Books: Present Shock

This is yet another book I decided to read based on an email sent by my supervisor at the college. I read the linked article, about Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and found the topic intriguing.

Rushkoff is sounding an alarm about what he calls presentism – an obsessive focus on the present moment, unmoored from its context in the flow of time. He talks about society has lost the idea of narrative, and how people are slaves to the digital devices that demand their constant attention.

Perhaps it’s because I live in a relatively rural area in the Midwest, or because I am over fifty, but I don’t see the extremes he is talking about in my everyday life. I thought perhaps reading the book would help me get an idea of what is happening to people elsewhere, where these trends may have taken greater hold of people’s lives.

The book was easy enough reading to start with, but after the first section, on narrative, I found it harder to continue. Last night I pushed myself to finish it, because six weeks is as long as the library gives me, even after renewing it.

Frankly, I’m still not convinced. Rushkoff seems to be trying to tie together a number of different trends in society and and identify in their conjunction a crisis of our times. But it seems to me that he falls into the trap he identifies as fractalnoia, trying to see patterns and connections between things that really are not related.

The first trend he identifies is narrative collapse, a shift away from telling stories with a beginning, middle, and end. People have not only stopped telling – or listening to – stories, he claims; they have even lost the idea of narrative as an organizing principle.

As evidence, he points to changes in the TV shows that most people watch. Instead of dramas and sitcoms that follow a clear story-arc, people watch reality TV, extreme sports, and shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy that make little use of narrative. Even in commercials, images have replaced storytelling.

I would agree that there is a loss of a shared narrative that most people in society can relate to. I would agree that the art of storytelling is being lost (one reason I am working on a Storytelling manual in Toastmasters). No question that most of TV fare today is aimed at people with very short attention spans.

But narrative lost even as a concept? I don’t see that, when I see the people thronging to the movie theaters to watch stories about superheroes saving the world. I don’t see that when I look at the novels being published and read. Their pace is much faster from those written a few generations ago. But they are narratives, and eager readers are turning some of them into bestsellers.

Next he talks about digiphrenia, dividing our attention among the many digital “selves” we have created and being apparently unable to simply be a whole person in one place and time. Somehow he ties this together with people trying to do too much in a day, losing track of the natural rhythms of our lives, and with being unable to distinguish between what is important enough to deserve our attention and what we should just ignore.

There’s no question that time management is an issue for a lot of people. But the trend to try to cram too much activity into the day started before the internet made it possible to multitask in new ways. And people have always struggled with figuring out what is really important and what is not.

Next Rushkoff discusses overwinding, “trying to squish really big timescales into much smaller or nonexistent ones.” It’s hard for me to tell exactly what he is arguing against in this chapter – other than that he comes across as negatively biased towards large corporations. The best summary of it that I can come up with is this: the less real-time connection we have to the people (or natural processes) that made the products we use, the worse off we are as a society.

There are a number of reasons for arguing that we would be better off if we did more business locally, rather than buying products made by faceless people on another continent, and selling our own services to faceless corporations that do not value us as individuals. But it seems to me a stretch to make this an issue of our relationship with time.

Fractalnoia is an interesting chapter, about our tendency to look for patterns where none exist. But that’s a matter of being human, not a consequence of our current technology. Somehow he brings into this the shift from corporate control of channels of communication to today’s peer-to-peer messaging, forcing companies to do the right thing rather than use PR to make themselves look good when they’re really not. (He really comes across as anti-business in a number of places.)

Finally, there is a short chapter on apocalypto, a reaction to the time-related mental aberrations he has been discussing, finding meaning in a time of narrative collapse by imagining apocalyptic scenarios. But again, apocalyptic approaches are nothing new. The only fully modern aspect to the chapter is that some of these scenarios now involve computers replacing people, or people replacing parts of their bodies with technology.

No doubt there is some valuable social commentary in this book. And there is a lot of interesting information on a wide variety of topics. But – as with so much that is out there today on the internet, it’s hard to pick out what is really valuable. And harder to decide if it’s really worth the effort to look.

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