This chapter in Rushkoff’s book is perfectly subtitled “the short forever.” In the previous section I gave my own personal example of trying to get everything accomplished in an unrealistically short amount of time. When we try to accomplish such impossible tasks we fall victim to another form of Present Shock.
This weight on every action – this highly leveraged sense of the moment – hints at another form of present shock that is operating in more ways and places than we may suspect. We’ll call this temporal compression overwinding – the effort to squish really big timescales into much smaller or nonexistent ones.
We’ve seen this regularly, and most of us suffer or have suffered from overwinding. A great example is how cleaning out your inbox can give you a “clean feeling.” However, how important is this really? Is it worth the time spent? And what are we actually cleaning? Most working professionals get enough legitimate email and junk messages to spend all day, every day dealing only with email. The problem is that email is a communication tool and most of us have jobs that require actions outside of the email loop. To fight overwinding, spend a minimal amount of time in your inbox. Reply to what needs attention, ignore the rest and get on with your day.
In this chapter, Rushkoff emphasizes the importance of different kinds of time. There is stored time, which we can get from a history book. A reader is in control and can spend as much or as little time gathering this information. There is also flowing time that we can get from streaming news feeds. The feeling that one must catch up with such a feed is where control is lost and Present Shock takes over.
When we attempt to pack the requirements of storage into media of flow, or to reap the benefits of flow from media that locks things into storage, we end up in present shock.
This ties back to Rushkoff’s ideas on narrative collapse. It is important to break flowing narratives apart, focusing on them separately, to avoid Present Shock via overwinding. Trying to fit everything we want to engage with into one constant flow sounds great. The problem is it doesn’t work. Those who think this works are victims of the myth of multitasking. Rushkoff addressed this problem in a documentary called Digital Nation where, along with Rachel Dretzin, he explored the low productivity and distracted mindset that comes along with multitasking. The end result is that the better you think your multitasking is, the less productive you are.
Even though I’ve worked hard to deemphasize social networking and other distractions in my life, overwinding is something that happens to me. It is a constant battle but I believe I’m winning. The key is keeping focus on what is necessary and leaving everything else alone. Facebook has come up in many discussions with students, friends, and colleagues. Rushkoff left Facebook and discussed his reasoning in an article for CNN. Using his usual intelligent wit, Rushkoff writes, “Facebook has never been merely a social platform. Rather, it exploits our social interactions the way a Tupperware party does.” Agreed, and I encourage everyone to read his case.
This chapter is about finding patterns. This can be in a desperate form of sense making such as conspiracy theories. According to Rushkoff, conspiracy theories truly matter because of the same need driving each one, the desire “to make sense of the world in the present tense.” While we see narrative collapse, we can also find a yearning for narrative in some places, however far afield from reality they may be.
Fractalnoia can also manifest in a less stressful version through making connections and sense out of a complex film or TV series. Either way, searching for patterns is part of what we do in order to make sense of the world around us. Look at the intense following Lost had. Today, people are talking regularly about True Blood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Such television shows allow viewers to find and engage with patters they see, acting as a much needed cohesive in a fractured reality:
The fractal is the beautiful, reassuring face of this otherwise terrifying beast of instantaneous feedback. It allows us to see the patterns underlying the seeming chaos, the cycles within the screechy collapsed feedback of our everything-all-at-once world.
Such engaging narratives can be refreshing because we are so used to people taking deep personal interests in mundane happenings through Facebook and Twitter updates. As Rushkoff notes, social media users are rarely sharing stories and more often regurgitating facts of the moment. From my experience, social media sites are most rewarding when the rare, lengthy discussions take place. Of course, by the nature of the platform, those discussions are broken up over time and space that lack the unity of a real time conversation.
So how else can we find unity of communication in the digital age? It begins with a self-conscious effort to seek the proper context in every situation. The problem regarding Fractalnoia is an overemphasis on the self:
The fractalnoid is developing the ability to see the connections between things but can only understand them as having something to do with himself. This is the very definition of paranoia.
From here it is easy to see how our culture can fall into a perpetual loop of self-referencing. Sometimes this can be really fun, for the sake of entertainment. However, often times it can distract from useful, intelligence-building conversations. Take a popular television show like Community that is about a diverse group of college students constantly in the middle of schemes and plots that revolve around popular culture references. The show is fun but it is also an example of the kind of media effect that stems from Fractalnoia. Though Community is a guilty pleasure of mine, I am aware that the entire premise is held together by esoteric pop culture references.
Another problem, Rushkoff argues, is that in a fractal state nothing is personal. Not everything is about us. However, that is often how we view things. After all, this is what makes the self-referential humor funny. This may also be why we find it refreshing to follow a narrative that is not about us. Even if we can relate to the characters (a common reason to watch a show or film), the act of viewing something outside of our own lives reminds us how interesting and engaging a coherent narrative can be. We should remind ourselves that this cohesion is great for our entertainment but it could also be helpful in our own lives.
This brings us to the final chapter in Rushkoff’s book, aptly titled “Apocalypto.” When in a state of Present Shock there is certainly an apocalyptic or cataclysmic feeling constantly lurking. The goal of this book, and I believe it does a marvelous job, is to lay out the tools one needs to battle and defeat Present Shock.
“The hardest part of living in present shock is that there’s no end and, for that matter, no beginning. It’s a chronic plateau of interminable stresses that seem to have always been there.”
This common, apocalyptic feeling may have led to the resurgence in the zombie and vampire genres that we see everywhere today. Rushkoff muses on the idea of living in a post-apocalyptic hideout having time to read everything he has always wanted, being able to spend time with family without outside distractions, and (my favorite) having time to watch the entire Criterion Collection. Of course this is all a great dream, but it’s not a reality – it’s fantasy.
It is difficult to pin down the source of any one problem we face. Stress is coming from everywhere these days, but without pinpointing the cause how do we combat it? Present shock can easily lead to apocalyptic and destabilized thinking. When in this state, everything is problematic and solutions evade us. This is where the term Apocalypto comes in. No wonder zombies are so popular again.
“For all of the flesh eating going on in the zombie genre, there’s something positively flesh loathing about the psychology underlying it. People are the bad guys. Apocalypto seems less about transforming the human species than transcending it altogether.”
The solution Rushkoff provides to all of these problems is balance. This is easier said than done, but it all starts by addressing the above issues. We must understand the root of any problem before having any hope of defeating it. Everyone can relate, directly or indirectly, to at least one of the main points from this book. Each one is as important as the next and with the digital age far from over, the threat of Present Shock is not going away.
This book is not meant to be a eulogy for reality, as we once knew it. Instead, it is a lifeline for those who want their reality back. It is important to remember that we cannot go back to a simpler time. We are here, in a world surrounded by a digital unreality. The only thing we can do is learn how to live in the here and now. We can — and will — beat Present Shock.