Out of Time: The Sins of Immediacy
By JANET MASLIN
“Present Shock” is one of those invaluable books that make sense of what we already half-know. Playing on the title of Alvin Toffler’s influential 1970 “Future Shock,” which sounded an alarm about what Mr. Toffler called “a personal perception of too much change in too short a period of time,” Douglas Rushkoff analyzes a very different phenomenon. The future arrived a little while ago, he posits — maybe with Y2K, maybe with Sept. 11. Now it’s here. And we are stuck with “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” Mr. Toffler warned that we would be unready for this onslaught. Mr. Rushkoff is more analytical than alarmist. He divides his thoughts into five sections addressing five kinds of profound change, and his biggest illustration of present shock has to do with the actual book itself. Because the present is more full of interruptions than the past was, it took him extra time to write. Because its ideas aren’t glib, he says, “here I am writing opera when the people are listening to singles.” And he realizes that data-swamped readers may take longer to finish books now. Coming from him the phrase “thanks for your time” has new meaning.
“Present Shock” begins by simply describing how we have lost our capacity to absorb traditional narrative. It goes on to explain what we have used to replace it. There was a time, Mr. Rushkoff says, when everything had narrative structure, even TV ads. Captive audiences sat through commercials that introduced a protagonist, presented a problem, then pitched a product to solve it. The little story ended well, at least from the advertiser’s point of view. But now viewers may be more angry than bored at such intrusions. They know that “someone you don’t trust is attempting to make you anxious,” so they ditch the ad before it’s over.
The ancient Greeks learned about the hero’s journey from Homer’s narratives. We’ve gotten decades of Homer Simpson, who “remains in a suspended, infinite present,” while his audience moves from one satirical pop-culture reference to the next. Citing “Forrest Gump” as a film that failed to combat late-20th-century feelings of discontinuity and “Pulp Fiction” as one wild enough to usher in a new era, Mr. Rushkoff moves on to what came next: the video game open-ended structure that keeps TV drama in the eternal present. About “Game of Thrones” he says, “This is no longer considered bad writing.” Changes to news presentation are even more dramatic. This book describes the present shock of politicians who — thanks to the 24/7 coverage ushered in by “the CNN effect” that began in the 1980s — “cannot get on top of issues, much less get ahead of them.” He notes that both the political left (MSNBC, with its slogan “Lean Forward”) and right (conservatism devoted to reviving traditional values) share this goal: They’re trying to escape the present.
Contrasting the Tea Party with the Occupy movement, he says the Tea Party’s apocalyptic yearning for closure is diametrically unlike Occupy’s “inspiring and aggravating” quest for an eternal present. The ways Occupy resembles the Internet make him think it may be the more durable of the two movements.
When Mr. Rushkoff moves on to what he calls digiphrenia — digitally provoked mental chaos — he writes about present shock’s capacity to be a great leveler. Now that a single Facebook post can have as much impact as 30 years’ worth of scholarship, how do we analog creatures navigate the digital landscape? How do we shield ourselves from distraction, or gravitate to what really matters? This section of Mr. Rushkoff’s agile, versatile book veers into chronobiology, a burgeoning science that has not yet achieved peak popular impact. Dr. Oz may speak of it on television, but the correlation between time and physiology is ripe for more exploration. Mr. Rushkoff, who likes being his own guinea pig, divided his writing of this book into weekly segments based on a lunar cycle.
Among the intuitive ideas turned tangible by “Present Shock” is “filter failure,” the writer and teacher Clay Shirky’s improved term for what used to be called “information overload.” Mr. Rushkoff’s translation: “Whatever is vibrating on the iPhone just isn’t as valuable as the eye contact you are making right now.”
Your new boss isn’t the person in the corner office; it’s the P.D.A. in your pocket. And there are the discrepancies between age and appearance that are increasingly possible in our malleable present. The book contends that young girls and Botoxed TV “housewives” all want to look 19; that hipsters in their 40s cultivate the affectations of 20-somethings, to the delight of marketers; and that apocalyptic types just want to opt out of time altogether. “Present Shock” gives them good reason to feel that way.
But in the end only some of the ills in “Present Shock” can be chalked up to dehumanizing technological advances. “I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people that what people are choosing to do to one another through technology,” Mr. Rushkoff writes. “Facebook’s reduction of people to predictively modeled profiles and investment banking’s convolution of the marketplace into an algorithmic battleground were not the choices of machines.” They were made by human intelligence, because present shock’s ways of targeting, pinpointing and manipulating aren’t just shocking. They’re very lucrative too.