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Events

April 24, 2014
Blurred Lines
Finding the Boundaries in a Constantly Connected Society
ColoDLA, Lone Tree, CO

April 24, 2014
Ethics Matter
The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
Merrill House, NYC, 6p

May 1, 2014
DLDnyc
Business, Digital Culture and Innovation
New York City

May 6, 2014
“20/20 Vision”
Canadian Media Directors’ Council Conference
TIFF Lightbox, Toronto

May 6, 2014
Stream-Lecture: Present Shock
Orange Press

May 7, 2014
”Generation Like”
Screening and Q&A
Consumer Reports, Yonkers

 

Blog

Monday
Jul012013

Rushkoff at Harvard: Present Shock, Dave Weinberger and Game of Thrones

Dave Weinberger led this discussion with me at Berkman Center at Harvard Law School, that ended up moving from Present Shock to the digital economy to Game of Thrones and beyond. 

Monday
Jul012013

Tech President's Micah Sifry Goes Deep on Present Shock

Book Review: Our Computers, Ourselves--Living With Present Shock
BY MICAH L. SIFRY | Friday, June 21 2013

Douglas Rushkoff speaking at PDF 2013 (Photo by Esty Stein/Personal Democracy Media)

This is my digital life, circa mid-2013. Your mileage may vary, but I bet only in degree.

On June 3th, I sent 111 emails and received 474, according to Mailstrom, an email management tool that I recently started using. On June 4th, I sent 126 and received 476. On June 5th, I sent 103 and received 419.

You think this is just what my Gmail account looked like on the days right before Personal Democracy Forum? On June 13th, a week after the conference, it was 43 out and 397 in. According to Google, I have received 8,952 emails from more than 1700 contacts in the last thirty days, and I sent 1,671 to more than 500 different people.

No wonder my brain hurts. But this is just the beginning of understanding digital life today.

A lot of these emails are from people I work with. Those definitely get my attention. A handful are from family and friends. I don't want to ignore those either. Some are from list-servs that I subscribe to. Arguably those can be ignored, but good list-servs are valuable tracking tools. They keep me informed and engaged.

If I had to guess, simply keeping up with my email now eats three to four hours of my waking life, every week day. And not all emails are created equal. Some can be consumed and responded to in seconds. Others actually contain, compressed within their electronic confines, hours of work by the sender, demanding equivalent time and attention in response. They come "overwinded," to use one of several new terms coined by Douglas Rushkoff in his terrific new book Present Shock for describing the pathologies of our digital lives.

I read Present Shock two months ago, and found myself underlining and taking notes on nearly every page. Somehow, he ties together dozens of seemingly disparate phenomena--the popularity of reality TV, the death of ideology, how news has been replaced by spectacle, our compulsion to constantly "check in" on our digital inputs, the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy movements, even our culture's fascination with zombies and impending apocalypse--and finds the signal in all the noise. It's worth a listen.

Getting back to the problem with email, he writes:

"Looked at in terms of flowing and static information, the email inbox is one, big, unfinishable loop. It is not a book or document that can be successfully completed. It is a flow. Sure, we can mark or move emails that are important, create priorities and sorting routines. But the initial choice to have email at all is to open a loop. The choice to open a particular email, though, constitutes entry into something more like static information. The problem is that the sender may have spring-loaded a whole lot of time and energy into that message so that clicking on it is like opening a Pandora's box of data and responsibilities. A week of the sender's preparation can instantaneously flow into our present."

Temporal compression isn't new. Humans have been binding time for ages, Rushkoff notes, citing the work of Alfred Korzybski. Civilization and culture are the knowledge and experiences of many generations compressed into digestible and learnable packages. But now, with so much knowledge available, so many opportunities for self-expression, so many experiences being shared, and so many demands on our attention, our experience of time itself, Rushkoff argues, is being radically transformed. The future is here and it's breaking the present.

