63 of 71 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2013
This is copy of a review that I blogged at [...]
This is a very difficult book to summarize, so I'll begin with a very specific argument the author makes, delivered completely out of context, but probably familiar to most people of my generation:
"The show's gags don't even relate to the story or throughline (such as they are), but serve as detours that thwart or halt forward motion altogether. Rather than simply scripting pulp culture references into the scenes, Family Guy uses these references more as wormholes through which to escape from the temporal reality of the show altogether, often for minutes at a time, which is an eternity on prime-time television. In one episode the mom asks her son to grab a carton of milk "and be sure to take it from the back." Apropos of nothing, a black-and-white sketch of a man's hand pulls the child into an alternative universe of a-ha's iconic 1984 "Take On Me" music video. The child runs through a paper labyrinth with the band's front man for the better part of a minute before suddenly breaking through a wall and back into the Family Guy universe."
All of which makes me wish he'd tried to describe the fight with Chicken in such delightful academic language.
If there's a unifying theme to "Present Shock", it's probably this: the invention of computing and digital communication is at least as transformative for our species as the Industrial Revolution, and possibly as transformative as the invention of writing. Therefore the way we think about time, money, democracy, relationships, and work is changing in much the same way as it changed during the Industrial Revolution.
Rushkoff is particularly (and I would peculiarly) interested in how we think about time. Before the invention of writing, there was, in a sense, no time. Things obviously did change, but they changed gradually and as there was no way to create permanent records it was likely undetectable to the inhabitants of that era. There were also no days of the week or months of the year. Writing allowed records to be kept, but the Industrial Revolution and in particular the invention of railroads necessitated the invention of precise time: clocks and watches and the need to know time accurately to the minute (my current town of Waltham, MA became famous - and wealthy - by manufacturing the first pocket watches just when there was suddenly a need for them). The digital era is changing it all again, when, as the title suggests, everything happens now.
The quote about Family Guy, above, is meant to illustrate how our changing relationship with time has in turn altered our relationship with the traditional story has changed, especially in the 21st century, as a result of this new relationship with time. The Simpsons, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, The Office, Family Guy, and Community are all examples of the TV shows that give their characters awareness of the fact that they are in a TV show, and so satirize narrative itself. Contrast this with the classic situation comedy: "The `situation' usually consisted of a history so important to the show that it was retold during the opening theme song" (yeah, I never made that connection either).
This is of course a bit of a leap, but it's a microcosm of the issues touched on by Rushkoff, many of which are not meant to be convincing arguments at all but rather thought provoking starting points. If we take as a given that the Industrial Age is firmly over, and we have now entered what we might call the Digital Age, then we need to re-think how we approach the economy, government, and work-life balance. If stock trades need to be made instantaneously by a computer, and need to be immediately profitable, then the very meaning of value - so far as stocks are concerned - is destroyed. Viewed through this lens, the financial crisis is just the beginning of the end of an era when those sorts of commercial exchanges made sense. Now that they don't, the market will have to reinvent itself.
Similarly, Occupy can be viewed not as a grassroots political movement with a particular goal in mind (like the civil rights movement) but as a first attempt to diversify - or even re-invent - the way people self-govern. Self-governance through representative democracy is after all a relatively recent invention. If the current dearth of voting options, lack of effective information through traditional media channels, and poisoning of the system through private interests is creating a climate in which government ceases to function, then what will replace it?
Rushkoff is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive, and the point of the book is not to say whether the coming of the Digital Age is good or bad. It simply is. Personally I find the basic idea exciting. The basic conceit means that much of the current anxiety we have over the 21st century so far is not so much a symptom of technology being bad for our souls, but a disconnect that arises from trying to ram Industrial Age mentalities into a place where they don't belong. With technology current technology we are able to work anytime, anywhere. That doesn't mean it's a good idea. After all, in the end the whole point of everything from telecommuting to Netflix is to save time, which in turn means to create time for other things. The question is: why haven't they?
41 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2013
At a time when business and marketing urge us all to speed the pace of every interaction and transaction, churning ourselves into a frenzied, infinite state of NOW, Rushkoff reminds us that we are only human and as such, our capacity for authentic presence only goes so far.
