Here's the beginning of Steven Soderbergh's State of the Cinema Address, delivered Saturday in SF:
So I’m getting comfortable in my seat. I spent the extra $60 to get the extra leg room so I’m trying to get comfortable and we make altitude. And there’s a guy on the other side of the aisle in front of me and he pulls out his iPad to start watching stuff. I’m curious to see what he’s going to watch – he’s a white guy in his mid-30s. And I begin to realize what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen action sort of extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences – he’s skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.
I get this wave of – not panic, it’s not like my heart started fluttering – but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane – or both? Now I start with the circular thinking again. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s generational and I’m getting old, I’m in the back nine professionally. And maybe my 22-year-old daughter doesn’t feel this way at all. I should ask her. But then I think, no: Something is going on – something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. We have people walking around who think the government stages these terrorist attacks. And anybody with a brain bigger than a walnut knows that our government is not nearly competent enough to stage a terrorist attack and then keep it a secret because, as we know, in this day and age you cannot keep a secret.
Something is going on – something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. We have people walking around who think the government stages these terrorist attacks. And anybody with a brain bigger than a walnut knows that our government is not nearly competent enough to stage a terrorist attack and then keep it a secret because, as we know, in this day and age you cannot keep a secret.
So I think that life is sort of like a drumbeat. It has a rhythm and sometimes it’s fast and sometimes it’s slower, and maybe what’s happening is this drumbeat is just accelerating and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t hear between the beats anymore and it’s just a hum. Again, I thought maybe that’s my generation, every generation feels that way, maybe I should ask my daughter. But then I remember somebody did this experiment where if you’re in a car and you’re going more than 20 miles an hour it becomes impossible to distinguish individual features on a human being’s face. I thought that’s another good analogy for this sensation. It’s a very weird experiment for someone to come up with.
So that was my Jet Blue flight. But the circular thinking didn’t really stop and I got my hands on a book by a guy named Douglas Rushkoff and I realized I’m suffering from something called Present Shock which is the name of his book. This quote made me feel a little less insane: “When there’s no linear time, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time”. That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us. I think it’s having an effect on our culture, and I think it’s having an effect on movies. How they’re made, how they’re sold, how they perform.
So is this the "new normal"? That's the question I keep hearing as people try to comprehend the tragedy at the Boston Marathon and its chaotic aftermath. The answer is yes -- in more ways than you might think.
I don't mean that we're supposed to get used to explosions, school shootings and other threats arising seemingly randomly and without warning. But we should accept that the old ways of understanding and responding to conflicts and threats no longer apply.
In an always-on, post-narrative age, 24-hour cable and Internet news and Twitter feeds offer a steady stream of opportunities for panic and misinformation. We have a suspect; no, we don't; yes, we do. The school is on lockdown; no, it's not. False alarms are still alarms, after all. It's like we are all living in newsrooms, or as 911 operators or air-traffic controllers, for all the emergency interruptions and bulletins we navigate practically every hour.
We live in a state of "present shock."
And even if network anchors still had the authority they once did, they would not be able construct a satisfying story around the onslaught of neverending news. When the journalists cheered as the police caught the marathon bombings suspect in the boat, it seemed that they were mostly relieved at reaching a definitive conclusion to a neverending news cycle. One news anchor actually declared "justice won" as she was at last permitted to cut to commercial. It rang false, because there's no genuine finality anymore. The story just doesn't end. Nor does the anxiety.
For it's not so much a matter of responding to a particular crisis, threat or tragedy but of coping with the persistent flow of urgency itself. Some of the unease we feel with the Boston bombings comes from the nagging sense that we have no way of gauging where we are in the arc of violence. Is this the beginning of a new series of attacks, a rare event like the Oklahoma City bombing or part of some greater conspiracy yet to be revealed?
Of course, none of the usual narratives apply, for we no longer live in a world with beginnings, middles and ends. That quaint structure went out with the Industrial Age and the moon shot. We no longer design career paths; we no longer invest in the future. We occupy; we freelance; we trade derivatives. Everything happens in the now.
Even terror. While there are certainly groups such as al Qaeda with political goals and a modicum of organization, for every plotted attack with strategic goals, there are many more that arise haphazardly, randomly -- by either sympathizers, copycats or mentally ill nihilists with no political justification whatsoever.
We're no longer fighting enemies in the normal sense. We cannot begin a war on terrorism and then declare victory when we're done. We can't stick a flag in it and call it won.
No, the challenges of a post-Industrial society are less like conquests with clear endpoints than they are steady-state concerns. Oil is spilling. The climate is changing. Terrorists are plotting. Crises are never quite solved for the future so much as managed in the present.
But accepting the essentially plotless and ongoing nature of crisis needn't compromise our ability to respond appropriately and effectively. In fact, by freeing ourselves from the obsolete narratives we used to rely on, we can begin to recognize the patterns in the apparent chaos. We may not get answers to rally around or satisfyingly dramatic finales, but neither will we need to invent compelling, false stories to motivate ourselves into action.
