Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff
I first discovered Douglas Rushkoff when he wrote a comic book series called Testament. The book was decent idea-wise, beautiful art-wise, but did not really connect all of the dots. Nonetheless, I read Rushkoff’s articles whenever they appear and grabbed his recent book from 2013 a few years back.
His main arguments centers on “presentism.” In other words, how everything has become built on NOW. We sign onto social networks to see what is happening. Our leaders tell us what will happen for us today, not in our future. We focus on status updates instead of grand visions. We try to be everywhere at one time – we watch our friends go to dinner through Instagram, we let time dictate everything, and we want to achieve success quickly with limited work.
Next, Rushkoff argues we “overwind.” He details this as when you take an old watch and turn it too far. Then time has no meaning as we try to squish everything into small scales. For example, when we check our Twitter feeds, we are reading our current past to get up to date. Additionally, Rushkoff argues that when everything becomes a single lawyer, we no longer dig deep. We do not prepare or anticipate, we just look to the past that we know and hang onto it for too long.
Everything we have lived and everyone we have met has been compressed into our lives. No longer do we have relationships that re-emerge or start over. We just look on Facebook to see what they are doing and we leave nothing behind. In other words, we do not really get to change or age. I know this was one of the most important reasons for my leaving Facebook. I want things to change and hated living constantly in the past.
I found these arguments the most persuasive and to have impact for my life. In work and in play, it seems like building something no longer matters. I am told to create goals at work that have metrics tied to them. These will act as guideposts for my reviews. But these are not about skills. It’s how much of something I will change or add to the business. It also segments me outside of the organization. What will I accomplish this year for the greater whole? The organization or my colleagues do not have to fit into that vision.
Next, I act the “act now” culture we live in. Everything has become a “quick win,” a business expression I hate more than anything. How can I quickly achieve something? For example, currently, Congress is trying again to take away health care coverage for millions of Americans. In response, organizations have created quick functions for you to respond to your elected officials. But then it ends. No follow-through necessary. That’s for someone else to do. We need to feel the change and the pain that goes with that change to continue changing. And this world has removed that.
Lastly, Rushkoff argues we no longer consume anything. Instead, we experience and pay for a service. His examples include Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon. Instead of buying a movie or record, we use them and they stay in one place. Although this means less stuff in our houses, it also means the corporations invade our privacy and we no longer get to share. Instead of handing over a record you loved to a friend, you need to send them a note telling them to check it out. That social interaction no longer exists. Instead, we discuss the experience we both had separately. And then it all connects us to a now – based on a common experience.
Everything Is Everything
The last part of Present Shock focuses on the patterns that we want to find in everyday life. We are connecting to everything all of the time in a way where nothing matter anymore. Everyone connects to me and therefore a connection loses some of its meaning. I relate this to a birthday wish on Facebook. I hated them. Facebook told you it was my birthday and you clicked on a link to send me a auto-generated message. And therefore, you did as little as possible to do something that used to have great meaning. Remember getting a card in the mail for your birthday? Or getting a phone call from a relative? It was time to reconnect and share how your year has been based on a date on a calendar. Instead, now, we just connect constantly and that shared moment disappears. In this first birthday without Facebook, I got one phone call and it was nice. I loved that far more than the 50 birthday wishes that most likely made the person sending them feel better than I did.
Next, he argues that when we constantly look for patterns, we miss the larger picture. If we are constantly interpreting data to tell us what our next step could mean, we may not see the forest for the trees. I see this at work as well. We get the feedback and we must iterate with that feedback immediately. So if one customer complains about something, that means it is a big issue. However, we are not looking at the overall data or the trends in the greater world. Does this one complaint truly reflect an issue or is it a symptom of an issue we are not noticing? I believe it’s #2.
Conclusion – Read Present Shock
Present Shock reads like a long-form Wired article that talks about how technology needs to chill out for a little while. But I think it fits in well with Sapiens, another book I recently finished. Mankind adapts. We got to where we are because we adapted to our world. And currently, we are adapting to the world technology is creating. However, this adaptation does not always mean positive affects, especially in the short term.
I would attribute the election of the current president to a Present Shock mentality. He definitely makes a subset of people feel very good now. It does not mean that anything will change for them, but he hits them in a place that gives them that instant boost.
But I worry we are losing part of what makes us human. We think and dream in a way no other creature does. My dog reacts to the present surrounding and nothing more. He acts based on instinct and current needs. We create a future. And we need to continue to create that future.
Rushkoff’s final statements rang true. We need to find that balance between the present and our humanness.
[W]e can create a safe space for uninterrupted contemplation; we can give each moment the value it deserves and no more; we can tolerate uncertainty and resist the temptation to draw connections and conclusions before we are ready; and we can slow or even ignore the seemingly inexorable pull from the strange attractor at the end of human history. For just as we can pause, we can also un-pause.
I know I am currently in a state of pause and maybe I will return to certain aspects of technology. But I am enjoying thinking about large issues and not just finding the gist of an article or argument and moving on. I highly recommend Present Shock if you want to think through some of these large issues facing us.