When Everything Happens Now
Present Shock – When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff
Chapter 1 – Narrative Collapse
Storytelling became an acknowledged cultural value in itself In front of millions of rapt television viewers, mythologist Joseph Campbell taught PBS’s Bill Moyers how stories provide the fundamental architecture for human civilization. These broadcasts on The Power of Myth inspired filmmakers, admen, and management theorists alike to incorporate the tenets of good storytelling into their most basic frameworks. Even brain scientists came to agree that narrativity amounted to an essential component of cognitive organization. As Case Western Reserve University researcher Mark Turner concluded: “Narrative imagining story – is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning,and of explaining.” Or as science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin observed, “The story – from Rapunzel to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Chapter 2 – Digiphrenia
Time is Technology
We tend to think of the assault on our temporal sensibilities as a recent phenomenon,something that happened since the advent of computers and cell hones – or at least since the punch clock and shift workers. But as technology and culture theorists have reminded us at each step of the way, all this started much, much earlier, and digiphrenia [digi for “digital,” and phrenia for “disordered condition of mental activity”] is just the latest stage in a very long and lamented progression. At each of these stages, what it meant to be a human being changed along with however it was – or through whatever it was – we related to time.
Of course, humans once lived without any concept of time at all. In this early, hunter-gatherer existence, information was exchanged physically, either orally or with gestures, in person. People lived in an eternal present, without any notion of before or after, much less history or progress. Things just were. The passage of time was not recorded or measured, but rather experienced in its various cycles. Older, wiser people and tribes became aware not just of the cycles of day and night, but of the moon and even the seasons. Since farming hadn’t yet been invented, however, seasons were not to be anticipated or exploited. Beyond gathering a few nuts as it got cooler, there was little we could do to shift or store time; the changes around us were simply enjoyed or endured.
Many religions and mythologies look back longingly on this prehistoric timelessness as a golden age, or Eden. Humanity is seen as a fetus in the womb, at one with Mother Nature. False notions of a prehistoric noble savage aside, there is at least some truth to the idea that people lacked the capacity to distinguish themselves from nature, animals, and one another. While living so completely at the mercy of nature was fraught with pain and peril, this existence was also characterized by a holism many media and cultural theorists consider to be lost to us today in a world of dualism, preferences,and hierarchies. As media theorist and Catholic priest Walter Ong put it, “Oral communication unites people in groups Writing and reading are solitary activities that throw the psyche back on itself. ..For oral cultures, the cosmos is an ongoing event with man at its center.” People living in this oral, timeless civilization saw God, or the gods, in everything around them. While they had to worry about where their next meal was coming from, they felt no pressure to succeed or to progress, to achieve or to improve. They had nowhere to go, since the very notion of a future hadn’t yet been invented this stasis lasted several thousand years.
Everything changed, finally, in the Axial Age with the invention of text. The word-pictures of hieroglyphic writing were replaced with the more discrete symbols of an alphabet. The progenitor of a more digital style of storage, letters were precise and abstract. Combined together, they gave people a way to represent the mouth noises of oral culture in a lasting artifact. Like a digital file, a spelled word is the same everywhere it goes and does not decay. The simple twenty-two-letter alphabet popularized and democratized writing, giving people a way to record promises, debts, thoughts, and events. The things written down one day could be read and retrieved the next.
Once a line could truly be drawn in something other than sand, the notion of history as a progression became possible. with the invention of text came the ability to draft contracts, which were some of the first documents ever written, and described agreements that endured over time. With contracts came accountability, and some ability to control what lay ahead. The notion of a future was born. Religion, in the oral tradition, came from the mouth of a leader or pharaoh, himself a standing-in for God. Text transformed this passive relationship to God or nature with a contract, or, more precisely, a covenant between people and God. What God demands was no longer a matter of a tyrant’s whim or the randomness of nature, but a set of written commandments. Do this and you will get that.
