Present Shock

When Everything Happens Now by Douglas Rushkoff

In the 1970 book Future Shock, Alvin Toffler popularized a term for the disorientation that people suffer when they can’t cope with the pace of change around them. Media theorist Rushkoff makes a good case that this predicament has arrived in a generation struggling to live a modern life that’s always on.

He starts by decrying the decline of narrative in Western culture. The recent technology explosion — from television to video games to YouTube — has put stories on life support, Rushkoff argues. Early TV used reminders about plotlines. (Everyone knew where “a three-hour tour” was headed.) But cable TV and the remote control now allow viewers to flit from show to show. A generation of viewers lost the narrative thread, reaching rock bottom with reality TV.

Technology alters behavior, too. Glued to mobile devices, Rushkoff says, “we tend to exist in a distracted present.” It started with call-waiting and has evolved to texting and tweeting.

Rushkoff is no Luddite. But he warns that living in the present has repercussions. Human biology is ill prepared for this lifestyle. Living in present tense, people take out mortgages they can’t pay, governments rack up debt and corporations deplete resources. Such robbing from the future is a losing strategy. Illegally downloading music or movies may benefit a scofflaw, but ultimately the industry suffers.

It’s hardly clear where all this is going. Present shock, Rushkoff summarizes, is “destabilizing.” To be continued.

Current, 2013, 256 p., $26.95

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