When change is changing too
It probably isn't possible to fully understand Douglas Rushkoff's "Present Shock" without having first read his predecessor, Alvin Toffler, who in 1984 wrote the acclaimed book "Future Shock", a piece of work that would come to define an era where "the future" was a source of both excitement and anguish. It was probably right at the time, but then the Wall fell, Kurt Cobain died, the "Y2K bug" left everybody hanging for "something" to happen, and the towers fell. Curtain.
Though the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama certainly was not right in predicting that we were witnessing "the end of History" - a world dominated by representative democracy and market capitalism has failed to prevail as the one-size-fits-all model of human organization - he was certainly pointing us in the right lexical direction. Following Rushkoff, we clearly sense that history, in its political sense, has not come to an end. But in many ways, the evolutionary theories of social progress have halted. We are stuck in limbo, somewhere between our past and our future, hesitating, unwittingly caught between the desire to tie everything together, and the sheer impossibility to do so given the amount of data being generated at every moment.
"Our focus on the present may have liberated us from the twentieth century's dangerously compelling ideological narratives" (p. 4), writes Rushkoff, yet this liberation has engendered a sense of utmost confusion among us. Since God died at the hand of Nietzsche's philosophical hammer one hundred years ago, we have found little in the form of a replacement. Old myths die hard, and the contemporary narratives that have replaced them, played so often in the form of manipulative scenarios shaped at the hands of unscrupulous advertisers (think Don Draper), have yielded disappointing results in the long run. In this, we are growing more impatient by the day, unable and unwilling to focus, trying to grasp the zeitgeist above all else. But by the time all the tweets are read, the "now" has already become the past, and the task becomes one of Sisyphusian absurdity. "How", asks Rushkoff, "do we deal with the trauma of having lost these stories in the first place?" (p. 39). Though partial, the answer is, not very well.
Caught between Tea Partiers and participatory media, our ability to focus is lost in the present shock. "A presenteist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or overresponding to every bump in the road" (p. 44). In the attempt to liberate ourselves from this paradox, writes Rushkoff, we flee. In radical politics, the Right and the Left propose nothing to solve the current meaning crisis: between "leaning forward" and "reviving early-twentieth-century values", he writes, "both sides promise relief from the shock of the present" (p. 50). But this relief is, in many ways, nothing short of an escape route to somewhere else. Another present, yesterday's, or tomorrow's. Anything but now.
What the author calls a "post-narrative" era has led a significant transformation in the way various media are able to connect with their audience. Praised are the role-playing video games who take us "out of time" and recreate magical spaces where objects, people and contexts hold a simple, yet understandable meaning defined by the game designers. The new ethos underlying contemporary games rejects victory as scarcity: "infinite games [...] are more about the play itself. They do not have a knowable beginning or ending, and players attempt to keep the game going simply for the sake of the play" (p. 59). Even television, in its better moments, puts aside the teleological obsessions of yesteryear; "new incarnations of this approach, such as HBO's sprawling Game of Thrones (2011), use structures and tropes more common to player-derived fantasy role-playing games than television. [...] There is plot - there are many plots - but there is not overarching story, no end. There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point" (p. 34).
That such ideas would come in the form of a book - Present Shock was finished editing in 2013 - may indeed seem surprising. But as the author himself admits, only the discipline required by engaging with (and, from his perspective, writing) such a longer form allows us to form informed opinions about what is happening to us. The world has changed indeed, and as the common wisdom would have it, "the only constant is change". But, as we are reminded by Rushkoff, "that isn't really true - change is changing, too". Beyond the obvious technological evolution we live through everyday, a deeper, moral revolution is underway.
From Greek mythological notions of time to digital forgiveness, credit default swaps and global warming, clearly the present is a source of erratic and irrational behaviour. "We release the densely packed investment of millenia of life in order to power our world right now. In doing so, we deplete the reserves available for the future faster than they can be replenished. We also pollute the future faster than it can be cleaned" (p. 189). Faced with such a bleak outlook, some prefer to look elsewhere. To imagine a post-apocalyptic future, "so in lieu of doing the actual hard work of fixing these problems in the present, we fantasize instead about life afterward" (p. 246). It's about time some dreamers rose up to re-enchant the world, to stop the screeching bulldozer of time from consuming our lives and reducing them to nothing but a constant flow of immediate (ir)relevance.
We are in danger of squandering this cognitive surplus on the trivial pursuit of the immediately relevant over any continuance of the innovation that got us to this point
Though a hard-but-true glimpse at what the current era looks like from the point of view of a media theorist, let this not be an oracle. Rather, a warning.
Yes, a return to authentic narrativity is in order.
We're ready. Are you?