In a world where crises are constant and perpetual, we might as well begin to develop more sustainable approaches to solving them in real time, rather than once and for all.
Life goes on.
Facebook's latest defense of the mental distraction it creates for its users? It's not a bug, it's a feature!
At least that's the meaning I take from a Web commercial for the new smartphone start screen, Facebook Home, in which founderMark Zuckerberg's announcement of the portal's launch is disrupted and interrupted by a host of Facebook updates.
"After all your hard work," he says to a group of employees in their work space, "Facebook Home is ready to ship." But as he continues, one employee glances down distractedly at his phone and begins thumbing through his, new, supercharged Facebook Home device. Zuckerberg's voice fades as a "screaming goat" appears on a desk and bleats loudly. A friend leaps out of nowhere, racquet in hand, saying, "Dude, forget work -- come play!"
Eventually, the whole office is a race track and then even a pool party that only the one, distracted employee can see and hear. Of course, the employee has missed the whole announcement. When it's over and Zuckerberg asks for his response, he glibly replies, "You know it, Mark." Zuckerberg has no idea he's been ignored.
By casting himself as the butt of the joke, it's as if Zuckerberg seeks to inoculate himself from critique. Can't we all just lighten up? Everyone knows that this stuff is distracting. We have all pretended to be listening to someone on the phone or in real life while actually checking e-mail. At least Facebook is aware of it, and -- if the commercial is to be believed -- the distractions it offers are pretty darned engaging. Yes, you can be with your friends and at work at the same time.
Except you can't. The ad is an apt, if sanguine, depiction of what I've been calling "present shock," the human incapacity to respond to everything happening all at once. In a rapid-fire, highly commercial digital environment, this sense of an overwhelming "now" reaches new heights. Unlike computer chips, human beings can only process one thing at a time. Whatever succeeds in attracting our attention only wins it at the expense of something else. Joke as we might like about it, our efficiency, our accuracy, our memory and our depth of understanding go down when we try to multitask.
Yet Facebook collapses time in more ways than that. Consider how people from your distant past, as far back as, say, second grade, can show up right in your Facebook present, asking to be "friends." If you click yes, they will show up right alongside and indistinguishable from your current friends. The distance once afforded by decades of time vanishes in the Facebook universe, as everything old is now again.
But wait, there's more. It's not just the past that comes careering into the present on Facebook, but the future. Facebook is just the front end -- the consumer interface -- of a big data engine. Facebook and its affiliates are busy churning the data generated from every keystroke to figure out who of us is likely to go on a diet, get pregnant, change political affiliation, question our sexuality and more. All so advertisers can act on our probable future behaviors by targeting marketing messages to us today.
Facebook brings us both friends from our past and advertisements from our future, all competing to distance us from the boring but emotionally grounded present. And this temporally compressed digital landscape is supposed to be our new "home."
Meanwhile, as if to prove that humans really can exist in more than one place at the same time, our Facebook profiles continue to carry on our online lives for us even when we're not logged on. An advertising feature called Sponsored Stories inserts our names and pictures into advertisements, so that we may endorse products tangentially associated with people or things we may have once "liked." To our friends, it looks like we're adding a live update, while in reality, we're sleeping, eating or even tweeting elsewhere.
This is the disorientation produced by present shock. I call it digiphrenia, the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. Of course, now that we're in on the joke, we're supposed to realize that coming back online to discover one of our other selves has been hawking a coffee bar we've never even visited isn't a violation: It's sort of funny. Just take it in stride, like Zuckerberg does.
In the end, however, the joke may really be on Zuckerberg after all. Young people, teens in particular, are drifting away from Facebook for less overwhelming social applications such as the 140-character Twitter and the intentionally temporary photo service Snapchat.
And when I looked up Facebook Home online to try to find out just what it was, the first search results that came up were from users sharing how to disable it. This way, consumers can buy the discounted phones on which Facebook Home ships, and turn them back into a regular Android smartphones, where Facebook is just another app we can use in our own good time.
Here's a Present Shock manifesto for business I wrote for a website called ChangeThis.
“Living in the digital media environment changes a whole lot more than the technologies through which we do business. It has changed our relationship to time—and this is having profound effects on our businesses, our economy, and our customers.
To put it most simply, the money we use has a built-in clock—an embedded relationship to time that informs how we obtain capital, how we pay it back, how we invest, how we sell, and how we communicate. That clock has run out. It has wound down, and been replaced with something else. I call it “presentism”, or a focus on the now over the past or even the future. If we understand this shift—the most truly significant change wrought by the digital—we can thrive in the new landscape. If we can’t—if we end up paralyzed in what I’ve come to call “present shock,” then we may as well go down with the rest of the Industrial Age.”