Rushkoff was once a digital utopian. "Along with most technology hopefuls of the twentieth century," he writes, "I was one of the many pushing for more connectivity and openness as the millennium approached. It seemed the only answer for our collapsing, top-down society was for everyone and everything to network together and communicate better and more honestly….a connected world would respond more rapidly and emphatically to crises in remote regions, it would become more aware of threats to its well-being, and may actually become more cooperative as a whole."

But being hypernetworked has not only hyperempowered small groups to the level of nation-states (see for example Al Qaeda or Wall Street derivatives traders), at the more personal level it is challenging how we move through daily life. "We can produce effects in more than one place at a time, each of us now having the global reach formerly reserved for kings, presidents and movie stars," writes Rushkoff. "Our role in the culture and society may have changed from that of passive readers or watchers to that of active game players, but this self-direction comes at a cost….we must keep our eyes moving at the same time to stay aware of all sorts of activity on the periphery." [Emphasis added.]

And that means managing multiple digital presences far more complicated than email alone. This causes "digiphrenia," Rushkoff's word for the "disordered condition of mental activity" caused by "the tension between the faux present of digital bombardment and the true now of a coherently living human."

Oh yes. Take my Twitter feed. If I leave a tab open just to watch tweets flow in as I write these words, at 9:30 on a week night, in 5 minutes I've got 66 new ones to read. At that rate, I'll have nearly 20,000 new tweets to read by tomorrow night. Obviously I'm not going to read them all--I've long ago learned to watch Twitter for the overall flow, and rarely try to stay engaged with everything that passes by. Tools like TweetedTimes.com, which aggregate the top links that the people I follow are tweeting about, give me 20-30 top headlines to peruse. But that takes time too. I remember when Twitter was a cure for boredom; now sometimes boredom seems like a cure for Twitter.

What else? As I write this, I've got 27 tabs open on my browser. One is to a Google doc that I'm not done editing--compressed work waiting to be unsprung. Two tabs are to long New Yorker articles that I want to remember to read; more compressed work waiting its moment of attention. Between new emails, new tweets and open tabs, every day my laptop can hypothetically generate enough attention demands to eat a whole day.

Not only do I have many open tabs, I've got at least six books that I'm in the middle of finishing: I'm nearly done with Ethan Zuckerman's Digital Cosmopolitans, one of several terrific new books about the Internet that I am always reading for work reasons; partway thru Tom Segev's The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, which I started after visiting Auschwitz last February; nearly done with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which I got into after seeing Lincoln, the film; rapidly devouring W. Bruce Cameron's A Dog's Purpose (it's a warm bath for the brain); and slowly making my way thru Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle. which I downloaded for free onto my iPhone exclusively for when I'm on the subway and can't get to my email or Twitter!

Speaking of my iPhone, I've got 11 screenfuls of apps that I've downloaded and the open ones at the moment include WeatherBug, RunKeeper, Maps, SleepCycle, and Vine. I'm in four current games of Words with Friends.

And that's not all. I've got a personal blog that I haven't updated since February; a blog for my Good Question Project sideline that I haven't updated in over a month; and a Facebook account that I rarely look at, but where more than 50 people are waiting to see if I will friend them. Same on LinkedIn.

Some days, I just work in interruption mode. Whatever interrupts my attention gets my attention. While I love my work, being digital doesn't feel like that much of a gift any more. I am overwound and digiphrenic. And I don't think I'm that unusual.

The Personal is Political
Present Shock is not just an eerily accurate diagnosis of how many of us live today. It is also a brilliant and urgent dissection of how the digital age is driving our culture and politics to distraction, and what we can do about it.

There is some good news. Our distracted present is partly the result of the collapse of the grand narratives of the last century. Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, Fascism--each ideology sought to organize the present in service of some greater future goal. They helped orient millions of lives, but at tremendous cost. Now, we muddle around without sure direction, but arguably we are less likely to meddle in the affairs of others, because those great totalizing ideologies have lost their power to set vast armies in motion. And maybe, just maybe, this creates room for new ways of living to flower that are more rooted in the actual present, and in our capacity to do things together, at the appropriate human scale and pace, a notion that Rushkoff loosely calls "presentism."

