Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: December 2014


Also in this issue

Grace Mullen: A Life in the Shadows

The Sursum Corda Promotes Corporate Worship

Playing before the Lord by Calvin R. Stapert

Precious in God’s Sight, But What Do God’s People See? Review Article

A Christmas Carol

Sonnet in Winter

Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushkoff. New York: Penguin, 2014, vii + 296 pages, $16.00, paper.

Douglas Rushkoff seeks to bring Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller Future Shock up to date. A longtime member of the Media Ecology Association, he was awarded the Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity and the Marshall McLuhan Award by the Media Ecology Association for his book Coercion. He is technology and media commentator for CNN, and has had commentaries aired on CBS and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” While Toffler asserted that the future was coming at us too rapidly for us to cope, Rushkoff is insisting that we are now trapped in the now without a sense of the future or the past, “diminishing anything that isn’t happening now” (2). Our technologies have undermined the idea of story, with beginning and end. Thus, we are out of sync with the normal rhythms of life, especially as they are related to the natural order. He calls this new situation “Presentism.” He suggests helpful ways of navigating this environment by reasserting our priorities in the use our electronic devices and networks in order to stay better connected with the real world in real time.

Rushkoff is an authentic media ecologist, neither shunning nor embracing the new electronic world, but considering ways of wisely navigating it in order to avoid being sucked into the vortex of the electronic present.

The Christian will be most alarmed by the first chapter of the book which describes the collapse of narrative. In an interview with Ken Myers (Mars Hill Audio, vol. 120 Feb. 2014). Rushkoff surprises Myers by favoring the collapse of narrative. It turns out that what he favors is the demise of twentieth century metanarratives, such as National Socialism, that were used as ideological weapons to oppress entire nations (4). This does not mean there is no value in storytelling, only that Presentism has destroyed the concept of story. We have arrived in Toffler’s future and do not find stories to be compelling explanations of the present (15). It’s as if we are in the midst of a giant happening, but unlike the sixties phenomenon it is not an event that ends but comprises our entire environment. He quotes the cautionary statement of Aristotle, “When storytelling in a culture goes bad, the result is decadence” (23).[1]

The Internet by its very nature decontextualizes everything. Rushkoff cites the TV program The Office as an example of appealing to the “narrative-wary” viewer. The YouTube “cutscene” rules (27). What TV used to do so well, the dramatic, has given way to a purposeless present. Seinfeld is a classic example—a show about nothing (31), a pastiche of plots without denouement (34). Watchers want the immediate sensations that the dangerous rescue, extreme sports, or painful, violent reality show deliver, often in the basest forms (37).

Rushkoff maintains that “always-on news becomes the new approach to governance” (47) as leaders respond to constantly changing polls and news stories, crafted by the media. The need to shock the viewer in order to keep him watching creates a sense of panic (48). Intelligent commentary loses its force and the idea of objective truth disappears (50–51). Mediated reality undermines traditional institutions and fosters an “astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self” (53). The postnarrative landscape favors the endless movement of video games (58–62). Rushkoff oddly sees much good in video games because, as a kind of antidote to Presentism, the player becomes the story, which would seem to enhance, rather than modify, the solipsism Rushkoff seems to reject. There is also some evidence that gaming may help those with post-traumatic stress (64–65).

In the second chapter, “Digiphrenia,” Rushkoff begins to hint at some strategies to help deal with Presentism. He brilliantly and provocatively observes that “[p]eople are still analog” (71). But our “virtual identities” are spread over “device, platform, and network.” And then this media ecology zinger—“[t]he things we use do change us.... It’s not about how digital technology changes us, but how we change ourselves and one another now that we live so digitally” (73). While this may sound contradictory, Rushkoff is offering hope that we are responsible for our media and can do something about the existential crisis we face.