This resonated well with people who were learning agriculture and developing a “reap what you sow” approach to their world Seeds planted and tended now yield a crop in the future. Scriptural laws obeyed now earn God’s good graces in the future. The world was no longer just an endless churn of cycles, but a place with a past and a future. Time didn’t merely come around; it flowed more like a river, forming a history of all that went before. In the new historical sense of time, one year came after the other. Human beings had a story that could be told – and it was, in the Torah and other written creation myths. Pagan holidays that once celebrated only the cycle of the seasons now celebrated moments in history. The spring equinox and fertility rites became the celebration of the Israelite exodus from Egypt; the solstice became the Hanukkah reclamation of the Temple, and, later, the birth of Jesus. Periods in the cycle of nature became moments in the flow of history
The new metaphor for time was the calendar. A people was defined and its activities organized by its calendar, its holidays, and its memorials. Calendars tell a culture what matters both secularly and religiously. The time for sacred days was held apart, while time for productivity could be scheduled and even enforced. The calendar carried the double-duty of representing the cyclical nature of the lunar moths and solar year while also keeping track of historical time with the passing of each numbered year. There was now a before and an after – a civilization that could measure its progress, compare its bounties from one year to the next, and, more important, try to do better. The great leaning forward had begun. We progressed from what social theorist Jeremy Rifkin called “the Earth’s universe” to “God’s universe,” conceiving ourselves as participants in a greater plan and subject to a higher law and an external gauge of our success over time.
Some of the most devout members of this religious universe were responsible for breaking time down even further Fro their new Islamic faith, Muslims were required to pray at regular intervals.Their methodical call to prayer sequence used the height of the sun and measurement of shadows to break the day into six sections. In Europe, it was Benedictine monks who organized not just the calendar year but every day into precisely defined segments for prayer work, meals, and hygiene. Handheld bells coordinated all this activity, making sure the monks performed their tasks and said their prayers at the same time. Surrendering to this early form of schedule constituted a spiritual surrender for the medieval monks, for whom personal time and autonomy were anathema to their new collective identity. Although their schedule might look simple compared with that of an average junior high student today, the monks were exercising radically strict temporal discipline for the time.
As they became more concerned (some may argue obsessed) with synchronizing all their daily routines, the monks eventually developed the first mechanical timepieces. The Benedictine clocks were celebrated for their escapement technology – basically,t he ability to control the descent of a weight (or expansion of a spring) by breaking its fall slowly and sequentially with a little ticking gear. The real leap, however, had less to do with escapement than with ticking and tocking itself. What the monks had discovered was that the way to measure time was to break it down into little beats. Just as ancient Buddhist waster clocks could mark four hours by storing the combined volume of hundreds of relatively regularly falling drops, the Benedictine clocks broke down the slow, continuous descent of weights into the regular beats of a pendulum. Tick-tock, before-after, yes-no, 1/0. Time was necessarily digital in character, always oscillating, always dividing. As an extension of the new culture of science (a word that originally meant to separate one thing from another, to split, divide, dissect), the clock turned time into something that divides, and, like any technology, created more preferences, judgments, and choices.
Even though the Chinese had accurate water clocks for centuries before the Benedictines, clocks and timing did not come to spread and dominate Asian culture the same way they did in Europe. Westerners believed this was because the Chinese didn’t know quite what to do with all this precision. But it may have had less to do with a lack than with a bounty. The Chinese already had a strong sense of culture and purpose, as well as a different relationship to work and progress over time. The introduction of timepieces capable of breaking down time didn’t have quite the same impact on a people who looked at time – for better and for worse – as belonging to someone else, anyway.
Arriving on church bell towers at the dawn of the Industrial Age, the clock was decidedly more interesting to those looking for ways to increase the efficiency of the new working classes. Ironically, perhaps, an invention designed to affirm the primacy and ubiquity of the sacred ended up becoming a tool for the expansion of the secular economy. Trade had been expanding for a century or two already, and keeping track of things numerically – as well as temporally – had become much more important. If the previous era was characterized by the calendar, this new clockwork universe would be characterized by the schedule.
The bells of the monastery became the bells of the new urban society. Trade, work, meals, and the market were all punctuated by the ringing of bells. In line with other highly centralizing Renaissance inventions such as currency and the corporation, bells were controlled by central authorities. This gave rise to distrust, as workers were never sure if their employers were measuring time fairly. The emergence of the clock tower gave everyone access to the same time, allowing for verification while also amplifying time’s authority.
