2013-04-01

The Future Isn't A Book, It's A Video Game

In Present Shock, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues that technology has delivered us to the future, and so it’s now time to use that technology to allow us to focus on the present, instead of force us to constantly try to catch up.



"I’m a Presentist," says Douglas Rushkoff. His new book, Present Shock, outlines a world where technological advancement has allowed us to live in real time. The future—which used to be a destination that we marched toward—has arrived. Now, says Rushkoff, we need not worry about the future at all, because we are living in a present that will continue forever. Now we must either accept that fact and use our new technology to create a happier, present-based society, or constantly fight against it, in a losing battle against an always-on, always-connected economy.

What happened to the future? Rushkoff says you can trace its death to the same roots as the financial crisis. "Futurism—the yearning toward an end—is a symptom of the industrial age that we’re leaving behind," he says. "It’s happening because the industrial age economy is finally running out of steam. … Industrial age currency has an accelerating clock built into it and we’ve reached the limits of our ability if not to grow, then to accelerate our growth."

A Steady State Economy

Think about what this has meant for the global economy. Rushkoff notes that we’ve often taken abstract economic concepts and elevated them above production of physical goods. "The main forms of innovation from American companies that we’ve seen over the last 10 or 20 years have been financial innovation, which is more about creating a new kind of derivative that can compress time but that doesn’t actually make anything."

Whole economies are fueled by these abstractions, which means the economy doesn’t need to keep expanding physically. It’s moved past the metaphor of progress that has fueled our idea of the future. "The industrial age was about going forward; was about growth; was about building for the future; was about investing in something that was going to be bigger later," he says. "That has ended up getting replaced by a much more steady state economy, one that’s biased more toward transaction and the velocity of money rather than expansion and the storage of money. The cultural bias and economic bias metaphor is shifting from hard drive to RAM, from potential energy to kinetic energy."

Solving 21st-Century Problems

Visualizing a better future seems nothing but admirable, but Rushkoff argues that by assigning a linear paradigm to these issues, we’re limiting ourselves in the possibilities of solutions. "If we stop looking at politics like a book, with a beginning, middle, and end, and we start looking at it more like the Internet, with an ongoing approach to behavior—that’s what’s going to solve 21st-century problems," he says. "Twentieth century problems could be won, they had bad guys that could be beaten. You could go to the moon and stick a flag in the ground. But 21st century problems don’t have clear end points. Global warming, terrorism, child starvation: these are chronic problems that we can’t address through victory, but rather through developing sustainable, real time models or behaviors. These are not things you win, they’re things you learn to deal with and abate."

And if you accept that there is no end to these issues, but a constant "now" in which they can be managed in a sustainable way, the future starts to look "less like a story and more like a video game," a collection of people all making decisions in real time—with no final climax in sight: "If we stop believing in a future, if we stop doing things for something else but start doing them for now, some fundamental things change. Retirement becomes less about how much money you can squirrel away now and much more a matter of participating and contributing to your own community now so that they want to take care of you. … We’re going to move into a world where your retirement will be more secure if you’ve made lots of friends with young people rather than collected lots of dollars."

Chronos and Kairos

What happened to the future? It’s become lost in our changing concept of time, what Rushkoff calls the difference between the Greek terms chronos and kairos, time and timing. Digital devices have changed the way we think about time from segments of the day to discrete moments. When you look at an analog clock, you can see the time that will come after and the time that came before. But a digital clock presents each time as one instance; 3:23 exists by itself. "Presentism is the acknowledgement that human beings exist in a unique temporal landscape in which not all moments are the same. We’ve been taking digital technology and pushing it into service of the old, but working in an increasingly digital environment means forcing our digital operating systems to conform to human time, rather than the other way around."

This isn’t just philosophical. Changing our idea of the passage of time could have enormous effects on the workplace, our understanding of the human body, and how people relate to each other. "We’ve been living in chronos for the past thousand or so years," says Rushkoff. "Time was what’s on the clock. And now that our digital devices can take that for us. We can move into kairos."

Once we acknowledge that 3:23 is just a time on a digital device, it will start to become clear that we need to focus more on the kairos, the timing. A certain time may not be the best time to ask an employee to start a new project, even if it’s the middle of the work day. "I think it’s going to take us another decade or so for us to acknowledge the way that our neurotransmitters change over time, that there is a very distinct and measurable lunar cycle that corresponds to increases and decreases in particular neurotransmitters," says Rushkoff. "As we come to understand that this is a serotonin week or this is a dopamine week, we’ll become a lot better at surfing the moods of our families and coworkers and markets."

Some people may decry the idea that time has ceased to exist, saying it’s another symptom of an Internet age where we are always connected—to each other, to our workplaces—and no one can rest. But we don’t need to live that way. "We feel compelled to answer every ping and vibration that comes at us, or we feel like we are falling behind somehow. As if all those things are in the present and we’re trying to catch up with them. But we’re in the present, and those things are trying to catch up with us. We’ve got the cause and effect kind of reversed."

That, says Rushkoff, is what Presentism is, a way to harness the changes wrought by technology to make our lives easier by transforming a constant searching for the future into a focus on the present: "It’s a reaction against our misuse of digital technology as a way of exacerbating the ills of the industrial age, rather than using it to welcome in an entirely new approach to time, money, work, and living. Futurism has ended, and now we actually get to be in that future."

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2 Comments

  • Michael Rudin

    Something about this concept brings to up mindfulness, that conscious choice in a day-to-day life to slow down and focus on nothing else but the something occurring. Perhaps mindfulness is the micro to kairos' macro, and the two might need to operate hand in hand for peace and the most effectiveness in this ever-rechargable world. I completely agree we get lost in the ever-flowing tide of email and messages and pings--rather than fight that tide, perhaps we should simply know when it comes, and schedule around it.