The book explores the myriad symptoms of "presentism," a condition in which we never turn off the flood of information in an effort to achieve some kind of digitally connected immortality. Rushkoff began to describe this in his previous work, Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age. As in that book, here Rushkoff offers a clear and balanced perspective. He doesn't expect anyone, let alone himself, to cast our iPhones and tablets and laptops into the surf, but he does encourage everyone to understand that our demand and desire for everything to always happen right here, right now, is a false inclination perpetuated by systems of our own design. As such, we must design and use them responsibly.
32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 2013
I think Rushkoff is a keen observer of the ever-evolving human/technology cultural interface. And I like this book. Alot.
What sets Rushkoff apart is that is that he has been doing this for years. Dissecting trends from a macro perspective, he is a good writer, and has a good handle on the technology.
Rushkoff recognizes and names different conditions arising from living in the distracted present. They are useful for finding yourself, your friends, your children and seeing quite clearly what we are becoming.
He tells us how story telling has changed as a result of technology. No more story, actually. No narrative. Just stuff. A few characters. A few frames of video. Repeated, over and over and over again so they take on an importance simply because of their frequency in the culture.
He reminds us that those with access (more capital, better technology, stronger contacts) still move the meter most. And while the truly creative have a way to find an audience... it probably won't be the mass audience.
And that eavesdropping - in real time - on the torrent, that used to be a stream, that used to be a trickle of conversation, is no substitute for participation and face-to-face engagement. In the now.
People these days just like to watch more than they like to do. And they think that because they are constantly monitoring and changing streams (from twitter, to facebook, to youtube, to whatever) - and watching something else, they actually are doing something.
Unplug. I dare you. See if YOU can stay unplugged for an hour. Or two. Or 24. Are you aware the sun is shining outside?
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2013
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
Information can be either a storage or flow. Twitter is a flow: there is no point in going back and rewatching twitter feeds, because once it loses its present immediacy, it loses impact. We cannot catch up with it. Books, on the other hand, are storage, and can be returned to repeatedly. The problem with modernity is that we confuse the two, scanning a digital article with the same focus as we give our facebook news feed, and missing out on much of its value.
Rushkoff argues that we have begun to experience life as one long moment, always in the present, with no beginning and no end. As a result, we have stopped emphasizing narratives in our movies and tv shows; we attempt to be everywhere at once both in attention and physically; we try to make everything happen now rather than waiting; and we oversee patterns due to an overdose of data points. It is an interesting and compelling point, that we are placing less and less emphasis on things that are not happening now, and are overwhelmed by everything that supposedly is.
Unfortunately, I don't find the rest of his thesis convincing. His argument that we no longer value narrative arcs, supposedly evidenced in flashback heavy Family Guy episodes, just doesn't seem reasonable. Modern life is certainly accelerated, as Alvin Toffler argued in his book Future Shock, and it seems that the faster it gets, the faster we demand it goes. It seems to me though that we show just as much need for narrative arcs as ever, though perhaps less patience for long ones. Family guy still has a story - it's just short and shallow.
Despite being on a fascinating topic, Present Shock didn't add as much as I had hoped to the discussion. Yes, multi-tasking brains do worse on almost every measure, but that's fairly well recognized. His discussion of moon phases affecting chemical balances in the body, on the other hand, sounds a lot more like junk science. There is interesting information in Present Shock, but overall the book feels like it rambles and is disorganized, making it hard to figure out what lessons to take from it.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 21, 2013
I heard Mr. Rushkoff talk on NPR and thought "Present Shock" would be a nice book to sink in and reflect on the modern age. I bought before going on vacation so I could have time to enjoy it. The main thesis is quite compelling. Never before in history of mankind was there this degree of disruption, noise, and informational onslaught in our lives. One has to wonder how that is changing the way our brains function and develop. What is it doing to our children's ability to learn? How is it affecting critical analysis or creativity? What is it doing to our psychological function or stress level? Some day we will probably look back at this time and see the negative aspects of electronic intrusions on our brain function in much the same way as we are beginning to understand the negative effects of pre-made, processed foods for our body's metabolism.