Thanks to the clock tower the rhythms of daily life were now dictated by a machine. Over time, people conformed to ever more precisely scheduled routines. Where the priority of the calendar-driven civilization was God, the priorities of the clockwork universe would be speed and efficiency. Where calendars led people to thinking terms of history, clocks led people to think in terms of productivity. Time was money Only after the proliferation of the clock did the word “speed” (spelled spede) enter the English vocabulary, or did “punctual” – which used to refer to a stickler for details – come to mean a person who arrived on time.
The metaphor for the human being became the clock, with the heartbeat emulating the ticks of the escapement, counting off the seconds passing. Management of people meant management of time (the word “management” itself deriving from putting a horse through its paces, or manege). People were to perform with the precision and regularity of the machines they drove – and, in some senses, were becoming. By the 1800s, workers punched clocks to register their hours. A mechanical engineer named Frederick Taylor applied his skill with machines to human beings, inventing a new field called scientific management. he and his assistants would spread out through a company armed with stopwatches and clipboards to measure and maximize the efficiency of every aspect of the work cycle. The time it took to open a file drawer was recorded down to the hundredth of a second, in order to determine the standard time required to complete any job. Once that was known, the efficiency of any particular worker could be measured against it. The efficiency movement was born, for which glowing accounts of increased productivity over time were published and promoted, while evidence of worker dissent was actively suppressed.
Now that human beings were being tuned up like machines, the needs of humans and machines became almost indistinguishable. The entirety of the clockwork universe may as well have been a machine, with new innovations emerging primarily to assist technology or the business on which those technologies depended. Thanks in part to the legal arguments of a railroad industry lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, for example, the rights of local municipalities were subordinated to those of corporations that needed thoroughfare for their trains and cargo. Time and timing began to mean more than place. Transcontinental commerce required synchronized activity over great distances, leading to “standard time” and the drawing of time zones across the map. “Greenwich Mean time’s placement in the United Kingdom represented the British Empire’s lingering domination of the globe.) Likewise, the telegraph emerged primarily as a communication system through which train crashes could be minimized. Directing the motion of trains with red lights and green lights was eventually applied to cars and ultimately to people navigating the crosswalks – all timed to maximize efficiency, productivity, and speed. In the clockwork universe, all human activity – from shift work to lunch breaks to TV viewing to blind dates – involved getting bodies to the right place at the right time, in accordance with the motions of the clock. We were as clocks ourselves, with arms that moved and hearts that counted and alarms that warned us and bells that went off in our heads. Jut wind me up in the morning.
If the clockwork universe equated the human body with the mechanics of the clock, the digital universe now equates human consciousness with the processing of the computer. we joke that things don’t compute, that we need a reboot, or that our memory has been wiped. In nature, our activities were regulated by the turning of the Earth. While the central clock tower may have coordinated human activity from above, in a digital network this control is distributed – or at least it seems that way. We each have our own computer or device onto which we install our choice of software (if we’re lucky), and then use or respond to it individually. The extent to which our devices are conforming to external direction and synchronization for the most part remains a mystery to us, and the effect feels like top-down coordination than personalized, decentralized programs.
The analog clock imitated the circularity of the day, but digital timekeeping has no arms, no circles, no moving parts. It is number, stationary in time. It just is. The tribal community lived in the totality of circular time; the farmers of God’s universe understand before and after; workers of the clockwork universe lived by the tick; and we creatures of the digital era must relate to the pulse. Digital time does not flow; it flicks. Like any binary, discrete decision, it is either here or there. In contrast to our experience of the passing of time, digital time is always in the now, or in no time. It is still. Poised.
Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. the past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious, the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible. A change in file format renders decades of stored files unusable, while a silly, forgotten Facebook comment we wrote when drunk can resurface at a job interview.
