If we insist on defining people by their occupation, then Doug Rushkoff is a very hard man to define. He is or has been a media theorist, lecturer, columnist, blogger, novelist, graphic novelist, documentarian, college professor, musician, activist and philosopher. His work has shaped the way we talk and think about technology and media (he coined the terms viral media, social currency and digital native, among others). But unlike your Zuckerbergs, Jobs, Pages or Gates, Rushkoff has done so from outside of corporate power, on the strength of his theories rather than the sale of his products.
Rushkoff’s latest book, Present Shock, takes on a major philosophical question: how has technology changed our perceptions of time, and how have such shifts changed our culture? In particular, he traces how the titular concept, ‘Present Shock’—a sort of mass-psychological overload emerging from the huge amount of instanteous information and experience provided by digital technologies—plays out in our personal lives, political and institutional experiences and business practices. The book provides a powerful critique of the ways technology has enabled us to live too excessively and obsessively in the now, rather than actually experience the present. He also offers models throughout the book of positive changes and responses emerging from what he calls "presentism", from Occupy to solidarity economy work to online communities.
I met up with Doug a couple weeks ago to talk to him about his book and the ways that our culture is being transformed by Present Shock.
Willie Osterweil: Throughout the book and your writings you talk about how ideas germinate over long periods of time. How did you first come up with the concept of Present Shock? Is this an idea that has been building slowly, or has it come to you more recently?
Doug Rushkoff: I actually got this idea originally in the 1970s: I was in high school and a little bit of a pothead. I read this article in Rolling Stone called “The Dog is Us” about how, as people get older, they would stop smoking pot because it would make them paranoid. And I was interested: why is that? I decided that it’s because pot stops time: I think that’s its main cognitive characteristic. You smoke and ‘voom’, you’re just, there. If you’re a young person that’s not a problem, you’ve got so much natural forward momentum that you can stop and it’s alright. But if you’re an adult and you’ve run out of that natural momentum, when you stop all of a sudden it’s like: “Who am I? What am I worth? What are my values, what am I doing, what is my carbon footprint?” Time changes it. That was when I got the first inklings of the idea.
Then, when I started writing this book Cyberia, the very beginning features a conversation between these two psychedelic hackers talking about chaos attractors and wondering if, as a civilization, we are over the event horizon. While you’re moving toward the lip of an attractor everything is accelerating: you’re moving toward the vortex. But then once you’re over the lip, then you’re in the strange attractor. There’s a sense I had with the birth of the internet, with Alfred Toffler and Moore’s law and everything accelerating that we were going towards this moment: It feels like we’re in it now. I don’t feel that acceleration of change anymore. We’re in the thing. We did connect. We are always on. We are real time. That’s it. We’ve achieved as a society the kind of asynchronous, timeless, sequential reality of our digital devices.
And then all these patterns started emerging that reflected that: present-based-value algorithmic trading—where people are looking to make money in the moment on the trade rather than long term investment—happened, Netflix happened, everybody is watching things on their own time rather than together and sequentially. And I thought “This has to be written about. This notion of presentism: It’s throwing so many people off the rails, they’re in Present Shock and I understand that. But they don’t have to be. They could also be presentist.”
But the final inspiration was Occupy. These kids are doing presentism the right way. I wanted to talk about that.
WO: In the book, you bring back an Ancient Greek differentiation between two forms of time: Chronos, or purely chronological and calendrial time, and Kairos, which is more about being in the moment. You see Occupy and solidarity economy practices representing an attempt to capture Kairos constantly and eschew the purely calendrial/chronological way of thinking about time. Could you speak to these differences in forms of time and the way you see those connecting to presentism?
DR: The easiest way to say it would be we’ve become overcommitted to chronos. We’ve become over committed to clock time as a way of defining time. In other words “it’s 3:23, that’s what it is.” But that can’t help with the question: “What’s the best time to tell dad you crashed the car? 3:23 or 3:26?” It doesn’t really matter what number’s on the clock, it’s whether he’s had his drink, it’s whether the Knicks are winning tonight or not, etc. It’s the difference between time and timing. The more clock like we become, the less we live in the genuine present. We end up addicted to the indicators of the present rather than the actual present that we’re in as bodies in space.
That’s why the whole movement towards informationism, the singularity/Kevin Kelly/Ray Kurzwell thing bothers me so much. They’re looking at the information but missing the humanity. We are more than the tricorder can measure, as McCoy might tell us. The metrics are true, as far as that goes, but they’re only telling a part of the story. It doesn’t have to be some weird new-age crystal-waving reiki-therapy thing to say “no, I’m actually present’.
And there are all these things we haven’t figured out. We don’t know quite how mirror-neurons work: we’re developing rapport when you nod and I nod and we sync up. We’re not consciously calculating all that stuff, it’s just part of being alive. And we’re better and faster at doing it than Facebook is or big data is or these other companies are that are trying to concatenate our human databases.
WO: There’s a lot here about psychological effects—present shock is obviously a psychological condition. You organize the book around different forms of shock, concepts like ‘fractalnoia’ or ‘digiphrenia’: what is the importance of these psychological phenomena?
DR: If in the 20th century Sigmund Freud invented the individual that we understand, the analyzable individual, for the 21st century, what if we apply these sort of symptoms to us as a culture—if we see these not as symptoms for individuals but for all of us—that we are all in a stage of fractalnoia. I went back and forth about whether to use them or not because if you organize your book in terms of ailments it sounds like Present Shock is kind of a bad thing. And the fact is, Present Shock is kind of a bad thing. Present Shock is just like future shock, you don’t want to be in Present Shock, you want to live with presentism.
WO: That speaks to a broader theme that I noticed in the book, and in your work generally, which is the notion that technological change, particularly with communications technology, drives social change. How do you see communications technology affecting the way that we imagine ourselves?
