Society’s real-time panic attack

By Rob Walker

Douglas Rushkoff
has been thinking, writing, and speaking about technology since the 1990s, and he is still contributing fresh ideas and insights today. His latest book, Present Shock, was published Thursday, and The New York Times calls it “one of those invaluable books that make sense of what we already half-know.”

In particular, I admire the way Present Shock focuses on the human side of the technology discussion, and avoids the demonize-or-celebrate extremes that make discussion so polarizing.

“It's about balance,” he told Yahoo News during this Q&A about Present Shock and related matters. “Tweet your topical ideas, scan news articles on Yahoo, and read books about the bigger things that matter.”

Q: Probably half the writers I know originally joined Facebook to promote a new book. Now your latest book is coming out — and you announced in your CNN column that you've quit Facebook! Any regrets so far? Withdrawal symptoms?

A: In all honesty, the whole Facebook conundrum came up for me only because I am launching a new book. Like anyone, I'm annoyed at the fact that I have to pay to reach the people who have Liked my page and requested to see my updates. But I would be willing to do this on occasion in order to reach all 10,000 of them. Facebook has to make money, and even though they changed the terms under which I came in, I understand that reaching 10,000 of my readers is a service. And I'm also aware that they sell everyone's data. I think everyone is aware of that by now.

But when they started to use my page as a way of misrepresenting my readers to their friends, that's when I just couldn't keep a presence there. Not as an author and teacher who is espousing certain values. Facebook takes their pictures, and then shows them endorsing things that I may have clicked on. It's one thing to be advertised to; it's another to be made into an advertisement for something you don't even know about. It is an example of something that causes what I've been calling "digiphrenia" —when an instance of you is doing something online you don't even know about.

I figured if I was going to leave Facebook, though, I may as well do it with purpose. So I did it with the article on CNN—both to have a bit of an impact and to make it OK for others to leave, too. It probably was a bad idea in terms of book marketing, but people can still talk about my book online or on Facebook without me actively soliciting Likes from people that make them vulnerable to being misrepresented online.

And so far it has been tremendously freeing. One less thing to worry about. Plus, there's so many great alternatives to living in the Facebook way, where people just broadcast everything they do. I didn't mind doing it as an author, with my books and ideas. But I'd never want to do that with my life and family.

Q: The book addresses what you're calling "present shock," referencing Alvin Toffler's idea of "future shock," and (if I can oversimplify) suggesting that we're now living in Toffler's future, and we're not coping all that well. How might we respond to "society without narrative context"?

A: Present Shock is the panicky reaction to this always-on, real-time society in which we have found ourselves. But there are definitely ways to adapt and thrive in a "presentist" world. So, take the collapse of narrative. We live in a world where it's really hard to tell a story. People don't have patience, they have interactive devices that encourage them to break up or leave a story in progress, and they don't really think about things as having beginnings, middles and ends. We are in the now, and not looking forward to long-term goals anymore. This is as true for kids playing endless adventure games like World of Warcraft as it is for derivatives traders hoping to make money not off long-term investments but on the trades themselves.

So on the one hand, we get the scary stuff: movements with long-term goals are increasingly unpopular. Political parties are hated. The notion of a career path or a commitment to (and from) an employer seems ludicrous. On the other hand, we begin to see some people attempting to live in a more "steady state." We don't have to fight and win wars so much as deal with our problems in a more ongoing way. Global warming is not something we fight against and "win," but a chronic problem we can only face with sustainable solutions. We don't need to yearn for endings—unless of course we really want to bring about the apocalypse. Instead, we must grow beyond the simple stories on which we were raised, and learn to live in a never-ending kind of story, in which we are the living players.

This is what Occupy was groping toward, in its own way. They don't have demands or goals so much as approaches. They are attempting to model a way of living. When asked how the movement is supposed to "end," they say, "Why should it end?"