In the digital universe, our personal history and its sense of narrative is succeeded by our social networking profile – a snapshot of the current moment. The information itself – our social graph of friend and likes – is a product being sold to market researchers in order to better predict and guide our futures. Using past data to steer the future, however, ends up negating the present. The futile quest for omniscience we looked at earlier in this chapter encourages us, particularly business, to seek ever more fresh and up-to-the-minute samples, as if this will render the present coherent to us. But we are really just chasing after what has already happened and ignoring whatever is going on now Similarly, as individuals, our efforts to keep up with the latest Tweet or update do not connect us to the present moment but ensure that we are remaining focused on what just happened somewhere else. We guide ourselves and our businesses as if steering a car by watching a slide show in the rearview mirror. This is the disjointed, misapplied effort of digiphrenia.
Yet instead of literally coming to our senses, we change our value system to support the premises under which we are operating, abstracting our experience one step further from terra firma. the physical production of the factory worker gives way to the mental production of the computer user. Instead of measuring progress in acre of territory or the height of skyscrapers, we do it in terabytes of data, whose value is dependent on increasingly smaller units of time-stamped freshness.
Time itself becomes just another form of information – another commodity – to be processed. instead of measuring change from one state of affairs to another, we measure the rate of change, and the rate at which that rate is changing, and so on. Instead of proceeding from the past to the future, time now proceeds along derivatives, from location to speed to acceleration and beyond .We may like to think that the only constant is change, except from the fact that it isn’t really true – change is changing, too. As Mark Mcdonald, of IT research and advisory company Gartner, put it, “The nature of change is changing because the flow and control of information has become turbulent, no longer flowing top down, but flowing in every direction at all times. This means that the ability to manage and lead change is no longer based on messaging, communication and traditional sponsorship. Rather it is based on processes of informing, enrolling and adapting that are significantly more disruptive and difficult to manage for executives and leaders.
Or as Dave Gray, of the social media consultancy Dachis Group, explains it, “Change is not a once-in-a-while thing so much as something that is going to be happening all the time. Change is accelerating, to the point where it will soon be nearly continuous. Periods of sustained competitive advantage are getting shorter, and there are a host of studies that confirm that. It’s not just something that is happening in technology either.It’s happening in every industry.”
These analysts are describing the new turbulence of a present-shock universe where change is no longer an event that happens, but a steady state of existence. Instead of managing change, we simply hope to be iterated into the next version of reality that the system generates. The only enduring truth in such a scheme is evolution, which is why the leading spokespeople for this world-after-calendars-and-clocks tend to be evolutionary scientists: we are not moving through linear time; we are enacting to discrete, punctuated steps of a program. What used to pass for the mysteriousness of consciousness is shrugged off as an emergent phenomenon rising from the complexity of information. As far as we know, they may be right.
Pacing and Leading
By letting technology lead the pace, we do not increase genuine choice at all. Rather, we disconnect ourselves from whatever it is we may actually be doing. Bloggers [ahem] disconnect themselves from the bets they may be covering by working through the screen and keyboard, covering the online versions of their subjects. Designers base their fashions and handbags on the computer readouts of incoming calls from housewives at 1 a.m. Lovers expect immediate and appropriate responses to their text messages, however tired or overworked (or drunk) the partner might be. Programmers expect themselves to generate the same quality code at 2 a.m. as they did at 2 p.m. earlier – and are willing to medicate themselves in order to do so.
In each of these cases, the bloggers, designers, lovers, and programmers all sacrifice their connection to natural and emergent rhythms and patterns in order to match those dictated by their technologies and th artificial situations they create. They miss out on the actual news cycle and its ebb and flow of activity. They work less efficiently by refusing to distinguish between naturally peak productive and peak restorative hours. Designers miss out on quite powerfully determinative cultural trends and cycles by focusing on the mediated responses of insomniac television viewers. And their articles, programs, and creative output all suffer for it.
It’s an easy mistake to make.The opportunity offered to us by digital technology is to reclaim our time and to program our devices to conform to our personal and collective rhythms. Computers do not really care about time they are machines operating on internal clocks that are not chronological, but events-based. This happens, then that happens. .They don’t care how much – or how little – time passes between each step of the sequence. This relationship to time offers unique opportunities.
