The Short Version: Human beings have stopped looking to the future and are, instead, attempting to capture the now. We’re checking emails and Twitter to make sure we’re constantly up-to-date, rushing to complete seventeen things at once, and becoming continually distracted: we’re suffering from present shock. Rushkoff examines the burgeoning phenomenon and presents a few ideas as to how we can take back some control of how we experience time.
The Review: I feel like Mr. Rushkoff’s book is, in many ways, a sort of summation and compilation of thoughts that have been buzzing around my head of late but that never managed to coalesce into a cogent, singular argument. I suppose this, in a way, is the point that Rushkoff is making: it’s intensely more difficult to do that nowadays because we’ve got too much demanding our attention. “The phones are smarter but we are dumber,” to quote the book.
Now, I don’t consider myself a Luddite or even an anti-technology person. I am lucky enough to’ve been born in the days just before personal computers became a thing – but also lucky enough to’ve been born at a moment where I would grow up with them, providing a unique (to our timeline) sensation of understanding; understanding how computers have evolved and that has allowed my cohorts and I a leg up on just about anyone else. We’re the first generation to believe that computers are an unalienable right – and on a daily basis, I have fifteen reasons to believe that they are. You wouldn’t be reading this review right now if it weren’t for a computer. I wouldn’t be able to talk to my sister in London, my cousin in Tulsa, and my friend downtown with equal ease. But I also recognize that even in just the last few years, a major shift has occurred: the way I interact with my technology has changed. I had a Palm Pre (oh, how I loved that phone) that I treated as a phone that happened to be smart. Now, with an iPhone, it has become almost an additional appendage – it is rare that I’m without it and even rarer that I’m not thinking about it. I find myself scattered more often these days – although it doesn’t appear as “scattered” on the surface; to other people, I’m just multi-tasking. I’m just a hyperactive kid, living in the 21st Century. But it bothers me that I find myself drifting from even the most engrossing of books or TV shows to check my email, check my Facebook, check my Twitter feed. I recognize and I try to combat it… but I’ve gone so far that it’s a struggle for me to do so.
I’m providing all of this unusually personal context to explain a bit of why this book is, I can state with minimal hyperbole, one of the most important texts I think I’ve ever read. It captures our moment, this current moment, so succinctly and intelligently – and it feels like the first time someone has managed to put all of these random thoughts (and I know I’m not the only one who has been considering them) into a single place. And without the contextualization and compilation provided by Rushkoff’s book, we’d all be worse off attempting to make some sense of said moment.
Let me interrupt the impending op-ed that this review will become and speak briefly about the book itself, for those of you here to see whether or not this text is worth your time. I can tell you that, yes, it is. It’s well-written and accessible – treating scary-large topics with ease and wit, contextualizing them with pop culture references and making connections that don’t tax the potentially-distractable reader too much. You can put this book down and pick it up and the ideas flow as though you’ve simply turned the tap back on.
But what ideas. Those of you who are loyal readers of this blog (or friends/coworkers in life) know that I’m a fan of non-traditional formats for art. Be it the revolutionary app delivery of The Silent History, Visual Editions’ heroic attempts to remind readers that the printed book is an irreplaceable objet d’art, the punchdrunk-style theatrical experiences that seem to leap exponentially in number every season, or even the full-season delivery of new TV shows on Netflix – I think that it cannot be a bad thing to continue to push the boundaries of how we procure and digest culture. But Rushkoff makes an excellent point and one that I think I might’ve missed (because of my predisposition for narrative in general) that these trends are leading us towards what he calls “narrative collapse”. He cites several authors (who I know and enjoy – Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith, and so on) as authors of this ‘presentist’ school, creating worlds and puzzles for us instead of a traditional narrative arc. I mean, the narrative arc still exists – but when you look at (for instance) Chronic City, the point isn’t the story but rather the world that these characters live in. What does that do to us? What does the prevalence of games like World of Warcraft do to our understanding of story? On the one hand, I love the idea that people have expanded, artistically, to the point of creating worlds – worlds in which you, the reader/player, can almost spin off into your own stories that just happen to take place there. It’s like fan-fiction (or, on a more ‘professional’ level, like what Stephen King and Joe Hill do with their meta-textual referencing) or role-playing but within the actual world of the piece as opposed to having to write/imagine it yourself.
But on the other hand (and Rushkoff follows this argument) humanity is a story-based culture. From the earliest days. If we lose our ability to follow narrative – or, simultaneously, if we try to impose narrative on things that are actually narrative-less in an effort to cope with the loss of narrative around us – we lose something that makes us fundamentally human. Look at Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last night, eviscerating the mainstream media for already attempting to write 2016 narratives: we’ve gotten so saturated in the always-on world that we need to create these narratives in order to keep ourselves going… even though it’s just burning us out. We’re developing (or being force-fed – it’s really either/both right now) a sense of “continual interruption”, as Rushkoff calls it, trying to continually understand what is happening now as it relates to then and next, even though we can’t actually comprehend the “now” because it is always past. It’s the whole “let me take a picture of this thing instead of just looking at it” fad – we want someone to explain or capture this moment instead of just allowing it to occur and pass.
I could go on and on about the topics Rushkoff presents in the rest of the book (digiphrenia, fractalnoia, overwinding, this whole apocalypto thing that we’re all quietly coming to believe in [in a non-cult-y way]) but the man wrote a 250+ page book about it and you’re only going to get a glancing understanding from anything I could continue to write. But I do want to address one other thing that he provides, and that is a nascent sense of how to combat these rising trends of “present shock”. My favorite moment, I think, comes when he says (on pg. 117 – I’m not one for citing on this blog but this is too important to let slip by you, gentle reader, in case you want to go to B&N and read this section in order to show it to your boss) that we “must retrain ourselves instead to see the reward in the amount of time we get to spend in the reverie of solo contemplation or live engagement with another human being.” Put another way: emails CAN sit in your inbox. You CAN turn off your phone. You DON’T have to be on call 24/7/365 for a job that already takes up more hours of your week than it probably a) needs to or b) legally should. These are simple thoughts and we joke about them all the time (“what was it like before computers!” is a consistent refrain when we look at how, for example, my office [a theater] operates today) but really it’s a pretty serious and easy fix to make. Rushkoff doesn’t go too in-depth – for one thing, he’s also a consultant, so he’s gotta save some stuff for the money gig – but he provides a jumping-off point. He mentions a few even seemingly strange ideas, like trying to work more off the lunar calendar and how that can improve your productivity, and just lets them glance off your mind. If you take them up, good for you. If they work, even better. But mostly, he just plants the seed: the time is now to start making the change, even subtly. We face a deteriorating planet, sure, but we also face a deterorating mental society – and we can fix both if enough people start thinking about the problems and how to solve them.
Rating: 6 out of 5. Although I did find a few flaws in some of Rushkoff’s arguments and while he occasionally is guilty of dressing up his thoughts a little too ostentatiously, it doesn’t really matter when the thoughts are so important. I want to recommend this book to everyone I know, non-fiction or fiction readers. It’s that important – mostly because of the fact that it doesn’t provide the answers yet. It shows the challenges we’re facing and the issues ahead… and leaves them for our consideration, setting the stage for (hopefully) further thought and engagement and potentially even some solutions. I’ll tell you what: I’m going to log off of this computer, go to the movies, go to dinner, and not look at my phone again tonight. At least, that’s my goal. Will I succeed? Don’t know. But I’m actively going to try – because I’d rather spend the time with my companion this evening than with anyone or anything that might buzz in my pocket. I hope that, either from this review or this book or even something else entirely, that you will also find some time to turn off and check out – it’ll all be here when you get back.