How’d the present get so tense?
We wake up to our phones. On Twitter, respected news organizations scramble for civilian breadcrumbs from the latest scandal, retweeting and blogging without pausing to check sources. Meanwhile, on Facebook, one friend “likes” Walmart, another shares a Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, and a third sneers about climate change while Instagramming an unseasonable snowfall. Those same bright screens tuck us in late at night, screwing up our internal rhythms and sleep. Corporations, on a constant quest for growth, and our government, in an eternal war against terrorism, gather up as much of this information as they can, searching for patterns of threat and opportunity.
Still with us? Congratulations, so far you’ve survived the 21st century with an attention span intact. That’s no easy task nowadays: We’ve become so obsessed with chasing the moment, we’re not even living in it, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues in his latest book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. In Present Shock, Rushkoff attempts to make sense of a world brimming with information but free of context. He posits our society has experienced a fundamental shift in the way we experience time. If the last century was characterized by an infatuation with the future and the Next Big Thing (the title’s a play on Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock), modern culture’s favorite tense is present.
And while living in the moment complicates dealing with future problems like climate change, “presentist” culture holds opportunities for environmentalists, too. We’ve given up on some of the ideologies of the 20th century and are beginning to grope at something new. Rushkoff points to Occupy Wall Street as the first fully presentist political movement, one that discards end goals and debates in favor of building consensus and making changes on the ground. And we’re poised to transcend being passive consumers: Technology can enable us to question corporations and find new, more sustainable models of commerce.
But how do we encourage an open, vibrant world without being driven crazy? While the knee-jerk reaction is to just unplug, Rushkoff is no luddite. He’s been writing about the internet since the early ’90s and insists the solution lies in understanding our technology and making it work for, rather than against, us. We must become the programmers instead of the programmed, he argues.
I recently chatted with Rushkoff over the phone about the implications Present Shock has for green issues. (This conversation seems to have staying power across a wide range of media: Rushkoff blew Stephen Colbert’s mind back in May, and he was on Marc Maron’s podcast last week.) The man has a sharp way with words — he describes Facebook as a modern-day Tupperware party and doesn’t hesitate to give the middle finger to Walmart. Below, highlights from our conversation.
On why you should be an environmentalist for your mind:
Awareness and nervous systems are part of the environment. Just as you can pollute a river with plastic poison, you can pollute a consciousness with self-destructive memes and ideas. What you choose to focus on, what you choose to work towards, what you choose to articulate, is not abstract. It is as real as you are. If we begin to respect our nervous systems, our awareness, our consciousness, the same way we’re asking everyone to respect a pond or a stream or the planet, we may actually reveal to ourselves a high leverage point for changing the way humankind interacts with its planet.
On why real-life interactions have enduring value:
[Facebook] serves the interests of corporate capital and advertising. If I see you on the street, and we have a conversation about something and look into each others’ eyes, that’s not monitored. It can’t be tracked for keywords. It can’t be advertised over. We’re not using any airtime or cell contracts. We can’t be distracted with other things on the screen at the same time. It’s not contextualized under a certain brand or some official group of interactions. It’s much less controlled.
On “sustainable” corporations:
I resent environmental programs that lay the blame and responsibility back on the consumer or the worker. Look at Walmart when they got Adam Werbach to head green initiatives. If Walmart wants to go green, they should stop buying cheap plastic shit from the Chinese and contributing to disposable consumer culture. Instead, what they did at Walmart was they said, “OK, we’re creating carpools for our workers and encouraging them to take shorter showers.” So you’re going to make your workers live more environmentally friendly lives? You’re putting the burden and the inconvenience and the behavioral change on those workers rather than the corporation itself? Fuck you. I’m told I’ve got to take a shorter shower when the factory up the street is dumping more water than my entire town combined consumes in a year?
On sustainable corporations:
Corporations can’t continue to grow at the rate they enjoyed in the industrial age. The few CEOs of major corporations that are willing to talk to me, those ones who seek advice from someone like me, they’re asking me, “How do I transition my growth corporation into a sustainable corporation?” They don’t mean sustainable in terms of “help the planet.” They mean, “We can’t grow anymore. That’s it. I’m tired of this. We’ve got angry shareholders who want us to keep growing quarter after quarter but we just can’t do it. It’s not in the cards.” But that transition is also one that, as they make it, it’s going to be a highly marketable change. If Amazon came and said, “Look, we’ve grown enough. This is it. We are at our carrying capacity. So we’re not going to encourage you to buy any more than you already do from us. We’re good.” Can you imagine that?
On getting caught up in personal change and footprint rather than political action:
We do better to disempower Walmart by developing local industries to which we can shorten the supply chain supplying us with our food and goods. If we change our behaviors so we’re thinking less of ourselves as consumers, we’re becoming satisfied and enriched by doing things with each other rather than buying things at the mall. [We do better when] we live in a society where having one barbecue at the end of the block that everybody uses is actually more gratifying than everyone having their own barbecue in some competitive suburban nightmare. That’s when you start to see the types of changes that we need.
On the difficulties of fighting climate change in a presentist culture:
It’s easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse than it is to imagine five years from now. In a post-narrative, presentist culture like we’re in, I don’t know that fear of the future, even well-intentioned and scientifically justified fear of the future, is the best way to motivate lasting change. It’s great for short-term emergency adjustments like “We’re about to go over that cliff. Turn left.” But it’s a message that’s not even working anymore since we’re in this age of post-progress. We’re not looking at the future.
On why he’s optimistic about the future:
Since releasing the book, I’m a bit more optimistic. I’ve found a very widespread affirmation of the ideas I put out. More than any other book I’ve written, a lot of people feel I’ve articulated or put a name to something they were experiencing and given them the justifications and arguments they need to reclaim authority over the time in their lives. If that’s really the case, if the tens of thousands of emails I’ve gotten are an indication of a real strain in humanity, then we may just be willing to take this back.
On why he’s pessimistic about the future:
When I watch TV or look at the comments thread in pretty much any periodical online, I feel pessimistic. More people every day don’t believe in climate change. More people every day don’t believe in evolution. The self-reinforced stupidity of so many of my fellows makes me suspect that the human organism is on some levels trying to put itself to sleep. I think that would be a shame. I don’t think we need to go there just yet.