The Strange Attractor at the End of Human History

Published on: July 21st, 2013

(Second year Design Studies student Finn Ferris gives an insightful review of Douglas Rushkoff’s book “Present Shock” and touches on many of the pressing issues of today’s ever-accelerating digital culture.)

It’s not the end of the world in the traditional sense — but it might be the end of traditional sense. Inspired nominally by Toffler’s influential Future Shock but more reminiscent of Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism in its scope, Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Present Shock, takes a broad survey of the multi-generational shift towards all things instantaneous and incoming. From television remote controls to smartphones, gadgets are implicated in the degeneration of our collective attention spans and increasing inability to untangle what’s happening right now and deal with whatever comes next. The promise of the internet to connect us all to each other and to the things we want (digital and material) continues to drive the development, sales, and use of internet-connected devices. Rushkoff argues for a reevaluation of this scripted response. But, the promises of more productivity, a more efficient democracy (don’t miss Newt Gingrich’s smartphone musings on YouTube) and access to anything anywhere are so appealing. Of course we want this. What else is there?

Narrative Collapse

In Wim Wenders’ postmodern apocalypse Until the End of the World (1991), a scientist struggles to develop a machine that can record his brain impulses and produce video of everything he sees. His desire to communicate visually with his blind spouse would be complete if he could separate the signal from the noise, get a clear image, and reverse the process, providing brain-to-brain visual transfer. He is not very close, but the dream of bringing the world to his wife, in a video of his travels, takes a surprising leap forward and a dark turn when, in the prototype phase, a subject’s dreams become recorded. The captured shapes and hazy colors of her dreams are a notable improvement for the scientist, but for the subject these recordings are absolutely consuming. She cannot stop watching them. The machine, we learn, goes on to create “dream addicts” who spend hours staring at screens. What’s particularly interesting, when we consider our own slavish relationship to the gadget and to the screen, is the cure discovered in Wenders’ film over twenty years ago: words and telling of stories. More interesting still is when a leading media theorist like Rushkoff diagnoses our media-obsessed culture with the neurosis of present shock. First presenting symptom: “narrative collapse.”

For starters, Rushkoff is fast, and Present Shock is brimming with every interesting loose end in cultural criticism and media theory from the past five years that you wanted to read again but lost in your newsfeed and forgot about. Yes, all of them. There is something of the Twitter feed in his style. One is not quite sure if he is brilliant for mimicking the staccato evenness of newsfeeds, giving equal place to Lindsay Lohan’s latest embarrassment and a devastating Bangladeshi factory collapse, or if he is another victim of the same unfortunate cultural developments he describes, whether he is the addictions specialist or the addict. Or both. He has spent more time submerged in gadgetdom, and at a deeper level than most, so we wait for news on the surface, a reconnaissance of our own enveloping digital culture. Less interested in what technology does than in what it is doing, Rushkoff describes the impact of technology on anyone who lives in near or absolute accordance with its rules and scripts. No one will identify with every example, but the patterns are familiar. When he says, “We want all access, all the time, to everything,” there’s no need to equivocate. Yes, there are rabbit holes, but to follow the concept of narrative collapse through the remaining chapters, “Digiphrenia,” “Overwinding,” “Fractalnoia,” and “Apocalypto,” is a trip well worth the price of admission.

As with Program or Be Programmed, Rushkoff’s earlier work, Present Shock is somewhat remedial. It offers a remarkably empathetic tour through the neuroses and delusions swirling in the wake of a rapidly accelerating digital culture, a consciousness from above the siege. To protest Wonderland (see rabbit holes), the ridiculous and absurd, before the empathy for fellow device addicts sinks in is to demonstrate a key feature of narrative collapse. You (we) are too busy looking for “the gist” and want to move on. But, Rushkoff is not preachy. I find that compassion for oneself and others comes more naturally in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together as she organizes topics around interviews with teenagers, who are coming to terms with their own relationship to technology. The reader observes ideas emerging from individual students. Sentiments and thoughts get repeated. But Rushkoff’s approach is more speculative and immediate: We don’t remember yesterday’s news, We are anxious, We’re on ADHD medication, We’ve given up on plot and become pattern seekers. This is one pattern you can’t miss, and objection is tempting.