Yes, one could have written an important, thoughtful book on the topic. Unfortunately, this is not that book. Instead, it is pseudo-intellectual rambling, skimpy on research, and overly verbose with made-up (and quite unimaginative) terminology. The arguments are so obtuse, the mind simply refuses to view them critically, but simply longs for a conclusion paragraph.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2013
When I was growing up, the year 2000 was the temporal touchstone everyone used to mark the advances of modern life. Oh, by then we'd be doing so many technologically enabled things: Cars would fly and run on garbage, computers would run everything, school wouldn't exist. We were all looking forward, and Y2K gave us a point on the horizon to measure it all by. When it came and went without incident, we were left with what we had in the present. In 'Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now' (Current, 2013), Douglas Rushkoff argues that the flipping of the calendar to the new millennium turned our focus from the future to the never-ending now. "We spent the latter part of the 20th Century leaning towards the year 2000, almost obsessed with the future, the dot-com boom, the long boom, and all that," he tells David Pescovitz on bOING-bOING, "It was a century of movements with grand goals, wars to end wars, and relentless expansionism. Then we arrived at the 21st, and it was as if we had arrived."
"We spent centuries thinking of hours and seconds as portions of the day," he continues, "But a digital second is less a part of greater minute, and more an absolute duration, hanging there like the number flap on an old digital clock." A digital clock is good at accurately displaying the time right now, but an analog clock is better at showing you how long it's been since you last looked. Needing, wanting, or having only the former is what present shock is all about. It's what Ruskoff calls elsewhere "a diminishment of everything that isn't happening right now -- and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is." As the song goes, when you say it's gonna happen "now," well, when exactly do you mean?
Michael Leyton (1992) calls us all "prisoners of the present" ( p. 1), like runners on a temporal treadmill. He argues that "all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present" (p. 2), and those objects often linger longer than they once did thanks to recording technologies. In 1986 Iain Chambers described the persistence of the present through such media, writing,
"With electronic reproduction offering the spectacle of gestures, images, styles, and cultures in a perpetual collage of disintegration and reintegration, the `new' disappears into a permanent present. And with the end of the 'new' - a concept connected to linearity, to the serial prospects of 'progress', to 'modernism' - we move into a perpetual recycling of quotations, styles, and fashions: an uninterrupted montage of the 'now'" (p. 190).
Needless to say that the situation has only been exacerbated by the onset of the digital. In one form or another, Rushkoff has been working on 'Present Shock' his whole career. In it he continues the critical approach he's sharpened over his last several books. Where Life Inc: How Corporatism Conquered the World, and How We Can Take It Back (Random House, 2009) tackled the corporate takeover of culture and Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (OR Books, 2010) took on technology head-on, 'Present Shock' deals with the digital demands of the now. A lot of the dilemma is due to the update culture of social media. No one reads two-week old Tweets or month-old blog posts. If it wasn't posted today, in the last few hours, it disappears into irrelevance. And if it's too long, it doesn't get read at all. These are not rivers or streams, they're puddles. All comments, references, and messages, and no story. The personal narrative is lost. It's the age of "tl; dr." The 24-hour news, a present made up of the past, and advertising interrupting everything are also all about right now, but our senses of self maybe the biggest victims.
"Even though we may be able to be in only one place at a time," Rushkoff writes, "our digital selves are distributed across every device, platform, and network onto which we have cloned our virtual identities" (p. 72). Our online profiles give us an atemporal agency whereon we are there but not actually present. On the other side, our technologies mediate our identities by anticipating or projecting a user. As Brian Rotman (2008) writes, "This projected virtual user is a ghost effect: and abstract agency distinct from any particular embodied user, a variable capable of accommodating any particular user within the medium" (p. xiii). Truncated and clipped, we shrink to fit the roles the media allow.
Mindfulness is an important idea cum buzzword in the midst of all this digital doom. Distraction may be just attention to something else, but what if we're stuck in permanently distracted present with no sense of the past and no time for the future? If you've ever known anyone who truly lives in the moment, nothing matters except that moment. It's the opposite of The Long Now, what Rushkoff calls the "Short Forever." Things only have value over time. Citing the time binding of Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, Rushkoff illustrates how we bind the histories of past generations into words and symbols. The beauty is that we can leverage the knowledge of that history without going through it again. The problem is that without a clear picture of the labor involved, we risk mistaking the map for the territory.
