Friday, June 7, 2013

Filter Failure

The New York Times book reviewer, Janet Maslin, recently characterized Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, as "one of those invaluable books that make sense of what we already half-know."

Agreed. For those of us who sleep with our smartphones within eyeshot—and Pew Internet tells us this is roughly two-thirds of adults who own a smartphonePresent Shock offers some comfort in numbers. The Internet (and social media), Rushkoff says, were supposed to give us more time to get things done, to let us stop punching the clock and work at home in our underwear, in our own time, "on stuff we wanted to do and exchange information with others in our Burning Man, pre-Etsy universe of slack."

But "something happened on our way home from Wired magazine," Rushkoff told the annual Personal Democracy Forum of social and technology innovators yesterday in Manhattan. Instead, "we are overwhelmed by an always-on, livestreamed reality that our human minds and bodies can never truly, fully inhabit." Rather than use our social technologies to create a new digital universe of possibilities, Rushkoff said,  we have—at least for now—turned human time and attention into a new commodity. We are living—live—"in a state of perpetual emergency interruption that used to be only endured by 911 operators and air traffic controllers."

Go ahead, says Rushkoff. Feel it. "Instead of using these new technologies the way they were designed, to time-shift, we strap our devices to our bodies and have them vibrate every time somebody pings us or updates us or Facebooks us or tweets about us, or tweets about something we might have tweeted about," Rushkoff says. "We are unable to really embrace the present ... because we're always trying not to miss what else is supposedly happening now."

Present Shock—which plays off the title of Alvin Toffler's influential 1970 book, Future Shock—not only diminishes everything that isn't happening right now "amid the onslaught of everything that supposedly is," Rushkoff says. Institutionally, present shock forces us into a weird state of crisis management. "Just as the individual is only really dealing with this tweet or that tweet, look at Obama. Look at any leader right now," he says. "It's the same thing. It's not governing. It's not managing. It's just crisis after crisis after crisis. There are no goals. It's all becoming purely tactical."

At PDF Thursday, Rushkoff offered up two recent Internet-aided political movements as examples of how present shock is reshaping politics—the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement. "Tea Partyers," he said, "want everything right now. Right now. Immediate closure. No goals, no policy talks, no weeks of work seeking compromise. Just 'I want it now.'" On the other side of the spectrum, Rushkoff says, is Occupy's "unbearable perpetual quest for an eternal present. ...We are here, we are in the park, we have no goals yet. We are going to sit in the park until we reach complete consensus."

He urged PDF attendees to help the world create better and "more humane filters" against what he calls "digiphrenia"—digitally provoked mental chaos—to help social good advocates and others start focusing their energies and attention spans into building more effective, locally-networked online communities for longer-term social change. "I am much less worried about what technology may be doing to people than what we are choosing to do to one another though technology," Rushkoff writes. To be sure, it's not the technology tools that are driving us to distraction. "Human intelligence made these tools this way because there is a lot of money in reducing people to predictively modeled profiles and algorithmic battlegrounds"—to sell them something or do something, or to vote a certain way, Rushkoff says.

This isn't just a form of shock. It's a new form of exploitation for commercial and political profit, he says, and we're all just starting to wise up as our personal productivity plummets. For Rushkoff, it's time to take back the clock.

For more on Rushkoff's book, see his PDF talk from yesterday, below:

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration: Cloudytronics for

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