Pacing and Leading
At the beginning of the new moon, for example, one’s acetylcholine rises along with the capacity to perform. Acetylcholine is traditionally associated with attention. “The mood it evokes in us is an Energizer Bunny-like pep. That vibe can be used to initiate social interactions, do chores and routines efficiently, and strive for balance in our activities.”
Nearer to the full moon, an uptick in serotonin increases self-awareness, generating both high focus and high energy. Serotonin, the chemical that gets boosted by drugs like Prozac, is thought to communicate the abundance or dearth of food resources to our brain. “When under its influence we can feel euphoric, spontaneous, and yet composed and sedate. Whereas acetylcholine worked to anchor us to our physical world, serotonin buoys us to the mental realm, allowing us to experience the physical world from an embodied, more lucid vantage point. .We actually benefit from solitude at this time, as when an artist finds his muse.”
Over the next week, we can enjoy the benefits of increased dopamine. This chemical – responsible for the rush one gets on heroin or after performing a death-defying stunt – is responsible for reward-driven learning. “It allows us to expand our behaviors outside of our routines, decrease our intensity, and essentially blend with the energy of the moment. If acetylcholine is the ultimate memory neurotransmitter, dopamine is the ultimate experiential one. functionally, it serves us best when we’re doing social activities we enjoy.” In other words, it’s party week.
Finally, in the last moon phase, we are dominated by norepinephrine, an arousal chemical that regulates processes like the fight-or-flight response, anxiety, and other instinctual behaviors. “We tend to be better off doing more structural tasks that don’t involve a of reflection. Its binary nature lets us make decisions, act on them, and then recalibrate like a GPS with a hunting rifle. The key with norepinephrine is that if it’s governed well, we experience a fluid coordination of thought and action so much so that we almost fail to feel Everything becomes second nature.” So instead of letting the natural rise of fight-or-flight impulses turn us into anxious paranoids, we can exploit the state of nonemotional, almost reptilian arousal it encourages.
Further, within each day are four segments that correspond to each of these moon phases. In the new moon phase, people will be most effective during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people do best in the afternoon.
Admittedly, this is all a tough pill for many of us to swallow [really?], but after my interviews with [Dr Mark] Filippi, I began working in this fashion on this book. I would use the first week of the moon to organize chapters, do interviews, and talk with friends and colleagues about the ideas i was working on. In the second, more intense week, I would lock myself in my office, set to task, and get the most writing done. In the third week, I would edit what I had written, read new material, jump ahead to whatever section I felt like working on, and try out new ideas And in the final week, I would revisit structure, comb through difficult passages, and recode the nightmare that is my website. My own experience is that my productivity went up by maybe 40 percent, and my peace of mind about the whole process of writing was utterly transformed for the better. Though certainly anecdotal as far as anyone else is concerned, the exercise convinced me to stay aware of these cycles from now on.
Chapter 3 – Overwinding
Time is Money
In America, certainly, there is already more than enough stuff to go around. We have constructed so many houses that banks are busy tearing down foreclosed homes in order to keep market value high on the rest of them. The US Department of Agriculture burns tons of crops each year in order to prevent a food glut that will impact commodity prices. Viewed in this light, our challenge with unemployment is less a problem of an underskilled population than that of an overskilled one – or at least an overproductive one. We are so good at making stuff and providing services that we no longer require all of us to do it. As we are confronted by bounty, our main reason to create jobs is merely to have some justification for distribution gall the stuff that is actually in abundance. Failing that, we simply deny what is available to those in need, on principle.
We cannot consume ourselves out of this hole, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how much time we compress into each consumptive act. This because we are asking our consumption to compensate for a deeper form of time compression – one built into the landscape of economics itself. For not only is time money, but money is time.
We tend to think of money as a way of stopping time: As pyschologist Ernest Becker argued in his classic text The Denial of Death, our bank accounts are emotional stand-ins for survival. We accumulate money as a substitute for being able to accumulate time. .the time we have left is always an unknown; the money we have left is quite certain it is solid – or at least it once was. gold held its value over time, no mater who was in charge, what the weather did, or which side won the war. Money was valued for its durability and solidity. This was especially true after local coinage was outlawed in favor of long-distance currencies. People had readily accepted the value of their local currencies, even though they were printed on worthless foil because they personally knew the grain stores accountable for them. Centrally issued currencies were more impersonal and had to function across much wider distances. Monarchs were not implicitly trusted, nor were their reigns guaranteed, so they were forced to include a standardized measure of scarce metal into their coins for them to be accepted.
