Present Shock

The following is an excerpt from Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff, a tech and media commentator for CNN who has taught and lectured worldwide about media, technology, culture, and economics.

We live in a world informed in large part by digital devices and outlooks, and one of the primary impacts of thinking this way is to assume the rigors of digital time as our own. Our digital universe is always-on, constantly pinging us with latest news, stock quotes, consumer trends, email responses, social gaming updates, Tweets, and more, all pushing their way to our smart phones. There are so many incoming alerts competing for attention that many phones now allow users to swipe downward to reveal a scrollable screen containing nothing but the latest alerts pushed through. Everyone and everything intrudes with the urgency of a switchboard-era telephone operator breaking into a phone call with an emergency message from a relative, or a 1960s news anchor interrupting a television program with a special report about an assassination. Anything we do may be preempted by something else. And, usually, we simply add the interruption onto the list of other things we’re attempting to do at the same time.

All these interruptions, more than simply depleting our cognitive abilities, create the sense that we need to keep up with their impossible pace lest we lose touch with the present. These are live feeds, after all, pinging us almost instantaneously from every corner of the globe. There are video cameras trained on Wall Street and the Western Wall, a tent village in Cairo and a box of schnauzer puppies in a Florida pet shop.

If we could only 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. They are reports from the periphery, of things that happened moments ago. It seems as if to digest and comprehend them in their totality would amount to having reality on tap, as if from a fantastic media control room capable of monitoring everything, everywhere, all at the same time. It’s as if all the Facebook updates, Twitter streams, email messages, and live-streamed video could combine to create a total picture of our true personal status, or that of our business, at any given moment. And there are plenty of companies out there churning all this data in real time in order to present us with metrics and graphs claiming to represent the essence of this reality for us. And even when they work, they are mere snapshots of a moment ago. Our Facebook profile and the social graph that can be derived from it, however intricate, is still just a moment locked in time, a static picture.

This quest for digital omniscience, though understandable, is self-defeating. Most of the information we get at lightning speed is so temporal as to be stale by the time it reaches us. We scramble over the buttons of the car radio in an effort to get to the right station at the right minute-after-the-hour for the traffic report. Yet the report itself warns us to avoid jams that have long since been cleared, while telling us nothing about the one in which we’re currently stuck—one they’ll find out about only if we ourselves call it in to their special number. The irony is that while we’re busily trying to keep up with all this information, the information is trying and failing to keep up with us.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary measures we take to stay abreast of each minuscule change to the data stream end up magnifying the relative importance of these blips to the real scheme of things. Investors trade, politicians respond, and friends judge based on the micromovements of virtual needles. By dividing our attention be- tween our digital extensions, we sacrifice our connection to the truer present in which we are living.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore this digitally mediated reality altogether. For just as we found healthier responses to the fall of narrative than panic and rage, there are ways to engage with digital information that don’t necessarily dissect our consciousness into discrete bits right along with it. Instead of succumbing to the schizophrenic cacophony of divided attention and temporal disconnection, we can program our machines to conform to the pace of our operations, be they our personal rhythms or the cycles of our organizations and business sectors. Computers don’t suffer present shock, people do. For we are the only ones living in time.

Excerpted from PRESENT SHOCK: When Everything Happens Now. Published by Current/Penguin. Copyright (c) Douglas Rushkoff, 2013.