If the theories in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now are true, you may have a hard time finishing this review. In the interest of the perpetual now, I’ll cut to the chase: you should read this book. Media theorist and zeitgeist-surfer Douglas Rushkoff is always at the head of the curve. If there’s a bleeding edge to pop culture, Rushkoff, William Gibson and a few others are reporting back from five minutes ahead of everyone else. Present Shock continues his career narrative but ironically does so by deconstructing the very process of narrative in the modern now. As Rushkoff offers near the end of the book, “I imagine it took more effort than reading a book of this length and depth would have required, say, ten years ago.” That very difference is present shock.
The book’s central premise is that we’re no longer in danger of what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock” but exist instead in an inescapable now. It’s the Zen ideal without any of the concomitant enlightenment, nirvana by way of sound-bytes. Rushkoff begins with the idea that narrative has collapsed. That ancient monomyth first popularly “grokked” by Joseph Campbell has been reduced to bits and pieces, digital ones and zeroes that tell no linear story but instead capture moments in a life freed from the context of temporality.
In five sections, Rushkoff takes the previous history of mankind and pushes it against the windshield of our current state of present shock. The human mind did not evolve to live in an unending now, and once we pulled at the thread on which the Bayeux Tapestry of the human story was built, everything began to unravel around us. The result is a functional inability to plan for tomorrow by learning from the past. We exist only in the immediate present, devoid of cues that might anchor us in linear time. Micro-transactions and algorithms exploit, and sometimes cause, market volatility by the nanosecond. There’s no way for a company to invest in the future when the next quarter is all that matters. Even our entertainment, from Pulp Fiction to Call of Duty, exists in a liminal state between story and social media updates. Our current media, whatever form it may take, is incapable of constructing a linear tale from our moment-to-moment actions. The story of our lives is entirely without sequence.
Rushkoff traces this back to 9/11, a point at which our extremely interconnected culture first began to pay for the open nature of a digital world. The battlefield had been leveled not by an arms race but by the ubiquity of computation, the connectivity of all things. William Gibson, author and media theorist, spent his last three novels exploring this very phenomena. A science fiction author by trade, Gibson rooted himself in the present of a modern culture reeling in the wake of events like 9/11. For Gibson, the future had landed squarely on the present and turned it into a “CNN moment.”
Where Gibson’s present shock took place in the world of fiction, Rushkoff takes the idea into the realm of theory. It’s not simply an abstract philosophical principle — though elements of that exist in the book — but a decidedly new way through which we view, understand, and interact with the world. The book traces economic history as a way of “storing time” which began during the agricultural revolution and has continued through the rise of interest bearing currency into what he calls the “overwound” culture of metastasizing expansion necessary to modern capitalism. The problem is it’s unsustainable. Like fossil fuels, we’re burning the accumulated five thousand years of recorded history in favor of the micro-second appearance of a tweet, a moment. These moments may tank the stock of an entire airline and have global consequences. The “flash crash” of 2012 was caused by algorithms vying in a virtual game of economic chess; they inadvertently caused the entire market to collapse.
Rushkoff’s metaphors are deft, perhaps none more so than the section on economics. Our market now exists in terms of micro-seconds. Trading firms no longer project the health and viability of a company over time but instead trade on the minute fluctuations which take place faster than the human mind can process. It is computers which do most of our trading now, and those closest to the New York servers (which serve as the stock market’s neural node) edge out their competitors by fractions of a second. In so doing, they not only exploit the present shock around us, they build our actual future.
But Rushkoff doesn’t come off as a doomsayer. In fact, he rightly pokes holes in the apocalyptic attempts we’ve used to escape our unending present. What was the Mayan Doomsday but an attempt to kick ourselves back into the cyclical time known when seasons, rather than money, counted our hours? What was the Industrial Revolution but a transition from natural time to clock time? In turn, what happens now that clock time has been replaced by digital time? We live in an infinite pause in which everything happens at once. Grossly simplified, Rushkoff is talking about the inability of our analogue minds to deal with a digital world. We’ve come so far technologically that we’ve outstripped our own capacity for evolution. The machines we’ve built seem to evolve far more quickly than we can hope to. Rushkoff would remind us that we built those machines and are their masters.
Chronobiology, a buzz word term for a science not yet fully developed, studies the impact of trying to live our circadian cycles in a 24/7 world. Rushkoff uses the very real syndrome of jet lag as an example of the physiological effects of digital time exceeding our biological parameters. No matter how fast the machines around us move, we’re still built for a world that turns on seasons and the movement of prey — at least for now. Rushkoff divides time into quantitative and qualitative aspects, what he terms chronos and kairos. One is either looking at the moment or experiencing it, never both. Like a quantum particle, we can’t get the measure and breadth of each moment at the same time. We are either looking at the clock or inhabiting the potential of now. The book asks that we think of it this way, “…Digital technology is more like a still-life picture. A sample. It is frozen in time. Sound, on the other hand, is audible only over time. We hear sound as it decays. Image may be thought of as chronos, where sound is more like kairos.” We exist only in that instant of image, that frozen moment. Without the context of time, how can we hope to plan for the future?
In his final section, “Apocalypto,” Rushkoff opines that we’ve already tried. Here, he addresses the phenomenon of the Singularity. The gist of the Singularity is that machines will eventually evolve faster than humans, and thus the two will merge. What lies beyond is a kind of post-human rapture in which we all upload our personalities into a gigantic Gaia-like computer where we will live forever as pure data. If we exist in a metaphorical digital state now, how long until our minds are biologically linked with our machines? How long until your iPhone’s chronometer is on the inside of you brain? For proponents of the Singularity such as Ray Kurzweil, Rushkoff suggests the Singularity movement has more in common with religion than science. As a species, we have moved inexorably from a static state of hunting and gathering to the increasingly sped-up reality of inescapable progress. The result is a deeply coded yearning to end time. Whether through the apocalyptic event of Hollywood film or the techno-spirituality of the Singularity, our brains need to find closure to all this rapid change. Indeed, everything from colonialism to the Great Recession may be the by-products of a culture which has evolved into a shark — if it stops moving, it dies. What is so important to remember, according to Rushkoff, is that we’re riding that shark and perhaps, if we’re aware of that, we can begin to synthesize the seemingly incompatible experiences of planning for a future while afflicted with a constant state of present shock.