His style both shows and tells the effects of rapid-fire information. His message is cumulative; otherwise, it would be difficult to identify with each specific example, to identify with all the symptoms. The difficulty to square one’s own cultural experience becomes apparent. And, not all of his examples are purely rhetorical, cautionary musings on the digital everyman and his behavior. Some objects are considered in too limited of a context, making acceptance more difficult. If, for example, as described in the chapter “Overwinding,” iPads and Androids are merely “purchasing platforms” compared to earlier productivity tools, then we should expect to find them only in use by shoppers. A walk around New York, however, will reveal that the iPad has proven to be an indispensable productivity tool for college students, trainers, cable repairmen and police officers alike. An individual’s use, level of attachment and perceived significance of a gadget all play a role in its total phenomenological, practical and/or prescriptive impact.

A central concept of his earlier work Program or Be Programmed is that prescriptive interaction is a pale substitute for real communication, in which time intervenes and more choices are possible. But, neither this work nor the present text stops there. In both, the digital environment is changing the way we think. Rushkoff maintains that our relationship to narrative is not constant, but shifts over time. The historical shape of this connection to the narrative form is a long slow climb followed by a sharp and recent decline. The practice of narrative allowed the passing of stories from one generation to the next, taught the value of the past and consideration for the future, and inspired patience for climax and resolution. Present Shock details how this is slipping away. Television, email, texting, social media, and all the practices they engender from channel surfing to “reality” TV to short intermittent updates from friends have all played a role in narrative’s demise. In “Digiphrenia,” stories of pinging smart phones, demanding new messages in in-boxes, the management of virtual identities, system updates and attention deficit medications are intertwined to create a palpable disturbance. Anxiety is a production. In this text, it works as a tool. When “we can turn it off” (emphasis mine) is finally offered up as a possible solution, a choir of angels can be heard tweeting hallelujahs.

New Forms or Dying Echoes?

Facebook is many things to many people, but it is not entirely free of narrative, nor is it merely a corporate tool. Certainly, data mining occurs. Business interests are laser focused on our individual interests, and Facebook sells targeted advertising. It’s not an exact science. Occasionally, a sponsored advertisement (labeled “Sponsored”) from Chevron will appear in a non-driving New Yorker’s newsfeed. Other evidence of data mining makes more sense, but it is rarely more accurate in its aim. Mention your underwear or John Boehner in a post, and watch the corresponding promotions appear in the adspace, the right-hand column that most savvy Facebook users have learned to ignore. It is easy to imagine how these sophisticated mechanisms would inspire and excite conspiracy theorists, whom Rushkoff examines more closely in the chapters “Fractalnoia” and “Apocalypto.” Whether out of offense that Facebook has become an unabashedly capitalist venture or from rising paranoia that information (information that is never expunged) is being collected at all, many have abandoned the site. On February twenty-fourth of this year, Rushkoff announced his own departure with the following post:

Yes, I’m leaving Facebook myself – largely because the values and practices of the company running this website are just too inconsistent with those I’ve been espousing in my books, particularly Present Shock. Companies can misrepresent you based on your “likes”, showing you in ads for things you may not even know about.

It feels inappropriate for me to be soliciting likes – and your vulnerability – particularly when I’m so busy arguing for people to maintain agency and authority over their digital selves. So I’m no longer going to use Facebook.

I have some readers who very much want to maintain a page for a Rushkoff community, and I am not going to stop them (any more than I’d stop a group creating an anti-Rushkoff community) – but please, proceed on Facebook at your own risk, and with knowledge that you are not in command of how your name and likeness are used here (much less the information collected about you).

I really do appreciate your willingness to find out about what I’m doing, and encourage you to visit my website or subscribe to my rss feed.

The mention of “your vulnerability” and “digital selves” is noteworthy. Present Shock is a compassionate text. To lose sight of this in his relentless diagnosis, the “variety of ways, on a myriad of levels” in which the neurosis of present shock manifests, is to the miss the point entirely. But still, the abandonment of the most popular narrative-producing site, during the launch of a campaign for a book in which the central unifying theme is “Narrative Collapse,” is curious. The option to “like” McDonalds, and to risk having your friends receive an announcement (with your picture) that you like McDonalds, is still your choice to make.