By trying to keep up with the multitude of electronic intrusions and distractions, we actually lose touch with the real present, hence becoming disoriented and experiencing what Rushkoff calls “digiphrenia” (75). The Industrial Revolution invented a way of measuring time and thus dictating the rhythms of life. People were being “tuned up like machines” (81). The analog clock left a vestige of the cyclic movement of a day based on the sundial, while the digital timepiece doesn’t move it “flicks,” distancing us completely from the natural order (83). Rushkoff quotes IT researcher Mark McDonald, “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” (86).

Remaining captive to this “new temporal order” exacts a price. Being out of sync with the cycle of night and day is unhealthy for body and soul (90–92).

Yes, we are in a chronobiological crisis depression, suicide, cancers, poor productivity, and social malaise as a result of abusing and defeating the rhythms keeping us alive and in sync with nature and one another. (93)

But the good news is that while our inventions are “fungible ... our bodies are resistant.” Thus, we may use our technologies to “reschedule our lives in a manner consistent with our physiology.” We need to offload time intensive tasks to our machines in order to regain time to think—what technology analyst Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus.” Instead of keeping pace with our machines, we need to make our machines work at our pace (93). This proposed solution is a refreshing antidote to the artificial intelligence (AI) crowd’s idea that we can reinvent ourselves in whatever way we wish, imago siliconi. Not bad for an atheist.[2] Like the founders of media ecology Rushkoff believes that we are not determined by our inventions if we choose to wisely understand and use them.

So we need to reject the “always-on philosophy” that suits business but not our humanity (94).

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.... The opportunity offered to us by digital technology is to reclaim our time and to reprogram 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. (98)

We need to program our technologies to follow the natural cycles of days and seasons like farmers have always done. Rushkoff goes on to discuss scientific evidence that shows the relationship between seasons and our human natures.

Then he secularizes the Edenic “myth” by describing the eating of the forbidden fruit as a maturing process which “introduced humanity to the binary universe of active choice that computers now amplify for us today” (111). Theology is a discipline from which Rushkoff needs to steer clear. Relating his misinterpretation of Genesis 1–3 to the Apple computer logo is, however, insightful. Using computers is like taking a bite of the forbidden fruit. On January 27, 2010, Steve Jobs introduced the iPad as “a truly magical and revolutionary product.”[3]

As an aside, I would note that magic became a reality as the scientific order began to take form in the sixteenth century. This should not be a surprise as the ultimate issue is autonomous human control over God’s world. C. S. Lewis explores the relationship between science and magic in That Hideous Strength (1946). The book’s name comes from Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Dialog (1555) in which he describes the Tower of Babel, “The shadow of that hyddeous strength sax mile or more it is of length.” The evil Lord Feverstone—a telling name—states his agenda, “If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal.”[4] Rushkoff doesn’t explore the connection between magic and science, although he is clearly opposed to Feverstone’s agenda. Jobs, however, seems to have had it in mind.

The penultimate section of this second chapter describes a crucial distinction between chronos and kairos. Chronos measures time quantitatively, whereas kairos considers time qualitatively in terms of historical meaning (112). Christians understand this in terms of eschatology. “Digital time ignores nearly every feature of kairos, but in doing so may offer us the opportunity to recognize kairos by its very absence” (112). Like the light bulb, chronos creates an environment without any content. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant by the medium is the message (115). What we call “information overload” should, according to Clay Shirky, be called “filter failure” (116). Push notifications can be turned off, thus protecting our personal kairos of real time (117).

Then there is the matter of multitasking. Rushkoff contends that computers can do this, but not humans (123). The tenfold increase in attention deficit disorder is directly related to humans seeking to imitate the multitasking of computers. Intelligence is increasingly wrongly equated with speed (125). The cognitive dissonance this creates is a major source of society’s ills (126). Thus,

our ability to experience sync over disphrenia can be traced to the extent to which we are the programmers of our own and our businesses’ digital processes. In the digital realm we are either the programmers or the programmed—the drivers or the passengers. (128)

