Back in the BlackBerry’s heyday, a new habit in restaurants became known as the “BlackBerry prayer.” Those at the table would hold their BlackBerrys in their laps, trying to inconspicuously respond to a steady stream of e-mails and texts. No matter how engaging the table conversation, the BlackBerry offered the potential of a different and more interesting topic.
Today, the prayers still happen, but they now occur non-stop with iPhones and Android devices. Rather than savouring our current place and time, we are in constant quest for something better.
The obsession with “now” is the topic of Present Shock, the new book from well-known media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. He is no Luddite; rather Rushkoff is an on-the-edge thinker, and sometimes his arguments are met with incredulity. His book, Present Shock, is a must-read rejoinder to Alvin Toffler’s pioneering 1970 bestseller Future Shock. Toffler exhorted his readers to become adept at “how to predict.” Not having this skill amounted to “a form of functional illiteracy in the contemporary world.”
We “all became futurists in one way or another,” Rushkoff writes, “peering around the corner for the next big thing, and the next one after that. But then we actually got there. Here. Now. We arrived in the future.” We are experiencing “our first true symptoms of present shock.”
While technology is the enabler, present shock occurs in all aspects of our life. He divides “presentism” into five categories, each one a typical Rushkoffian neologism:
Narrative Collapse: Immediacy trumps accuracy. Around-the-clock news channels force public figures to respond to every iteration of an issue. Simplistic solutions (like those offered by the Tea Party) are favoured because they are not bogged down with facts.
Digiphrenia: Technology allows us to be in a number of locations at the same time, often with stressful and unhealthy consequences. Rushkoff cites the extreme example of U.S. pilots in Nevada remotely flying armed drones in Afghanistan that fire air-to-ground missiles to kill insurgents and any civilians who have the bad luck to be nearby. These pilots then drive to their house to have dinner with the spouse and kids and help with homework.
Overwinding: We are under intense pressure to seize the advantage of the moment and act now. One of his many examples is the shopping frenzy of Black Friday in the United States following the Thursday Thanksgiving. Big retailers would open at 9 a.m. Friday, then 6 a.m., then 4 a.m., then midnight, and now late on Thursday evening. The creeping Black Friday has become a powerful symbol of the American mindset.
Fractalnoia: The now-rampant effort to impose an interpretation of one set of facts on another dissimilar set of facts. Dozens of websites and YouTube videos assert linkages and conspiracies from the use of weather balloons and the military, economy, natural disasters and jet emissions. These “make up just a tiny fraction of the so-called conspiracy theories gaining traction online and in other media, connecting a myriad of loose ends, from 9/11 and Barack Obama’s birthplace to the Bilderberg Group and immunization.”
Apocalypto: The truly depressing American obsession with the notion of imminent doom, whether born-again Christians with visions of Rapture, advocates of Mayan calendar doom or followers of Kurzweil’s concept of Singularity. Rushkoff asks us not to abandon all hope, but step back and discuss more rational approaches to what ails our society.
The pleasure of reading Present Shock is that so many of Rushkoff’s examples ring true, and seem glaringly obvious once put to paper. The scope of the book is ambitious, and fortunately, he accompanies his observations with suggestions to help us all cope in the ever-present world.
I have long argued that, because of enormous leaps in technology, the values we hold are coming into question. More than ever before, we need to step back and consciously design our lives. We need to decide explicitly what we stand for and whether we are the slave or the master of the new technologies.
On the home front, most families muddle through this new networked and open world, stumbling from decision to decision or crisis to crisis without an overarching strategy. All of us should be applying principles of design to our family and life. Make conscious choices about how our families will function and what we believe in. Harness the power of new technologies and transparency for the good – design them rather than having them control you.
Don Tapscott is adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He is the author of 14 books, most recently (with Anthony D. Williams) a TED e-book entitled Radical Openness.