The bad news? We've stopped living in linear time; that is, nothing moves forward any more. Instead, our Gross National Attention flits from spectacle to spectacle.

I think I first noticed this four years ago, when for two whole weeks Americans were transfixed by the momentous post-election protests in Iran, and then Michael Jackson died. Poof, there went Iran. Then Sarah Palin resigned her governorship of Alaska; goodbye Michael. Then the Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court. Then Senator Ted Kennedy died. Then Nidal Hasan shot up the Fort Hood army base. Then Obama announced the Afghanistan troop surge. Then a Nigerian man tried to blow up an flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day with a bomb in his underwear. Then Haiti was hit with a horrific earthquake. And Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's seat. Which was followed by the Winter Olympics, the earthquake in Chile, the passage of health care reform, the Iceland volcano, the BP oil spill…

Remember not long ago, when the country was focused on gun control after Sandy Hook? Or climate change after Hurricane Sandy? Or immigration reform? I'm sorry, that's on for this week, at least until it gets bumped aside by some natural disaster, celebrity tragedy or act of terror.

At times, Rushkoff the media theorist views this circus with an equanimity that I don't share: "As I have come to understand the cultural swirl," he writes, "media events tend to matter less for whatever they are purportedly about than for the space they fill. 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."

I used to think that our crisis-driven news cycles offered an opportunity to would-be do-gooders. "You need to be ready for the next big disaster, because you will be deluged by volunteers calling you and emailing you offering help; are you ready to channel all that distributed power?" I'd ask my activist friends. But while huge disasters keep coming (BP, Sandy) and some volunteers are showing up, the bigger trend isn't "do it ourselves," it's "watch it ourselves." The politics of spectacle wants to keep us transfixed, in spectator mode. And our digital tools and presences that they generate are using us and shaping us, more than we are using them to reshape the world.

And this isn't just a crisis of how we mediate our lives. It is also about the growing realization that many of us have negative futures; that our children's lives will not be better than our own, which was the great promise of the "American Dream" and every other country that has embraced the "free market." Twenty-somethings graduating college with more debt than their service-economy jobs can help them pay off are one vanguard of this depressing reality.

Or take the unresolved US housing crisis, where much of the financial industry conspired to convince millions of home-buyers (and themselves) that the market could only go up. Rushkoff notes: "Owing more on a thirty-year mortgage than one's house is currently worth is just another way of saying present shock."

We Gotta Get Out of This Place
How are we responding to all these symptoms? Individually, for people who recognize present shock in their own lives, the move is toward disconnecting, at least temporarily. You can see this happening among some of the earliest and most voracious adopters of all things D. For example, a year ago, Rachel Sklar, the hyperkinetic connector who calls her Blackberry her "life partner," signed on with the Sabbath Manifesto "Unplug Challenge" and went off the net for 24 hours. Padmasree Warrior, the CTO of Cisco, says she takes a day off the Internet every week.

Activist comedian Baratunde Thurston, the 2011 Foursquare Mayor of the Year, sensed himself burning out last fall after a grueling book tour and political season and decided to go offline for 25 days. "I just wanted to be mentally free of obligations, most of which asserted themselves in some digital fashion," he writes in a just-out Fast Company cover story about his experience. Interestingly, the hardest thing about Thurston's digital detox was figuring out how to shut off most of his social media services; unlike email, they don't offer a vacation mode. And as someone who admits he has given hundreds of apps, websites and services the rights to publish his activities to his Facebook and Twitter pages, he found that he couldn't even use Netflix on his laptop without inadvertently posting an update and violating his promise to disconnect.

Eventually, he achieved a kind of bliss: "I was reading long books, engaging in meaningful conversation, and allowing my mind to wander and make passive connections I had previously short-circuited with social queries, responses, interruptions, and steady documenting and sharing of unripened experiences." Back online again, he feels the tug of his digital obsessions, but he has also learned to moderate some of his most compulsive behavior. (Perhaps by sniffing on a feather, as shown to the right?)