In spite of this outward bias toward storage and solidity, centrally issued currency actually had the effect of winding up a nation’s economic mainspring. That’s the impact of simple interest on money: interest-bearing currency isn’t really just money; it is money over time.
Money used to grow on trees – or, rather, out of the ground. Local currencies were earned or, quite literally, grown into existence by grain farmers. Cash was as abundant as the season’s harvest, and its relative allure fluctuated with the size of the crop This wasn’t really a problem, because the purpose of money was to allow for transactions. As long as people understood what their money was worth, they could use it.
Central currency is loaned into existence, at interest. Most simply, a person who wants to start a business borrows $100,000 from the bank, with the requirement that he pay back, say, $200,000 over the next ten years. he has a decade to double his money. Where does the additional $100,000 come from? Ultimately, from other people and businesses who are in the same position, spending money that they have borrowed. Even the wages that workers receive to buy things with were borrowed somewhere up the chain.
But this seems to suggest a zero-sum game. Each borrower must win some other borrower’s money in order to pay back the bank. If the bank has loaned out $100,000 to ten different businesses, all competing to earn the money they need to pay back their loans, then at least half of them have a fail. Unless, of course, someone simply borrows more money from the bank, by proposing an additional business or expansion.
Therein lies the beauty and horror of interest-bearing currency. Interest is expansionary. As long as the economy is growing, everything works out. The requirement to pay back a the rate of interest motivates businesses as surely as the loan shark encourages his borrowers to keep up their weekly installments. Running a business and growing a business end up meaning the same thing. Even if one business pays back everything it owes, this only puts some other business into debt. As the debtor seeks to expand to meet its interest requirements, the debtor either takes territory from an existing business or finds new territory. Standing still is to lose.
That’s why in the centuries following the implementation of interest-bearing currency, we saw such a rapid and, in many cases, merciless expansion of colonial European powers across the globe. They had no choice. The bias of the money supply toward growth biased these powers towards growth, too. Interestingly, the Ottoman Empire utilized a series of noninterst-bearing regional currencies under the millet system and did not suffer the same growth requirement. While the empire still had its conquests, they were not economically required for the fiscal system to remain solvent Sustainability was still an option.
when the only value left is time, the world becomes a clock.
Taking their cue from nature, many businesses and organizations have learned to pack time into one phase of their work so hat it can spring out like a fully formed pup tent when it is needed. The Shaare Zadek Medical Center employed this strategy to erect an instant set of operating rooms, clinics, and wards in a soccer field in Japan, serving victims of the 2011 tsunami. Although field hospitals have been used by the military for close to a century now, the doctors at Shaare Zadek took this concept to a whole new level by creating ready-to-ship, expandable medical centers that can be air-dropped virtually anywhere. “If you drop our group in the middle of a desert, we can work,” explains one of the hospital’s cardiac surgeons.”
…As a time-management scheme, Shaare Zadek models spring-loading at its best: weeks of physical loading and preparation plus years of experience and learning are all packed into shipping containers that open and expand instantaneously on site, where they can be used in an emergency – when there is no time to spare.
Chapter 5 Apocalypto
Everything Old is New Again
If one’s god is fighting for control of the universe against the gods of other people, then there’s no problem. Just as in polytheism, the great achievements of one god can be undremined by the destructive acts of anotehr But what if a religion, such as Judaism of the First and Secodn Temple era, calls for one god and one god alone? how do its priests and followers explain the persistence of evil and suffering?
They do it the same way Zoroaster did: by introducing time into the equation. The imperfection of the universe is a product of its incompleteness. There’s only one true god, but he’s not done yet. In the monotheist version, the precession of the gods was no longer a continuous cycle of seasonal deities or metaphors. it was now a linear story with a clear endpoint in the vicotry of the one true and literal god. Once this happens, time can end.