Q: Referring in particular to open-ended video games that are less about winning than about infinite play, you say these may be "popular culture's first satisfactory answer to the collapse of narrative." You mention some therapeutic possibilities, but what are some other ways that model/template might be applied outside of popular culture?

A: Traditional stories are vicarious and linear. We watch a character go through an experience over time, watch his choices, and follow him into danger. We experience tension as we move from beginning to middle to end, complete with reversal and recognition. That's where marketers (if it's a commercial) exploit stories to plug in their agendas, and why stories are less trusted these days.

Games are digital culture's true alternative. Instead of following a character over time and watching him make his choices, the gamer makes the choices himself. It's a real-time experience of autonomy, rather than surrendering autonomy. Most great gaming doesn't have beginnings, middles and ends like traditional stories. They are ongoing. The object is not to "win" the game—because winning ends the play—but to keep the game going. Warcraft and other games are ongoing, collaborative enterprises. Stories without ends.

And this leads younger people to some very 21st-century approaches to entrenched narratives. Twentieth-century movements had charismatic leaders that took followers on a big journey towards a goal. Gaming, on the other hand, with its open-endedness and emphasis on keeping the play going, doesn't lead to the same sorts of culture and approaches. It's what leads not just to Occupy but also the newer environmental, sustainability, and local movements. No leader, no story, no endpoint.

Q: In the chapter that deconstructs changing notions of time and technology, you mention that some of the research you did actually caused you to change your own work flow and habits as you were writing this book.

A: Yeah. I was researching biological clocks when I found out that there's a 4-part, 28-day lunar cycle that we all go through. Our brain chemistry has different dominant neurotransmitters during each of the four weeks. And all of us are on the same calendar, so there's a week that's great for meeting people, a week that's great for working, one for partying, and one for doing more structural thinking. It's all in the book, with footnotes and everything. And it sounds weird, but you have to remember that they used think jet lag was superstition until the Major League Baseball managers started organizing pitching schedules around it.

So I started working with the four-phase structure in mind, and my productivity went up tremendously. I wasn't working uphill, so to speak, fighting what was going on inside me and others. I only did blind pitches for work or publicity in the acetylcholine week. I did my hardest work in serotonin week, and partied in dopamine week. And all of a sudden it was like the world—the social world and the chemical world—were supporting me rather than working against me. It's super easy, based on science, and already being employed by Olympic trainers. We just find it hard to do this kind of thing because most of us are not in charge of our own time.

Q: In the process of making your concluding argument, you observe, “I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology.” Why do you figure that the discourse around technology has become so focused on what it is doing or will do to us, whether making us superhuman or stupid?

A: That’s the symptom as well as the cause, isn't it? We do mean things to each other through technology because we think we're removed or anonymous. It's why we used guillotines or gas chambers and lethal injections instead of just shooting someone in the head. We demand stuff from one another through email, and get an inbox filled with demands in return. Or we market to other people's kids through Facebook, while putting our own kids in a Waldorf School and keeping them offline altogether.

Even the technology boosters—the types of people who praise technology and believe in the "singularity" when machines will overtake us—are falling into the trap of underestimating our own participation in this. People made technology. It's not alive, even if it replicates. It can't think or feel, even if it can calculate.

Believing that technology is overtaking us is really just another symptom of present shock. It's the kind of belief shared by people who need to understand all this in terms of a story. Where is this all going? How will it end? Fact of the matter is, it doesn't have to end. We don't have to apply some narrative to technology, as if it were a character in a movie.

Q: Finally, what do you wish someone would ask you about this book?

A: I guess I'd want someone to ask why they should take the six or eight hours required to read it, particularly in a world where no one has time for anything anymore. And I'd say to do it because you deserve to retake authority over that much time. You're allowed to reclaim your day. And if you don't read my book, for God's sake at least read someone else's.

Just because traditional narrative—and books themselves—are not the predominant form of entertainment and information today does not mean we shouldn't keep them in the mix. It's about balance. Tweet your topical ideas, scan news articles on Yahoo, and read books about the bigger things that matter.