Such solutions may work for individuals, but only barely, since we are all in this together. Or, as the vendors of all this tech actually put it, we are locked in. The digital economy is not kind to those on the slower side of the digital divide. Most individuals can't drop out; we need a collective response. But while some new mass protest movements have emerged in response to present shock, they leave much to be desired.

First, there are the "Apocalyptos"--people who believe that we are on the verge of a societal breakdown or transformation. Our culture has a hunger for this kind of resolution, if the ratings for shows like ABC's Revolution or AMC's The Walking Dead are any indication. (Watch the box office returns for Brad Pitt's World War Z this weekend.) "At least the annihilation of the human race," Rushkoff writes, "resolves the precarious uncertainty of present shock." It "finally ends the ever-present barrage of media, tax forms, toxic spills and mortgage payments, opening the way to a simpler life of farming, maintaining shelter, and maybe defending one's family." From Zombies, perhaps. Believers in the Singularity are indulging in the same fantasy of a release from our present muddle, Rushkoff notes.

Second, there is the Tea Party phenomenon, which Rushkoff argues is "the first true political movement to emerge out of present shock." I'm not so sure I buy that argument; careful ethnographic study of the Tea Partiers suggest that they are mainly a continuation of hard-right conservative politics, juiced by the election of an African-American Democratic President.

But Rushkoff's beef with Tea Partiers isn't that they're too rightwing. It's that they're too impatient to deal with the complexities of today, seeking instead to impose harsh and simple solutions rather than wrestle with the challenge of governing in the real world. And that certainly is a classic response to too much change and overstimulation. Years ago, sociologist Myron Orfield told me that whenever the rate of population growth exceeded ten percent per year in a given locality, towns and counties started voting down local budgets. Shouting "no, stop the future" is hardly a viable response to present shock.

And third there is the Occupy movement, which Rushkoff argues is "the first truly postnarrative political movement," but that it too hasn't produced a coherent answer to what ails us:

Unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop…this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. It is not about winning some debate point and then going home. Rather, as the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion. It is not about scoring a victory, but groping toward consensus….Occupy Wall Street is not a movement that wins and ends; it is meant more as a way of life that spreads through contagion and creates as many questions as it answers."

None of these movements are tenable. Apocalypse is out of the question. Shrinking government and cutting taxes isn't going to make present shock go away--and besides, if the Tea Party had its way most of its members (and the rest of us) might have a few more bucks in our pockets, but vastly increased costs of self-protection. And Occupy didn't last, not as occupations, anyway. If the police hadn't cracked down, the endless general assembly meetings would have eventually lost their momentum because they didn't scale as decision-making platforms for the movement.

Is there a way to reclaim living in the present? As I note above, Rushkoff offers some hints at what a "presentist" politics might look like, but alas, it's the book's weakest element. "It could mean making sure we understand the difference between a marketplace that has been designed to accelerate no matter what and a reality that may or may not share this embedded agenda," he writes near the book's finish. "It could mean beginning to envision slow paths to sustainability that don't require zombies or the demise of a majority of the world's population. Most of all, as when confronting any of the many faces of present shock, it means accepting responsibility and dominion over the moment in which we are living right now."

Well, I can buy that idea. Having finished this book review, I'm going to go for a long bike ride. My FitBit says I've only taken 1,255 steps so far today. And my SleepCycle app tells me that whenever I work out, I get a better night's sleep. But I already knew that, didn't I?

Monday
Jun102013

CNN: Ed Snowden - Human Hero Intervenes on Machine Logic

When I was a kid, I remember a guy named Daniel Ellsberg leaking some classified documents to the New York Times about the Vietnam War called “the Pentagon Papers.” When the whistleblower finally stood trial for espionage, my parents weren’t quite sure how to feel. But when Richard Nixon’s crew was revealed to have been conducting illegal wiretaps in an effort to discredit the former intelligence contractor, well, they were outraged and decided Ellsberg was a hero. So did the judge and most of America. 

