Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Present Shock and the Loss of History and Context

In his new book, Douglas Rushkoff examines the telescoping of time and context wrought by ubiquitous digital technologies.

One of the few observers who is able to articulate a coherent critical account of American culture is Douglas Rushkoff. His new must-read book is Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (print edition) and (Kindle edition).

I have long found inspiration and insight in Rushkoff's work, especially his keen understanding of the pathologies of consumerism. In my 2009 book Survival+, I wrote:

Rushkoff's reply to an interview question on the consequences of ubiquitous marketing reveals how media/marketing has created an unquestioned politics of experience in which one's identity and sense of self is constructed almost entirely by what one buys:
"Children are being adultified because our economy is depending on them to make purchasing decisions. So they're essentially the victims of a marketing and capitalist machine gone awry. You know, we need to expand, expand, expand. There is no such thing as enough in our current economic model and kids are bearing the brunt of that.... So they're isolated, they're alone, they're desperate. It's a sad and lonely feeling....The net effect of all of this marketing, all of this disorienting marketing, all of the shock media, all of this programming designed to untether us from a sense of self, is a loss of autonomy. You know, we no longer are the active source of our own experience or our own choices. Instead, we succumb to the notion that life is a series of product purchases that have been laid out and whose qualities and parameters have been pre-established."
In my view, this is a brilliant analysis of the rot at the heart of the American project.
In his new book, Rushkoff examines the telescoping of time and context wrought by ubiquitous digital technologies. We're always accessible, always connected and every channel is always on; this overload affects not just our ability to process information but our culture and the way media and marketing are designed and delivered.

The title consciously plays off the influential 1970 book by Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, which posited that our innate ability to process change was limited even as the rate of change in our post-industrial world increased. That rate of change would soon overwhelm our capacity to process new inputs and adapt to them.

In Rushkoff's view, we've reached that future: the speed of change and the demands of the present are disorienting us in profound ways.
We all know what stress feels like: it often causes our view to narrow to the present stressor, and we lose perspective and the ability to "make sense" of anything beyond managing the immediate situation.
Rushkoff identifies five symptoms of present shock:

1. Narrative collapse - the loss of linear stories and their replacement with both crass reality programming and post-narrative shows like The Simpsons.

2. Digiphrenia – digitally provoked mental chaos as technology lets us be in more than one place at any one moment. As Rushkoff notes in this chapter: Our boss isn't the guy in the corner office, but the PDA in our pocket. Our taskmaster is depersonalized and internalized.

3. Overwinding – trying to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones, for example, packing a year’s worth of retail sales expectations into a single Black Friday event.

4. Fractalnoia – making sense of our world entirely in the present tense, by drawing connections between things with weak causal relationships, for example Big Data, which excels at identifying correlations but is utterly incapable of identifying cause amidst the correlations.

5. Apocalypto – the intolerance for presentism leads us to fantasize a grand finale, the cultural equivalent of a "market-clearing event."

As Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote in her review: "How do we shield ourselves from distraction, or gravitate to what really matters?"

Studies have shown that our innate ability to remember people and identify their relationships with others is limited to around 100 people--the size of a village or combat company. We undoubtedly have similar innate limitations on how many channels of input we can absorb.

Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations) calls this filter failure, his term for what used to be called information overload. Our filters become overloaded and we lose the ability to "make sense" of what's going on around us.

As the phenomenologists discovered in the 20th century, our basic coping mechanism is to separate the world (and inputs) into three basic categories: the focal point, the foreground and the deep background. Being unable to sort out which input belongs in the three spaces leads to disorientation and poor decisions.

The parallels between filter failure and stress are not coincidental, as we handle filter failure and present shock the same way we handle stress: we limit inputs and make a concerted effort to reorient our awareness and context, what some call "be still and know."

Another troubling parallel to present shock is addiction. People now respond to texts, emails, alerts and phone calls like rats in the proverbial cage with the lever that releases another tab of cocaine: they over-stimulate themselves to death but are incapable of restraining their impulse for more.

The "obvious" solution is to turn off inputs as a way of restoring our ability to live in a present without novelty and distraction. This is akin to withdrawal from a powerful opiate, and so we should not be surprised that there are now treatment facilities for kids who need to detox from digital inputs.

Rushkoff is especially attuned to the distortions in our experience of time created by digital media-communication present shock: "Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information."

In effect, change no longer flows linearly like time anymore, it flows in all directions at once.
History and meaningful context are both fatally disrupted by this non-linear flow of time and narrative. Is it any wonder that we now read about young well-educated people who do not understand the meaning of "policy"? To understand policy requires a grasp of the histories and narratives that led to the policy, and the linear, causally-linked way that policy is designed to solve or ameliorate a specific problem or challenge.

If the causal chains of history and narrative are disrupted, then how can anyone fashion a meaningful context for actions and narratives, and effectively frame problems and solutions? If everything is equally valid in a non-linear flood of data, then what roles can authenticity, experience and knowledge play in making sense of our world?

These are knotty, complex issues, and you will find much to constructively ponder in Present Shock

Things are falling apart--that is obvious. But why are they falling apart? The reasons are complex and global. Our economy and society have structural problems that cannot be solved by adding debt to debt. We are becoming poorer, not just from financial over-reach, but from fundamental forces that are not easy to identify or understand. We will cover the five core reasons why things are falling apart:

go to print edition1. Debt and financialization
2. Crony capitalism and the elimination of accountability
3. Diminishing returns
4. Centralization
5. Technological, financial and demographic changes in our economy

Complex systems weakened by diminishing returns collapse under their own weight and are replaced by systems that are simpler, faster and affordable. If we cling to the old ways, our system will disintegrate. If we want sustainable prosperity rather than collapse, we must embrace a new model that is Decentralized, Adaptive, Transparent and Accountable (DATA).

We are not powerless. Not accepting responsibility and being powerless are two sides of the same coin: once we accept responsibility, we become powerful.

Kindle edition: $9.95       print edition: $24 on Amazon.com
To receive a 20% discount on the print edition: $19.20 (retail $24), follow the link, open a Createspace account and enter discount code SJRGPLAB. (This is the only way I can offer a discount.)

Thank you, David P. ($77.77), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Tracy T. ($50), for your colossally generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.

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