October 7, 2013


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Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

present shock by douglas rushkoff

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to live in the digital age. Partly because I can remember a life where it wasn’t so obvious that we were in it. My childhood was decidedly analog, but my formative years and adulthood were dominated by the personal computer. I was mostly a fully formed adult before the invasion of email and mobile technology into our daily lives. I still struggle to identify how how much technology is changing our social interactions and how we think.

Present Shock, by Douglas Rushkoff is the first book I’ve read that breaks wide open the discussion of what the digital age is really doing to us as human beings. The book is dense and pretty hard to summarize in one blog entry, so I’ve broken out a few key insights that give you a taste of what is inside.

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Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.

Presentism – It’s here and it’s defining our lives. I’ve certainly seen it in the workplace where the expectation of being available at all times is now the norm. But it’s prevalent in our personal lives as well. How often are you grabbing your smartphone to check a Twitter stream or Facebook stream to fill your open moment with someone else’s moment? How often am I frustrated that my Instagram photo won’t post immediately so as to share my photogenic moment with the world?

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Likewise, without long-term goals expressed for us as readily accessible stories, people lose the ability to respond to anything but terror. If we have no destination toward which we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.

Narrative collapse – Stories have always played a huge part of how we make sense of our lives. Whether it’s a parable from the bible or a common cultural belief, we hold onto stories as not only a roadmap for our choices, but also as a way to simplify a very complex world. What happens when our stories don’t prove out to be true? What happens when all of our information input is so broad and rapid that the stories are no longer crafted for us and we are simply living in a state of information overload?

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The tension between the faux present of digital bombardment and the true now of a coherently living human generates the second kind of present shock, what we’re calling digiphrenia—digi for “digital” and phrenia for “disordered condition of mental activity.”

Digiphrenia – Do you still make eye contact and continue your conversation with the person in front of you or do you answer that seemingly irresistible urge to see who texted you just now? Do you feel naked without your smartphone? I hate to admit it, but I do. Doing a little bit better on that eye contact thing.

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So, as we have seen, narrative has collapsed, branding has become irrelevant, consumer see themselves as people, and everyone is engaged in constant, real-time, peer-to-peer, nonfiction communication. All the while, companies are busy trying to maintain linear, call-and-response conversations about brand mythologies with consumers. In such an environment, it’s no wonder a tiny gaffe can overtake many years and dollars of strategy. Amplified by feedback and iterated ad infinitum, a tiny pinprick of truth can pop a story that took decades to inflate.

It’s not all bad – I see a great deal of power placed in the hands of the socially-connected consumer. The opportunities for those previously unheard voices have expanded dramatically. There are always opportunities to take more control of the tools and limit their influence on our behavior. But until we understand that better, it sure looks like we’ll continue to let it make us a little bit crazy.

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