I wonder if Ed Snowden - the 29-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton employee behind last week’s series of leaks about NSA surveillance on the American public - will be rewarded with the same admiration. You’d think we would be even more outraged by what he uncovered than we were by the surveillance of Ellsberg. After all, it’s not just one lone loose cannon being wiretapped here, it’s all of us. 

Snowden has not uncovered a human conspiracy here, but the workings of the machine itself. And it’s a machine that really does require some human intervention. 

In the coming months I expect a campaign to be waged against this young man that will make the one against Ellsberg look like child’s play. His enemies have the full force of the machine - every email he’s written and every phone call he’s made - to use against him. This won’t be pretty. But before we decide that Snowden was smiling too much in his videotaped interview with The Guardian, earned too much money, or somehow betrayed his lovely girlfriend in Hawaii in a personal vendetta against his former bosses at the intelligence agencies, let’s take just a moment to consider his particularly human act of heroism. 

There are dozens, if not hundreds of government employees and contractors who have long been aware of the NSA's total surveillance effort. As a digital technology writer, I have had more than one former student and colleague tell me about digital switches they have serviced through which calls and data are diverted to government servers, or the big data algorithms they've written to be used on our emails by intelligence agencies. I always begged them to write about it, or to let me do so while protecting their identities. They refused to come forward, and believed my efforts to shield them would be futile. “I don’t want to lose my security clearance. Or my freedom,” one told me. 

Snowden was willing to take those risks and, I daresay, more. 

Yet it wasn’t just fear keeping people from talking about the growing cyber-surveillance state, but a sense of inevitability. This is just how technology evolves - at least when it’s uncontested. Everyone knows, or should know, that everything we type on our computers or say into our cell phones is being disseminated throughout the datasphere. And most of it is recorded and parsed by big data servers. Why do you think Gmail and Facebook are free? You think they're corporate gifts? We pay with our data. 

In such an environment, it’s hard to come down too hard on government intelligence officers who want to get in on this action. Our leaders are suffering from what I call “present shock” - the overwhelming assault of multiple threats from everywhere at the same time, amplified by technology of all sorts. Terrorists have unprecedented access to weapons of mass destruction, and work through decentralized networks around the clock. As data-gathering tools emerge with ever-increasing ability to keep tabs on the world’s communications, how can an overburdened intelligence agency choose otherwise than to exploit their potential? 

The rush to employ technology has become automatic. 

We all know the feeling of surrendering to the embedded biases of our devices. We let our cell phones ping us every time there’s an incoming message, and check our email even when we’d best pay attention to what’s going on around us in the real world. We text while driving. Likewise, without conscious restraint, government agencies can’t help but let the growing power of big data draw them into evermore invasive forms of surveillance on a population whose members simply must include those who intend harm on the rest. This is just how everything runs when it's left on "default" settings. 

Yet if we let the evolution of our machines dictate the evolution of our policy, the only possible result is what Snowden calls “turnkey tyranny.” 

As I have argued in other contexts, the best weapon against the paralysis of technologically induced present shock is human intervention. Just as we the people stood against the structural tyranny of an overreaching monarchy, it is we the people who must stand against the structural tyranny of runaway technology. 

Ed Snowden is a hero because he realized that our very humanity was being compromised by the blind implementation of machines in the name of making us safe. Unlike those around him, who were too absorbed in their task to reflect on their actions and pause in their pursuit of digital omniscience, Snowden allowed himself to be “disturbed” by what he was doing. More in the midst of technology than most of us will ever be, Snowden disengaged for long enough to be human, and to consider the impact of what he was helping to build. He pressed pause.

Thank heavens our intelligence agencies are staffed by people like Snowden, not robots. People can still think. 

That’s why they call it intelligence.

Saturday
Jun082013

End of Democracy: NSA and Present Shock

Here's my short closing keynote for day one at PDF 2013. The NSA story was buzzing on my phone as I walked to the stage. 

Thursday
Jun062013

CNN: NSA phone snooping, a new kind of creepy

I'm finding hard to get too worked up over yesterday's revelation that the National Security Agency has been authorized by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to collect all our call data from Verizon. Hasn't everyone already assumed this? Everything we do in the digital realm - from surfing the web to sending an email to conducting a credit card transaction to, yes, making a phone call - creates a data trail. And if that trail exists, chances are someone is using it - or will be soon enough. 

