Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Present Shock

Our worlds are increasingly filtered, shaped, and experienced by means of digital technology.  Terms like online, email, text, tweet, surf, download, upload, blog, and digitial have become familiar and have frequently been redefined in an Internet era.  Douglas Rushkoff had much to say about that on Tuesday night to a packed house at Knox Presbyterian Church.


He began by speaking at length about his idea that digital technology, co-opted by capitalism, has collapsed time to the extent that there is increasingly only a constant present for people; “present shock” describes the human reaction to this world of instantaneous feedback and increasing abstraction.  This present shock is characterized by narrative collapse, the undermining of guiding human stories by life focused intensively on the present; digiphrenia, a fragmenting of self fostered by the maintenance of multiple digital identities; overwinding, the result of making time a generic, absolute quantity; fractalonia, the mistaking of self-similarity for real congruence; and apocalypto, the belief that human history has a definite endpoint.  The host (Ottawa Citizen Managing Editor Andrew Potter) then asked a number of questions touching on politics, the role of institutions, and the locavore movement before taking questions from the audience.


Rushkoff argued at multiple points that contemporary culture was faced with a choice: there was an opportunity to “restore human-centric agency to culture,” but that there was also the risk of giving in to the pulse and rhythm of present shock.  To avoid the latter would involve a much more distributed approach to governance and institutions (à la the Occupy movement) as well as a focus on sharing, developing networks, and filling needs locally.


There were points where I wanted to know more about Rushkoff’s thesis and standpoint.  Some thoughts seemed to hang together uneasily (e.g., apocalyto side by side with narrative collapse), and his use of networking as a metaphor for community suggested (at least to me) a strong underlying individualism.  And there was a certain irony in hearing him argue for greater mutual attention and relationship in the sort of frenetic, rapid-fire manner that typifies contemporary media interaction.


But this is to quibble; to call the event a success and enjoyable would be a powerful understatement.  Rushkoff himself was frank, open, extremely articulate, and keen to encourage his audience to pursue real, in-person, local relationships without a wholesale rejection of digital technology.  (This was particularly encouraging for me: I’m a telecomms engineer by trade, and have a special stake in this being possible).  So many fascinating ideas came in such a short span that I had trouble falling asleep that night, and reminded me yet again why I love good books.