Douglas Rushkoff – Present Shock (2013)

I have probably heard about this book on a How I work article of Lifehacker, like this one: being very interested by the idea of time shaping a society and the way I interacted with it (and having a 10£ voucher from NASA), I read Present Shock with much interest.

Present Shock adresses from a wide range of point of view the disruption that can be felt between two concepts of time, chronos & kairos that are too often seen as a single one:

The ancient Greeks would probably tell us our troubles stem from our inability to distinguish between the two main kinds of time, chronos and kairos. […] Kairos is perfect timing relative to what’s going on, where chronos is the numerical description of what happens to be on the clock right then. Chronos can be represented by a number; kairos must be experienced and interpreted by a human.

In the race to “live in the now”, present shock is the result of the mistake we make when we try to catch up with the chronos instead of our own kairos:

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. p73
Douglas Rushkoff will use this frame to analyze a big range of  XXIst century phenomenons:
We obsessed over the first day a social networking website called Facebook sold its stock on the NASDAQ exchange, which had less to do with any interest in the value of the stock than an acknowledgment of social networking as central to our lives: the on-line network as the default mode of human connectivity and one’s profile as the next form of self-representation as well as the mirror in which to primp. p96
This “one concept for all” way of thinking leads him to deliver great one-line thoughts:
Comments sections are filled with responses from people who type faster than they think and who post something simply because they know they will probably never have time to find the discussion again. p119
while building his book around 5 so-called manifestations of the Present Shock (for almost as many neologisms), my favorites being:
The tension between the faux present of digital bombardment and the true now of a coherently living human generates the second kind of present shock, what we’re calling digiphrenia – digi for “digital”, and phrenia for “disordered condition of mental activity”.
There is a dual nature to fractals: they orient us while at the same time challenging our sens of scale and appropriateness. They offer us access to the underlying patterns of complex systems while at the same time tempting us to look for patterns where none exist. This makes them a terrific icon for the sort of pattern recognition associated with present shock – a syndrome we’ll call fractalnoia. p201
A great thing about this book is that the author doesn’t just point out the problem of Present Shock, but he identifies its causes and proposes a myriad of solutions:
Every unanswered question and every task we haven’t yet scheduled stays in the most active part of our brain, waiting for an answer. The way to reduce this mental stress is to close as many of these open, running loops as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean accomplishing every task that we have taken on, but rather being able to visualize when and how we are going to do. […] Once you know you’re going to accomplish the task, the loop is closed – even though the task has not yet been accomplished. There’s no more that can or need to be done in the present, so the active part of the brain is freed up. This is a proved method of reducing stress. p144
In the first chapter, Narrative Collapse, Douglas Rushskoff gives a quick overview of the history of narration, from campfire storytelling to radioshow ; and he uses the same “from beginning to now” kind of approach to decipher the behavior of brands today:
In order to recreate the real-time human relationships that people had with their local millers, druggists, and butchers, long-distance sellers developed brands. […]
Mass media arose, at least in part, to forge our that relationship in advance. Advertisements in print and commercials on television feed us the mythology of a brand so that it is spring-loaded into our psyche- ready to emerge fully formed when we see the label in the store. Our shopping experience […] is no longer occurring on a normally flowing timeline, but instead a series of decompressions. Each label we see recalls and unpacks advertisement and commercials, which in turn unpack the cultural mythologies they have appropriated.
Of course, the consumer must never be allowed to reach his goal, for then his consumption would cease. The consumer must never feel completely at home in his present, or he will stop striving for a more fully satisfied future. […]
The economics of consumption have always been dependent on illusions of increasing immediacy and newness, and an actuality of getting people to produce and consume more stuff, more rapidly, with evermore of their time. The expectations for instant reward and satisfaction have been built up by media for close to a century now. The amount of time between purchase (or even earning) and gratification has shrunk to nothing – so much tat the purchase itself is more rewarding than consuming whatever it is that has been bought.
And always, the lines I am the most pleased to read about are the one formulating a thought I had myself not long ago:
In this final iteration of spring-loading, consumption becomes more like attending a performance. The consumer is no longer truly consuming anything, but experiencing and paying for a constant flow of user rights to things, services, and data owned by others. In one sense, this is freeing. There’s no need to organize or back up precious digital files for fear of losing them, no books and records to box up every time one moves. Less stuff to get damaged in a fire or flood, fewer resources depleted, and not as many objects to throw away. But it is a reality in which contracts define our access, corporations invade our privacy, and software limits our ability to socialize and share. p169
Taken from afar, the overall message of this book sometimes seems like “you don’t know what happening, but corporations do and they are using it on you”:
In the controlled information landscape, [pushing toward competition rather than union] worked pretty well for a long time. A closed, top-down broadcast media gave marketers and public relations specialists a nation of individuals with whom to communicate. You, you’re the one – or so the commercials informed each of us. Suburban communities like Levittown were designed in consultation with Roosevelt administration psychologists, to make sure they kept focused inward. Separate plots and zoned neighborhoods reified the nuclear family at the expense of wider, lateral relationships between families. Decades of social control – from corporate advertising to manufacturing public consent for war – were exercised through simple one-to-many campaigns that discourage feedback from them and between them. As long as people didn’t engage with one another, their actions, votes, and emotions remained fairly predictable.
To conclude, Present Shock is a good book for who wants to have a clear idea of what “present time” means today and even more of how we got here. You will also find in it a few concepts that are a great use for everyday thought, like the neologisms I talked about or “spring-loading” and “unwinding” to refer about actions and ways to spend one’s time.

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