This particular style of privacy invasion looks a bit different from those old TV movies where FBI agents sit in a van listening in on phone calls and recording them on reel-to-reel tape recorders. The government isn't interested in the content of our phone calls - our conversations - so much as who is calling whom and when, or what has become known as "meta-data."  Your life and pursuits are less important than the statistical profile of the way you use your digital devices. This is the world of big data.

I remember the days when talking about such possibilities was considered conspiracy theory or paranoia. Many of us imagined a future in which people would be planted with chips that monitor our conversations and whereabouts. Perhaps we'd even accept such tagging voluntarily, if it meant being able to track down our children in the unlikely event of a kidnapping. But such extraordinary measures proved unnecessary; we're all walking around with tracking devices in our pockets, which are capable not simply of broadcasting our phone calls but our physical locations, our movements, our interests - and then to tie all this data to our consumer profiles, credit histories…everything. 

Yes, it's still creepy, but it's a different kind creepy than it appears. Big data analysis works by identifying patterns and anomalies in our behavior. Nobody cares about the reasons why certain people do certain things. They only need to be able to predict the future. Marketers use big data profiling to predict who is about to get pregnant, who is likely to buy a new car, and who is about to change sexual orientations. That's how they know what ads to send to whom. The NSA, meanwhile, wants to know who is likely to commit an act of terrorism - and for this, they need us. 

The only way for them to identify the kinds of statistical anomalies that point to a terror candidate is to have a giant database of all those behavior patterns that don't suggest imminent violence. What is different about the Tsarnaev brothers patterns of telephone usage from that of every other young male Chechnyan immigrants? You need both sets of data to figure that out. We are not the targets so much as the control group. 

Of course that's small comfort to a people who have long valued and assumed some measure of privacy from government observation. The American assumption of privacy allows those of us who do break certain laws - say, smoking pot or prostitution - from the fear of selective enforcement if we happen to be personal or political enemies of those in charge. As recent IRS scandals prove, our most trusted agencies are not above targeted investigations of ideological foes. 

The harder truth to accept is that we are moving into a digital reality where the assumption of privacy must be exchanged for an assumption of observation. Our telephone metadata is just the tip of the iceberg. Sure, President Obama was quick to respond to the surprise discovery of his administration's covert surveillance operation, promising Americans that the leaked document describes the full extent of this technological intrusion on our privacy. But this court order was already "top secret". Had it not been uncovered, its provisions would have been denied as well. 

My own friends in the digital telephony and networking industries have long told me about "splitters" at all major communications companies, through which every data signal can be observed and diverted. Other technicians have told me about giant server farms in Virginia and Utah, where all of our digital data - including encrypted emails and our phone calls - is being stored. No, they don't have the technological ability or legal authority to search this tremendous repository of data (if it really exists). But they may at some point in the future.  

Besides, the lack of court orders authorizing a particular style of surveillance don't stop any of this surveillance from happening. They simply make any information collected inadmissible in a court of law. Since the dawn of the Internet, I have always operated under the assumption that if the government or corporations have technological capability to do something, they are doing it - whatever the laws we happen to know about might say. 

Digital media are biased toward replication and storage. Our digital photos practically upload and post themselves on Facebook, and our most deleted emails tend to resurface when we least expect it. Yes, everything you do in the digital realm may as well be broadcast on primetime television and chiseled on the side of the Parthenon. 

Does this excuse our government's behavior? Of course not. But the silver lining here is that this digital transparency cuts both ways. No sooner does the government win a court order to spy on us than the digital trail of that court order is discovered and leaked to the press. The government's panicky surveillance of Associated Press reporters and disproportionate prosecution of Wikileaks participants lays bare its own inability to contend with the transparency of digital communications. 

It is disheartening and disillusioning to realize that our government knows every digital thing we say or do. But now, at least we know they know. 

 

 

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