James Gleick summed it up nicely when he told me in 1999, "We know we're surrounding ourselves with time-saving technologies and strategies, and we don't quite understand how it is that we feel so rushed. We worry that we gain speed and sacrifice depth and quality. We worry that our time horizons are foreshortened -- our sense of the past, our sense of the future, our ability to plan, our ability to remember." Well, here we are. What now?
The existence of this book proves we can still choose. In the last chapter of 'Present Shock', Rushkoff writes,
"...taking the time to write or read a whole book on the phenomenon does draw a line in the sand. It means we can stop the onslaught of demands on our attention; we 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" (p. 265-266).
We don't have to stop or run, we can pause and slow down. Instant access to every little thing doesn't mean we have to forsake attended access to a few big things. Take some time, read this book.
Chambers, Iain. (1986). Popular Culture: The Metropolitan Experience (Studies in Culture and Communication) New York: Routledge.
Leyton, Michael. (1992). Symmetry, Causality, Mind (Bradford Books) by Leyton, Michael published by A Bradford Book Paperback Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Morrissey, Steven & Marr, Johnny (1984). How Soon is Now? [Recorded by The Smiths]. On Hatful of Hollow [LP]. London: Rough Trade.
Rotman, Brian. (2008). Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being NC: Duke University Press.
Original post: roychristopher.com/present-shock
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2013
In the wake of last week's attack at the Boston Marathon, followed by its constant, breathless coverage by the media, I realized I was reading the perfect book for the moment. The networks tripped over themselves, desperate to provide an little bit of "news" they could, to the point of spreading outright misinformation or literally reporting on how nothing was happening. (You can see Jon Stewart's great takedown of CNN's coverage here.) That was not terribly new, as we get the same stream of coverage for every attack or school shooting, but lately this kind of coverage has been compounded by the increasing layers of social media and Reddit crowdsourcing. As much as we wanted to know what had happened, we wanted even more to know what was happening in the moment, who thought what about it, and which of our Facebook friends could show how much they care by changing their profile photo. We wanted so badly to be in the moment, to catch up with the present, even when nothing was happening. Not a lot of context, just a live stream, which then lent itself to countless sidestreams of speculation and conspiracy theories.
Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, looks at our obsession with the now. It's a wide-ranging look at how we've gone from the "future shock" of the 80s and 90s to the "present shock" of now- futurism has been replaced by presentism, or an intense focus on the now. Rushkoff does veer into grumpy "technology can be bad" territory at times, but like other books I include in the internet/tech culture criticism genre (The Shallows, You Are Not A Gadget), there is a lot to agree with here, too. I think we've all found the stream of updates on social networks and online news and found it impossible to keep up, a state he calls digiphrenia. Our phones buzz at every update, to the point that some of us suffer phantom buzzes on our legs (at least I have had it happen on occasion). To be minutes behind is to be completely lost, unless we're discussing Wall Street algorithms, and suddenly to be nanoseconds behind the now is to lose out on millions of dollars. Stocks have had a major shift from future-focused investments to something whose value lies in how it can be traded and leveraged in the now.
The different sections can be a bit hit-or-miss, with his take on presentist narrative being a weak start to the book. He looks at shows like Lost as presentist, due to the plot's supposed unmooring from time, when I see much of today's big shows' narrative as very much contextualized in time, despite the presence of time travel (and why is a current time travel story presentist, when Back to the Future or The Terminator are not?), and I don't really find most current narrative any more twisted or presentist than that in previous decades (Pulp Fiction, or Don Quixote, anyone?). On the other hand, things do pick up when he looks at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as two sides of the same "presentist coin." I loved his discussion of modern mash-ups as a temporal corollary to cubism- a way of looking at different times from the same place. And his final chapter looks at our post-apocalyptic obsession, an approach to modern popular narratives that is a bit more on the mark, and something I have been a bit confused by for the past few years (seriously, folks, we're running out of ways to find ourselves in post-apocalyptic wastelands). It's as if we are so focused on the present that our vision of the future can only be pure survival- a return to the original presentist lifestyle.
For anyone who has a love-hate relationship with Web 2.0, like I do, Rushkoff has written a book that, at the very least, invites some recontextualization of the present, something we could use. Can we at least go back to being excited about the future?