Chapter 3 is “Overwinding: The Short Forever.” The concept of temporal diversity is central to this chapter, “to understand and distinguish between the different rates at which things on different levels of existence change.” Whole Earth Catalog founder Steward Brand divides society into six levels from the slowest to the fastest rates of change: 1) geological 2) cultural 3) civil governance 4) infrastructures 5) commerce 6) fashion (133–34). Failure to distinguish among these leads to “overwinding” or temporal compression, when we live only at the “fashion” pace (incidentally, watches and clocks cannot be overwound, a minor mistake in Rushkoff’s analogy). Instead, energy needs to be stored like the photosynthetic process. Rushkoff uses the example of the difference between cramming the night before an exam, and studying over months for the same exam (135). Only the latter way of dealing with time will yield memory. Or like the difference between RAM and hard drive. Presentism is like RAM, “all processing, with no stuff to hang onto” (140). “Where we get into trouble is when we treat data flows and data storage interchangeably” (142). There is no space for deep thinking left. “When everything is rendered instantly accessible via Google and iTunes, the entirety of culture becomes a single layer deep. The journey disappears, and all knowledge is brought into the present tense” (153). This is what Rushkoff calls “the short forever”.

Rushkoff goes on to chart the rise of consumer culture. “While mass production may have disconnected the worker from the value of his skill set, mass marketing has disconnected the consumer from the producer” (166). Moreover,

the economics of consumption have always been dependent on illusions of increasing immediacy and newness, and an actuality of getting people to produce and consume more stuff, more rapidly, with ever more of their time. (167)

A classic example of economic present shock is seen in the way the expansion of credit undermines the ability to consider the future consequences of present purchases (175).

Rushkoff concludes this chapter with a call for community as the solution to the problem of the individualistic, short forever. “We must be able to expand our awareness beyond the zero-sum game of individual self-interest.... The individual is flow, and the community is storage” (194). Here’s where the doctrine of the church and the communion of saints would be of immense help to Rushkoff.

In Chapter 4 we encounter another Rushkoff neologism, “Fractalnoia: Finding Patterns in the Feedback.” The problem is that we encounter links without a narrative to connect them to. This leaves people unable to interpret the present (199). Fractals seek to make sense of cyberculture by discovering patterns, whether they are actually there or not (200). This, as McLuhan recognized, is the only way to navigate a chaotic electronic environment. This requires looking more at the medium than at the message (202). “In the presentist world the feedback loop gets really tight.” It’s like the screech of the microphone getting feedback from the speakers that are too close This why we need to step back and consider what’s happening (208).

Rushkoff observes that unlike electronic broadcasting, which is a one-way form of communication, digital networks give people the ability to engage with one another (215). Here Rushkoff begins to engage in a bit of utopian egalitarianism. While it is true that longstanding falsehoods may be quickly undone through the availability of information and networking, it is certainly not true that the transparency of WikiLeaks is helpful to the safety of sovereign nations. His mantra is that it is as easy to cooperate as to compete (221). This simply ignores the reality of sin and deception, by locating the problems of humanity in systems without feedback. In the actual fallen world in which we live, civilization is based as much on what we refrain from saying as on what we say.

“Hierarchies of command and control began losing ground to networks of feedback and iteration” (224). This is good in fighting tyranny, but may also undermine respect for legitimate authority. Rushkoff helpfully cites Norbert Weiner, the inventor of cybernetics. Weiner developed this theory in connection with improving the timing of anti-aircraft fire during World War II. “Feedback allows a source gradually to self-correct the effectiveness of a series of messages, making them closer and closer to what is needed to accomplish their intent.”[5] Based on this brilliant insight, however, social scientists have believed that by building feedback into social structures they could improve the human condition (225). Rushkoff concludes with a healthy skepticism about such proposals: “Pattern recognition may be less a science or mathematic than it is a liberal art” (230). The liberal arts deal better with complexity and nuances than do the formulaic tendency of the sciences. Fractalnoia is a self-oriented “networked sensibility” that defines paranoia (240). Pattern recognition realizes that that there are not more shark attacks now than a hundred years ago, only more reporting of them.

