Do you understand how media works? If not, it might control you. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s last book, Program or Be Programmed, took on this question about media and our comprehension of it. Without a working knowledge of how information systems work, Rushkoff argues, we run the risk of being easily duped. This is a common problem and one that is easily battled with a drive towards media literacy, something I teach my students about in undergraduate mass communication courses. The battle does not end here, however, because even if we have a strong grasp of media systems we are not immune to yet another pitfall.
Just about everyone has come across it, even if you don’t quite know what it is. That feeling you get when you sense there is never enough time and obligations are coming at you from every direction… that’s a piece of it. The good thing is we can fight back and Rushkoff has the tools we need to take control of our lives. In his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Rushkoff addresses the problem with our “always-on” digital universe. Without a doubt, technology can lead to intellectual and psychological illness, usually in terms of addiction that can ultimately become destructive to every aspect of our life.
We are surrounded by technology and it can be overwhelming. Rushkoff writes:
Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on.
Unfortunately this gets truer every day. As a college professor I see kids in their late teens and early twenties constantly staring glossy-eyed into the nearest screen. However, to my relief, my mass communication classes are often filled with students willing to confront their generation’s addiction to screens and media of all kinds. Course discussions are often led with examples of how I have battled Present Shock in my own life.
The second half of the twentieth century, as explored by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock, was focused on the future. As time progressed towards the year 2000, things began to change and the focus started to shift towards the “now.” Rushkoff understands this and argues, “If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first century can be defined by presentism.” Present Shock is broken up into five different categories: narrative collapse, digiphrenia, overwinding, fractalnoia, and apocalypto. Each chapter focuses on another aspect of Present Shock that can, and should, be addressed in order to insure a sane existence in this digital age.
1. Narrative Collapse
Narrative has become the most important part of controlling the masses. Inducing a hive mind mentality relies heavily on finding, perfecting, and perpetuating a specific narrative. The more people know about information systems the harder it will be to force-feed ideas. However, this is not new and the latest problem today is a deconstruction of what we call narrative.
“Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the tweet; the status update. What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important – which is behavioristically doomed.”
Rushkoff nails it here. Narrative has never been more important and we seem to be on the verge of losing it completely. Interest in complex story has been traded in for the up-to-the-minute update on usually unimportant stories or thoughts (in the case of a 140 character tweet). This is a problem that is also addressed in Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein’s book The Dumbest Generation where he talks about the shortening attention span of today’s youth and how it is limiting critical thinking potential. With a dwindling devotion to a single topic at any given time, the result of multitasking, it is important to think about what we may lose in the process.
For a long time, our society’s narrative has become obsessed with a determined future or end. Rushkoff mentions the endless amount of books found at any bookstore with titles with the future of or the end of this or that. One could also add all of the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films and television shows that are out there. While these narratives are still enjoying popularity, some outlets have shown a steady move towards focusing on what’s happening now.
When narrative collapse occurs, people loose interest in stories and trade the drive for knowledge for a desire to have smaller snippets of information now. Look at the endless amount of reality television that is currently on the air. Each one of these shows, from American Idol and other talent shows, the Housewives shows, Pawn Stars, to Big Brother and the constant stream of non-singing competition shows all focus on the present over anything else.
While stories must follow certain plot conventions in order to make sense to their audience, reality is under no such obligation.
Storytelling is important in any culture, as it is a way to share, shape, and reflect on the values surrounding a society. However, with today’s overemphasis on the here and now, the interest in a more complex and developed story is diminishing. This is what we are seeing crumbling today; the sense of connection to our surroundings we get from stories. A perfect example, Ruskoff offers, is how “The 24/7 news cycle creates the sense of a constant stream of crises that are inescapable, no matter where we go.” This constant news stream is all too obsessed with getting a story first over getting it right. This rush to report every minute on the minute adds to the sense of never-ended emergency and need for up to the second information. This is simply not necessary.
Our technology, beginning with the advent of the clock tower, has forced us to plan everything according to time. The problem is technology does not live in time, only we do. It is easy to forget that, as Rushkoff writes, “our bodies are not quite as programmable as our schedules.” When we feel there is never enough time, Present Shock is upon us. The truth is that time is not the issue and instead it is our perception of how we deal with time in a digital world.
“If we could catch up with the wave of information, we feel, we would at last be in the now. This is a false goal. For not only have our devices outpaced us, they don’t even reflect a here and now that may constitute any legitimate sort of present tense.”
There has always been an endless amount of information. The problem today is that the never-ending stream is constantly at our fingertips, resulting in Present Shock. News and entertainment have never been so accessible, but this availability is both a blessing and a curse. How are we to keep up with it all? We can’t and we shouldn’t even try. As a film historian, getting old and previously unreleased movies is easier than ever with streaming them on Netflix or buying the cheap used films on Amazon. The difficulty is reminding myself that I don’t have to catch up on the last 100 years of movies in the near future. This “I can do it all right now” feeling is part of Present Shock.
In this age of constant message flows, this stream comes directly to us, in our smartphones that we carry with us at all times. What this does, argues Rushkoff, is “turn a potentially asynchronous technology into a falsely synchronous one.” It is important to remind ourselves regularly that we cannot catch up with everything. For me, doing this has helped keep me focused on specific tasks which has led to more productivity and less frustration. A grounded mindset is what one needs to avoid suffocation from Present Shock.
(Stay tuned for Part II next Friday, October 4…)