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Douglas Rushkoff-- Present Shock and Presentism: Interview Transcript

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Douglas Rushkoff I guess Present Shock is "The human reaction to living in a world in which everything happens now." It's a real time, always on existence, without a sense of an origin, or goals, without a past or a a future. There's really just this moment. And when you don't have those kinds of time-lines (or even the social rhythms that used to ground us temporally), you can end up in what I'm calling "Present Shock," or "A state of temporal disarray."

Rob Kall: OK. You say in your book that "If the end of the 20th century can be characterized by futurism, the 21st can be defined by Presentism." So you've got Present Shock; what is "Presentism?"

Douglas Rushkoff Well, it's the same as - Futurism is to Future Shock as Presentism is to Present Shock. Presentism would be "The notion that we're no longer leaning towards the future, we're no longer in an Industrial Age Culture obsessed with progress, and growth, and futures." We're not leaning into the 21st century from the end of the 20th, living in all those 1990s with every long tail, and long boom, and next-big-things, but actually, we've arrived. We're here. This is no longer a culture that's obsessed with where we're going; we're more interested in keeping what we have with sustainability - and the now - then we are with growth and the future.

Rob Kall: But you describe that, in a lot of ways, as a liability: you say, "We tend to exist in a distracted present where forces on the periphery are magnified, and those immediately before us are ignored. Our ability to create a plan (much less follow through on it) is undermined by our need to be able to improvise our way through any number of external impacts that stand to derail us at any moment."

Douglas Rushkoff Right. That's because we're in Present Shock, not in Presentism. (chuckles) We're not really embracing the actual "present" of other people; we're not embracing the social reality. We're not aware of what phase of the moon we're in, or whether it's even day or night. We're just in an always-on continuum. So when we're chasing the "now" of Twitter, or chasing the now on our smartphones, rather than the now that we're actually in -- yeah. We end up in this state of perpetual distraction, or perpetual emergency interruption, where you can't follow through on anything.

Rob Kall: And you describe how what we're doing with our brains is, instead of using our pre-frontal [cortices] (the smart part of our brains), you say, "They push us toward acting in what is thought of as an instinctual, reptilian fashion."

Douglas Rushkoff Well right. You know, they're spending billions of dollars hiring the smartest kids out of Stanford to figure out how to get us to stay glued to our smartphones. They're not looking at "How can we help people improve their human relationships?" That's not what their shareholders want. That's not what anyone wants. What they're there to do is to figure out how to get us to impulsively and [instinctively] keep checking our phones for more emails, and potentially seeing more ads and more updates; to really stay in something very much like an addicted state with our interfaces, rather than an adaptive, or even (at best) a constructive state.

Rob Kall: What I really see this book as being about is you suggesting that we take a step back from what we're doing and how we're doing it; take a deep breath. You finish your intro saying, "When things begin accelerating wildly out of control, sometimes patience is the only answer. Press pause. We have time for this." And I spoke slowly because I think that's an important part of it. It's so easy to just rush along and talk fast, and that's part of the symptoms with what we're dealing with here.

Douglas Rushkoff Yes. The beauty of digital technology is that you can pause! That's why when the Net first came around, I thought we were all going to get so much more time, because the email didn't send you running around your apartment the way a ringing phone did. I always used to wonder what my dog thought when I would get up to answer the phone: "Is that my master ringing that bell?" When email came around it was like, "Oh my gosh! This stuff is just going to sit around and wait until I get to it."

I was from the Slacker Generation, so this was a slacker's paradise. Plus, you had all the time in the world to come up with a brilliant answer. Whether you're participating in a bulletin board that you're going to look at, download, and answer in your own time when you're offline, and then upload your answer - you sounded brilliant! It was part of the joy - that everyone sounded as smart as Christopher Hitchens! But now, when you strap these devices to yourself and try to answer in real time to everything as it comes in, people don't sound smarter online they do in real life. They sound a whole lot dumber.

But the bias of digital technology is towards pausing, towards waiting, towards doing things in an asynchronous fashion in your own time. But instead, what we've done is tried to optimize human beings for the digital, rather than optimizing the digital for people; and that ends up leaving us just racing to get to the next [thing?].

Rob Kall: Now you've identified five different kinds of present shock, or symptoms of it. Could you quickly list through what they are?

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