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 13, 2013
Douglas could have used a better editor on this book. His thesis regarding the collapse of analytical time frames due to expanded real-time coverage of world and local events is sound. The challenge of communicating details of a complex event in 140 characters can be delivered in 140 characters.(111 characters) His rambling writing style distracts from his message.
The good news is that he has a valid point and he offers some interesting examples to support his premise. I recommend that he adopt "succinct" as a tantra for future writing endeavors.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2013
This is an interesting set of ideas that provide a different view of our current situation. Unfortunately he provides no evidence to support most of the claims. He declares that we have broken our cultural narrative, without giving any indication as to how he came to that belief. He gives credence to the view that neurotransmitter levels in the brain cycle with the phases of the moon, and we would do well to organize our lives accordingly. This assertion is not supported by any credible studies. It is easy to fabricate ideas and spin them into headline-grabbing discoveries, but much harder to do the actual work of testing those ideas in the real world.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2013
This book is about what used to be future shock but is now present shock as we experience the effects of the microchip since around 1974 when it began widespread commercial distribution. The author calls the present age the Digital Age which is better than Post-Industrialism or the paradoxical Post-Modernism. The book is divided into five categories which are somewhat esoteric but still very informative.
The first category is Narrative Collapse which describes the increase of stories which are not linear with a beginning, middle, and end but which jumble all sorts of information from the present. This can be seen not only from entertainment with disoriented plots but from the news when networks like CNN simply show events as they happen as opposed to presenting them after the fact as edited stories. While narratives are collapsing, the author is mistaken in stating that we no longer have a grand narrative. We are establishing a grand narrative that we are developing a multicultural paradise. This narrative is supported by all the main elements of the American establishment (government, business, media, academia) and any criticism is basically taboo.
Then there is Digiphrenia where we are bombarded by constant information from multiple sources which causes us to try to do many things at one time and therefore forces us to interact virtually in many places at one time. This is the latest attack on our natural biorhythms which started with mechanical clocks in the Middle Ages, mechanized machines in the Industrial Age, and now computers in the Digital Age. We are constantly under stress because computers demand that we perform more tasks at any one time.
Next is Overwinding which forces us to act in compressed time meaning that we have to make quick decisions which can have long term consequences we barely recognize. The quintessential examples are discarding a plastic bottle that may take a thousand years to decompose or burning fossil fuels in an instant which took millions of years to develop and are essentially gone forever. While these examples don't concern computers directly, they occur in a world where computers have accelerated the pace of life and the need to make instantaneous decisions. The one example that the book does not mention is the economy's need to increase our population as fast as possible, especially by importing third world immigrants. This is the biggest compression now occurring and is the most likely to have dire consequences in the not too distant future.
This section contains a subsection called Time is Money which is the best analysis of our economy I have ever seen. The basis of capitalism is that it must constantly grow with more more production, more consumption, and more profit, all fueled by more technology and more population. A steady state economy is just impossible. The search for more profit just doesn't explain it. The author explains that it is expanding debt and its resulting fear of bankruptcy that demands constant growth to pay off the debt. So our economy is essentially a Ponzi scheme and no such scheme can last forever.
Fractalnoia is probably the most obscure but has to do with trying to make sense of the present onslaught of information overload by trying to recognize patterns, especially those which portend disaster. This has led to the proliferation of countless conspiracy theories such as the example in the book of the belief that the government is controlling the weather and creating earthquakes to establish a world government. The various 9/11 conspiracy theories are another example.
The last is Apocalypto which is the increasing tendency to predict that the world is quickly approaching some apocalypse because of the increasing pace of change where some disaster is going to change everything. One example (which the author doesn't mention) is the current hysteria over climate change. While global warming may be real it doesn't mean the quick end of civilization. There is always the possibility that mankind will adapt as has happened with the last 10,000 years of natural global warming.
Another thing the author doesn't mention is the obvious solution to all the stress the Digital Age is causing. This is to minimize or even eliminate the use of computerized gadgets. Do you really need a computer both at work and at home? Do you really need television service with 600 channels when you watch only about ten channels? My wife and I have two houses but only one computer and one television - instant 50 percent relief. We don't have smart phones - more relief.