1990s, adapting computers, social networking streams and big data to home in on evermore granular shifts in opinion on evermore minuscule issues. Technology is giving us the ability to have something like the “people meters” that measure audience responses and attitudes during television debates up and running perpetually. Pursuing this approach, our politics takes on the qualities of the Home Shopping Network, where television salespeople can adjust their pitches in real time based on the number of people placing orders.
Of course, access to continuous and instantaneous feedback is addictive—and quite counterproductive. We’ll demand that our politicians have clear answers to, say, the latest fracking disaster, lest they risk being seen as removed and non-responsive. Yet forcing them to engage at every bump in the road, however minuscule, will encourage them to lose their sense of direction and discourage them from taking in new information and making adjustments in thinking. For instance, as new revelations about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi make the incident less useful as a talking point against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Republicans double-down in real time and dispute new revelations, rather than wait until more evidence is revealed. There’s just no time to work with facts; opinions are being formed right now.
This relegates the processes that actually matter to the back room. The Obama administration’s deal-making with Iran over nuclear weapons occurred out of public view, lest the din of the digital reaction confuse or forestall whatever progress was being made. Unlike the Camp David accords of the Carter era, where proceedings were daily news, the public wasn’t privy to diplomatic history-making. As a result, the public has responded with more fear and suspicion than it might have otherwise. That’s the liability of expecting constant pings from government the same way we expect text messages from our spouse throughout the day.
Instead of amplifying the effects of present shock—using digital technologies to gather for themselves more data—our leaders could work to adjust our expectations by taking new cues from digital culture. For example, most forms of interactive engagement, such as video games, abandoned the structure of the traditional narrative long ago. Video games, like the fantasy role playing games on which they are often based, are not always contests that one wins and ends. Things like massive multiplayer games are more successful the more people get to play, and the longer the game is kept going. In our new presentist reality, those looking to rally support for causes or candidates would be wise to think about similar kinds of open-ended approaches.
Things that actually matter in our politics are being relegated to the back room, lest the din of the digital reaction confuse or forestall whatever progress is being made.
Take the White House rollout of the Affordable Care Act. The troubled debut of the HealthCare.gov website was less about bad Internet programming than about creating the kinds of expectations that accompany a Broadway opening, not a website. Online launches—the White House perhaps now knows—should be thought of as a permanent beta-test wherein engineers are iterating toward improvement in a present that’s never quite perfect. The finish line is never quite reached.
Operating within today’s presentist political landscape, the administration is at the mercy of a world without an organizing story. Often it takes a real disaster—a Boston bombing or a chemical weapons deployment in Syria—to generate a plot point capable of sustaining a narrative for a few days. But then it unravels again. Instead of imposing a narrative on this new, open, never-ending story, leaders must develop strategies to solve problems that are resistant to easy declarations of victory. Gone are the days when America could plant a flag on the moon and declare the space race won. Modern obstacles are more often chronic ones to be managed and mitigated over time. Greenhouse emissions, child hunger, mutating bacteria, drug abuse and even terrorism are not wars one wins.
The age of present shock is, it seems, forcing Americans to realize that our journey is less about reaching a conclusion than it is about sustaining ourselves for as long as possible. Our politics may come to have less to do with triumph than endurance—a shift in perspective that, while born out of an obsession with the present, wouldn’t be so bad for the future.
Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist and author of the new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.