New America Foundation: Our Everything-Now-All-the-Time World

The slackers were supposed to prevail.

In the 1990s, explains Douglas Rushkoff, the fast-paced proliferation of digital technology looked as if it was going to bring about a new era. An age when people could work from home, in their underwear, on their own time, directly with other people instead of “for the man.”

More significantly, he says, this was supposed to mean bringing about a disruptive change that would allow us to “take back our time,” liberating ourselves from the industrial-era clock where time was literally money, and instead embrace a life of higher pursuits.

But instead of ushering in a digital renaissance, he said, we allowed the technology to become an extension of the industrial age, just with a new commodity: human time and human attention. And instead of gaining more time, with every persistent ping of a work email, Facebook message, or Twitter update, we have distorted time into an incessant now, an anxious, always-on neurological state once only experienced by the likes of air traffic controllers and 911 operators. Instead of programming our devices, we have allowed the devices to program us.

Welcome, Rushkoff says, to Present Shock.

Rushkoff, the author of a new book by the same name and a digital literacy advocate with Codeacademy, joined in conversation with New America fellows Christine Rosen and Marvin Ammori about this new phenomenon he thinks is driving modern life—and what we can do to escape it.

Present shock more specifically refers to the idea that, as Rushkoff explains in the first lines of his book, “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment [where] everything is live, real time, always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up… it’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

The irony of present shock, he explains, is that our real life present, our relationships with our communities, those in front of us, and even our own thoughts and bodily rhythms, has been weakened as our technology takes us out of the moment. In today’s attention-driven economy, companies are vying to seduce consumers into mediating their lives through their products (just look at Facebook’s latest ad campaign) and churning profits by targeting ads and harvesting all of the data users unthinkingly leave behind.

And, Rushkoff explains, it’s not just people that have been manipulated by this abstraction of time and reality. Our institutions, too, have been infected by present shock.

For one, look at the economy, a place where people are no longer are trying to make money by investing in a company they think will do well over time, but instead are attempting to profit off of quick-turnaround trades, derivatives, and derivatives of derivatives. In the media, narrative and analysis has all but collapsed as more and more people chase the up-to-the-second update rather than stopping to make sense of what has happened. And the most recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive surveillance programs, he says, have shown that even our government is not immune to present shock. In a panic of threats that seem to be coming from everywhere, Rushkoff argued our leaders have been blindly carried away trying to use the same big data capabilities that Google and Facebook have to prevent attacks before they happen without reflecting on the invasive measures they have been taking to do it.(he has written about here).

So what is a present shocked society supposed to do?

For one, Rushkoff isn’t a luddite, or advocating a Ted Kaczynski-esque lifestyle.

“I am pro-digital technology, but anti the way we are using digital technology,” he said.

There are some simpler steps, most of which involve becoming a less passive consumer of digital technology. For him, this has meant changing the settings on his devices so that they only ping him when it is someone important such as his wife and evaluating the value that some of these technologies give you versus what they extract from you (for example, he wrote here why he left Facebook, but notably, he still maintains an active Twitter account). It has also meant learning to code, delving into the way we program life and making sure that he is dictating the way he uses tech, not the other way around.

But perhaps what distinguishes Rushkoff from a slough of other writers on the topic of the new digital onslaught is that he really doesn’t think present shock, or it’s cure, is actually rooted in the technologies we have developed. He thinks we have the capacity to take control of the present, and we can even embrace and experiment with technology to drive a better future, but first we have to stop it from driving us.

“I might be biased” he said, “but I’m on team human.”

– Kristen Berg