DR: I always go back and forth wondering: did the invention of text allow for calendrical thinking and the development of accountability over time through the contract? Or were there these social needs that then get met by the invention of text? I feel like both happen at the same time, which is not to say it’s magical or mystical or anything like that, but the environment changes and different mindsets and behaviors are supported. And different mindsets and behaviors require new kinds of technologies because, consciously or not, we’re driving toward a new set of goals.
Sometimes, of course, they’re forced. Look at the beginning of the industrial age or the Renaissance, the invention of the chartered monopoly and the invention of central currency. It’s not like the people adopted these things because they didn’t wanna have their own little businesses, they wanted to have jobs at big ones and they didn’t wanna use local currencies, they wanted to borrow money from the king at interest. No, the kings and the monopolists hired soldiers with swords to kill people, it was war and blood. So in many cases the change happens because the people in power are able to muscle it.
In other cases, like now, the emergence of digital technology promotes peer to peer exchange, it promotes decentralized value creation and all these kinds of things that are really consonant with our Burning-Man-Etsy-Occupy-local-farming mindset. But I don’t think Microsoft or Apple were thinking about things that way. If you look at these companies they’re just thinking about getting to their IPO. Facebook and Google, they went down the traditional route. They’re industrial age companies using digital technologies. But there’s a hunger for those things. And that hunger leads to the uptake of all this stuff which is gonna allow it.
WO: A lot of the book is about how Present Shock is changing the way business gets done: Bankers who are no longer interested in the stocks but just in the trades, start-ups which just want to get enough momentum to get purchased. How do you see Present Shock playing out in the broader business landscape? And what are the presentist openings for coops and worker controlled businesses?
DR: Presentism applied to industrial age stock-market values is just panicked short-termism. “Oh my gosh I gotta get it done now oh my god!” This is opposed to moving towards a kind of steady state sustainable business equilibrium. A steady state business equilibrium is incompatible with debt, it’s incompatible with taking investment money, or big loans from banks. All those people want their money to grow at the rate of debt or better. And if you’re gonna grow, then you need a narrative, you need a future, a goal, a growth plan.
But if you just want to create something that works, if you’ve got 50 people living in an area that want to do something that’s going to be more permanent, then there are approaches that don’t necessarily involve that growth. The prerequisite is that you can’t take money from someone, at least someone who wants more money then they gave you.
In the old days, if you will, when you had a town and they needed, say, a blacksmith, some guy comes in and says “oh I’m a blacksmith”. The community says: “Cool. We’ll make you a sign, and this lady will feed you dinner for the first few weeks, and this guy’s gotta barn we can put together for you, etc.” The town will invest in that person or that business because they need it.
You see the same thing now with these local kickstarter-like things like Socstock or Small Knot here in New York, where the premise is: “Oh you want the pizzeria in your neighborhood to get a new bathroom? Everyone put in a hundred dollars, and you’ll get a hundred fifty dollars worth of pizza in 6 months.” It’s a discount, but you’re also investing in change you’re gonna get to see. If you’re getting 150 bucks of pizza for 100 dollars you’re making back 50% on your investment—which is way better than you’re gonna do on Wall Street anyway—and you’ve increased the value of your town.
But what we’re talking about is seeing the economy more transactionally than in terms of earnings. And if it’s transactional, then you start thinking about things like the commons rather than hoarding money into your own account.
WO: How do you do that as a company right now?
DR: That’s the question. And it’s by not doing it alone. By finding other companies. You might need to have two sets of books as it were, one for the companies that are in the network of sharing resources, and one for the business that you’re doing outside the network. You can imagine that a community will have to have a local currency through which people in the town interact with each other, and then a long-distance currency through which they buy their iPhones.
WO: You talk a lot about how presentism leads to a certain narrative collapse, and that that narrative collapse is reflected in Occupy’s lack of demands. The lack of demands really upset a lot of people. How does Occupy connect to present shock and how does it reveal a positive sense of presentism?
DR: In some sense what we’re looking at is the difference between 20th century things and 21st century things. Industrial age things and digital age things. Between mythic narratives and this more sort of real-time participatory narrative. Occupy represents the latter.
In a traditional social movement, you have a charismatic leader marching arm in arm with his followers down 5th avenue and telling everyone to keep their eyes on the prize, that the day will come, we’re gonna get over that mountain and to the other side, here we go. And people work in that ends-justify-the-means way toward the finish line. We’re not in a world like that anymore.
The problems we’re facing are not big wars against big things, they’re chronic ailments like global warming and mass shootings: weird steady-state ever-present problems that you can’t “win”, can’t stick a flag on the moon and say “we’ve done it”. If the political movements—Marxism or capitalism or communism or fascism—these broad movements towards great goals have all proven to be false and idealistic, what would constitute a political praxis?
Rather than campaigning for some other thing, what if we don’t even campaign at all but just be that other thing? That’s what Occupy turned out to be. It may have started as “fuck you, Wall Street” but the practice of occupying became a kind of normative behavior. “Let’s model society. Let’s actually do something”. The “goal” of the movement as such became much more about evolving democracy into a form of consensus building as opposed to agonistic debate. And that was so confusing, especially to people in media who need the nine second sound bite in order to make sense of something.
Rather than activism being focused on fighting a battle against one thing and winning, what if it becomes “we are gonna grow consensus slowly over time and change state”? You end up with this group of people that refuses to state what their goal is, because we don’t have a goal. And people say “Well this is gonna go on forever” “Yeah, exactly!” We’re not in a thing that ends. Its like a business without an exit strategy, there is no end to this, we’re going to occupy reality. Everyone is gonna be an artist, everyone is gonna be real, in the present.