The concluding chapter “Apocalypto” deals with the “belief in the imminent shift of humanity into an unrecognizably different form.” This is a secular version of Christian eschatological hope. For the secularist it represents relief from the stress of present shock (245). The zombie phenomenon, Rushkoff observes, taps into our deepest fears of being consumed (248). Because “[p]eople are the bad guys” the postnarrative future is thought to belong to the zombies (251).

Rushkoff proceeds in a section titled “Transcending Humanity” to describe several mystical alternatives, from Irish folklorist Terence McKenna to the Taoist Book of Changes, the I Ching, to Jesuit evolutionary mystic Teilhard de Chardin (251–54). Their quest is to get everyone to appreciate the interconnectedness of all things, the staple of all mysticism.

Finally Rushkoff comes out of the closet to with the author’s message:

As I have come to understand technology, however, it wants only whatever we program into it. I am much less concerned with whatever it is technology may be doing to people than what people are choosing to do to one another through technology. (257)

To the techno-enthusiasts he responds “I find myself unable to let go of the sense that human beings are somehow special, and that moment-to-moment human experience contains a certain unquantifiable essence” (258). Rushkoff continues by insisting that DNA gives only a small part of the total picture of what comprises humanity. Neuroscience is inadequate to account for human cognition. Finally, outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins reduces humans to information in organic form. Rushkoff responds, “It seems to me this perspective has the medium and the message reversed. We humans are not the medium for information; information is the medium for humans. We are the content—the message” (259).

Here Rushkoff reminds me of philosopher Thomas Nagel’s challenge, in Mind and Cosmos,[6] to the materialist philosophers and evolutionary scientists to the effect that their scheme is unable to adequately account for our humanity, especially our cognitive abilities as well as consciousness itself.

In the final section of the book Rushkoff posits that the urgency to envision an endgame is a religious impulse exemplified by the Puritans who colonized America. “[T]hey came with the express intent of bringing on the eschaton” (260–61). “Present shock provides the perfect cultural and emotional pretext for apocalyptic thinking. It is destabilizing; it deconstructs the narratives we use to make meaning; ... it drives us to impose order on chaos” (261). He asks, “Without time, without a future, how do we contend with the lingering imperfections in our reality?” (262). Here he reminds me of Neil Postman’s proposal in Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century.[7] Re-imposing the Enlightenment of the past on the present is not much different than Rushkoff’s appealing to the “foundational framework” of the monotheistic culture of which we are a part as a way to help us out of our current dilemma (262). The real question is whether Christian belief in the eschaton is a theological imposition on reality or the actual plan of the One who created it?

Rushkoff calls the reader to take responsibility and dominion in the present moment to confront present shock. He admits that this book has been the hardest to complete of any he has written. Ultimately, he humbly resorts to thoughtfulness that resists hasty conclusions. As a Christian I appreciate his modesty, honesty, and what appears to be his soft atheism.

While I have found Rushkoff’s analyses and many of his navigation proposals useful and even compelling, what he does not take sufficiently into account is the cultural force of a culture that is not very attuned to his sensibilities. Furthermore, his essential belief in the uniqueness of humanity is in need of the fortitude that only a biblical anthropology can offer. Although he feels the pervasiveness of the cultural pressure, his lack of a metanarrative that transcends the cultural moment leaves him at loose ends which ultimately only the Christ of Scripture can tie together.

This is not an easy book, but one well worth reading, if for no other reason than that it slows the reader down to think.


[1] From Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: ReganBooks, 1997).

[2] Douglas Rushkoff, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism (New York: Three Rivers, 2003).

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2010/TECH/01/27/apple.tablet/

[4] C. S, Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 41.

[5] Everett Rogers, A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 394–99.

[6] Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford, 2012).

[7] Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (New York: Knopf, 2000).

Gregory E. Reynolds serves as the pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant.

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Ordained Servant: December 2014


Also in this issue

Grace Mullen: A Life in the Shadows

The Sursum Corda Promotes Corporate Worship

Playing before the Lord by Calvin R. Stapert

Precious in God’s Sight, But What Do God’s People See? Review Article

A Christmas Carol

Sonnet in Winter

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