Facebook is a mixed bag. In terms of content, it requires profound acceptance: that people are different, that within this difference there are various rhythms in mood, attitude and preference, and that everyone makes mistakes (spelling and otherwise). It is also the primary news source for many users, who “like” MSNBC or NY1, for example, and thereby receive updates throughout the day. The introduction of a timeline feature early last year allowed friends to more easily review each other’s important events and insignificant musings over time. Facebook is mostly dull, a constant unfolding of parties and vacations, political rants and articles, pictures of kittens and Jesus shared by a religious relative, etc…. It is not real life, but it is narrative producing on a larger scale and with a more democratic reach than any previous technology to date. Many are realizing for the first time that they now have a diary, even though they didn’t keep one before creating a Facebook account. Memories of what you were doing in June of 2008 are now within reach. Facebook is the Christmas letter families separated by great distances would send during the holidays with all the memorable events of the year included, only here it is released in ongoing tidbits throughout the year. Is this present shocking? At one point, in fact, Rushkoff joins the small chorus of voices in media studies bemoaning the loss of an individual’s ability to reinvent the self. The hero moves to a new town, perhaps for college or career, and finds that growth is difficult, because the past (i.e. the narrative) is too durable. In such a case, it seems the collapse of narrative is preferred.

To be fair, Rushkoff builds a solid case for the collapse of narrative, in the traditional sense, that in turn builds to a mesmerizing and thought-provoking final chapter and conclusion. But, some of the most interesting moments in Present Shock involve the near discussion of emergent forms of narrative, the occasional unmentioned forms that come to mind, and, of course, there are the stories of those clinging desperately, and more so than ever before, to one biblical form in particular, which Rushkoff captures beautifully (below).

Early on, he proposes computer gaming as a means to engage in narrative production, thereby saving our basic humanity. I think we can all agree that the audience for this form is too limited for the task at hand. Sherry Turkle’s interviews, however, reveal teenagers who spend hours choosing, doctoring, and applying filters to photos to add to their online profile. Now this is narrative production. Looking at the photo filter more closely, it speaks to the nostalgia that Turkle discovers for landlines and hand-written letters, a perceived “authenticity.” It is interesting that the predominant trend in digital role-play in gaming is towards photorealism, whereas photo filters move in the opposite direction. Filters provide distortion and decay. The limited capture of a Polaroid film fabricated with an iPhone app produces the effects of light and air on printed paper, light leaks from defective casings or sloppy development, and even the wear from human handling with digitally applied creases, spills, and scratches. If digital role-play strives for realism and interaction in the moment, then it does not retain a sense of narrative but serves, instead, to increase the sense of ongoing reaction to events as they unfold. In this way, role-play nicely upholds the theory of narrative collapse. It is the use of filters in photo-sharing on Facebook and Instagram that recalls the depth of time or demonstrates a yearning for narrative. The game prefers perfect representations that promote immersion, but the timeline prefers visual cues to spark memory production. The game, like Twitter, personal messages, instant messages, and even email, can create a sense of urgency and a need to respond. Timeline-based platforms, however, create a space for more familiar forms of narrative production.

Various platforms, most notably Facebook, have tried to capture and monopolize the various functions of social media, to become the habitual go-to hubs for users. In this regard, Facebook is winning. Twitter has expanded the tweet’s narrative capacity with links and photos. Goodreads, Instagram and Pinterest create community and function independently, but these provide popular links on Facebook timelines as well. Linkedin added an “updates” feature that only limited communities use. Google-plus putters along. Turkle reports that MySpace is still going strong. Many pay sites, beyond my experience, try to establish communities as well. And, apps are sold to integrate these social platforms for the devoted few. Still, most people have responded to the fractured and disparate nature of online socializing by keeping close to one or two platforms, but very few, I think Rushkoff would agree, would say that people are less connected as a consequence. In fact, I would argue, the proliferation of platforms and content manipulation, suggests a vigorous ongoing attempt by users to humanize the digital realm. We have not fallen into our dreams, à la Wenders, but are actively wrestling with the platforms to make them contain our narratives.

For others, the unplugging has begun. Fantasies of apocalypse emerge. These are not fearful nightmarish scenarios, but a product of the most perverse hope imaginable. Wenders could imagine the inoculating and anodyne power of language, but for “preppers” the only hope is world destruction.

Into the Bunker

In “Fractalnoia” and “Apocalypto,” Rushkoff makes a fascinating theoretical observation of those who recognize the trends he addresses but conflate them with tales of apocalypse. He identifies this small group (of thousands) as pattern seekers suffering from factonalnoia (fractal-paranoia) syndrome. They refer to themselves as “preppers.” Fractalnoia’s corresponding tech feature is the hypertext link. The hypertext link only functions as a digital connection, any correlation between the connected pieces must be assumed. Furthermore, the tendency to seek patterns is exacerbated by a weak sense of narrative. And, pattern recognition is a tool that allows one to quickly make sense of the unfamiliar. Pattern seekers “look for patterns where none exist.”

The description of the compound is fascinating. What makes them tick (of course, we’re too polite to ask, but we want to know)? Out in the middle of a country, separated geographically from foes by vast oceans to the east and west and friendly neighbors to the north and south, these presumably well-educated and at times spectacularly well-fed Midwesterners are building bunkers. Pattern seeking happens across the political spectrum and throughout society, but preppers exhibit a real commitment based on a smattering of connected ideas. There is certainly narrative present; an apocalypse requires it. The inside of the bunker is telling. It’s a pre-internet world. Even the kitchen is described as decorated in ‘70s colors. A food supply to last ten years, a media room, books, DVDs, solar generators; the urge, the wish, to disconnect is effectively conveyed. This latest crop of doomsday prophets (whether under the influence of religion or politics or some other hotbed of catastrophe) has preserved everything but the iMac. The world worth saving has already passed.

The best way to read Present Shock is through the lens of Lionel Trilling’s summation of the whole of literature: the “old opposition between reality and appearance, between what is and what merely seems.” I think Rushkoff would approve. There is an undeniable urge to dismiss the hysteria as based in the unreal. New negotiations with digital media are adopted and abandoned everyday. We learn to let each other off the hook. But still, I’m struck by the sincerity of his diagnosis and grateful for the introduction of carefully considered terms designed to help everyone adequately express and consider the effects of technology’s misuse and abuse. The continued assessments and renegotiations of technology should be well considered, and Rushkoff is offering the terms for these considerations.

Even if misapprehended, apocalyptic interpretations inspire actions and reactions that affect all of us. Design responds to perceived needs, real or imagined, which is to say that the future is already in the modeling stage of development, based not entirely on it’s potential, but also on our present reactions to it. For Rushkoff, our gadgets are already making demands based on the allowances we designed them to give. Likewise, Turkle activates Lacan in saying that it “makes a promise that generates its own demand.” She’s talking about mobile phone texting, but the concept applies more broadly. A smartphone’s invitation to aid in internet surfing and a bunker’s invitation to aid in the withdrawal from society both demand the corresponding response. Like mock elections in K-12, where students tend to vote their parents’ preference, Turkle’s interviews reveal marked paranoia of government tracking (calling for disconnect) in conflict with an exaggerated concern for safety (promoting connectivity). These concerns belong to an earlier, more skeptical generation who has not mastered the new form, not to the kids who have adopted them. The key is personal reflection on what is true and what merely seems true, and the personal responsibility to respond appropriately.

The equivocation is between types of immersion into technology, not between those who do and do not choose to engage. The solution to narrative collapse lies not in the metered use of what Rushkoff terms “presentist” forms of media, or in their categorical abandonment or refusal (if such an option exists). It is found instead in an individual life’s curatorial work, the careful inclusion of a few forms that allow some degree of participatory narrative that is possible and likely (i.e. Instagram, Facebook, or games). Narrative is not an either/or proposition. Neither is the level of cultural devotion to narrative frames historically static. New types of narrative are already emerging among those most immersed in digital culture, but they may not be recognized as valuable at first. There is a real possibility, beyond the rhetoric, that digital media could promote a more generous and forgiving attitude among users who have not been trained to approach the form with reactionary skepticism or paranoia.

Yet, many who reject these concerns will likely do so in response to Rushkoff’s frenetic pace, his fire-in-the-theatre voice, and not his artful and compelling correlation between trends in media consumption and recent social and political upheavals. The “strange attractor at the end of human history” is just that, an attractor. It’s in your pocket inviting you to check your email. You know, whenever.

Finn Ferris


Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now
by Douglas Rushkoff
Current Press 296 pp., $26.95

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