Douglas Rushkoff / Credit: Seth Kushner
By David Ryan Polgar
Our life has turned into an absurd moment from Spaceballs.
There is a scene in the Mel Brooks’ comedy classic that seems incredibly apropos these days. In a day and age where we are often recording our life behind a smartphone instead of actively being present in the moment, it eerily recalls a Meta setup in the 80s flick involving Dark Helmet, Colonel Sandurz, and the Corporal.
While seeking to track down Princess Vespa and company on a scanner, Sandurz gets a brilliant idea: let’s watch a VHS of Spaceballs: The Movie—the same movie they’re currently in.
After fast-forwarding through the very parts of the movie that we (the viewer) have watched up to this point, the video reaches the present moment. Dark Helmet and Sandurz now find themselves staring at a movie that is recording themselves in real-time. They are the movie, and the movie is now.
Dark Helmet: What the hell am I looking at?! When does this happen in the movie?!
Colonel Sandurz: “Now.” You’re looking at “now,” sir. Everything that happens now is happening “now.”
Dark Helmet: What happened to “then?”
Colonel Sandurz: We passed “then.”
Dark Helmet: When?
Colonel Sandurz: Just now. Were at “now,” now.
Dark Helmet: Go back to “then!”
Colonel Sandurz: When?
Dark Helmet: Now!
Colonel Sandurz: Now?
Dark Helmet: Now!
Colonel Sandurz: I can’t.
Dark Helmet: Why?!
Colonel Sandurz: We missed it.
Dark Helmet: When?!
Colonel Sandurz: Just now.
Dark Helmet: [A beat] When will “then” be “now?”
Colonel Sandurz: Soon.
Dark Helmet, clearly disoriented, could have been suffering from what prominent media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls “Present Shock.” Present Shock is the feeling of trying to capture an ever-fleeting moment that is constantly slipping away. It is a feeling that many of us get in today’s multitasking world where traditional narrative timelines have collapsed and we are bouncing around in the distracted present.
Dark Helmet was in two places at once: he was both living his “real life” and playing a part in a movie. While this scene may strike us as absurd, it is incredibly similar to how most of us are living in 2014. We exist as both an online avatar and a real-life person. Facebook even creates a Look Back movie for us, recasting our moments on the platform as a movie that catches us up to the present moment. Our always-there tech devices allow us to divide both space and time with ease. It’s what Rushkoff has coined Digiphrenia.
I recently spoke with Rushkoff about this phenomenon, along with other hotly debated issues surrounding our evolving relationship with technology. Rushkoff is the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, now out on paperback. Rushkoff has also penned several influential books on technology and culture, such as Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Given his expertise, I wanted to know his thoughts about hotly debated topics like Google Glass, WhatsApp, and being able to create a space for uninterrupted contemplation.
In regards to Google Glass, what bothers Rushkoff the most is that yet another tech innovation is being coopted by the corporate culture of always being on and always working. “Like most wearable technologies, they are trying to make it easier to be two places at once,” says Rushkoff. “It creates more socially-acceptable ways of dividing our attention.” Similar to Bluetooth users that project an always-working vibe, Rushkoff sees Glass wearers as dedicating a certain amount of their vision to work.
“I still respond weirdly to Bluetooth guys,” says Rushkoff. “I look at that and think of them as working for The Man.”
An often overlooked aspect of product adoption is the role that social etiquette plays is determining either success or failure. If people respond weirdly to Glass wearers, and that response doesn’t quickly erode towards acceptance, it would spell danger for the mainstream potential for Glass.
“Augmented reality is fine for industrial situations,” says Rushkoff, citing the positives that Glass may provide airline pilots incorporating crucial data. On the other hand, “Augmented reality is troubling for social situations.”
Google is trying to get ahead of the various misgivings people have towards Glass by posting a rebuttal of sorts. One area of constant debate and worry is the recording capabilities of Glass and the privacy concerns from it. While Google maintains that the privacy concerns are overblown and that all recording is clearly indicated by a red light, this doesn’t lessen Rushkoff’s unease with the device. “I don’t yet trust our smartest engineers or the marketplace to make our decisions,” he declares.
Right now those intelligent engineers are trying to figure out the tech desires of Millennials. Silicon Valley is noted for minting twenty-something millionaires and billionaires with hot ideas, but it is also famous for providing rapid fluctuations from media-darling to has-been status. Given that, tech companies are in constant search for the Next Big Thing.
Facebook, not wanting to be Myspace, has been outlaying a fury of cash with investments in virtual reality and texting services. Their recent $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp exposed a potential sea change in our preferred medium of communication.
“Kids,” says Rushkoff, “have a desire for a more ephemeral relationship.” What they want, according to Rushkoff, is something that is superlight and worry-free. Tools such as WhatsApp and Snapchat seemingly provide less potential for embarrassing online material such as an inappropriate Facebook post. One might speculate that their rising popularity is a reaction by Millennials concerned with their digital footprint. What Rushkoff has discovered, however, is that it is usually just the wealthy users who are concerned with their footprint.
Millennials are also, compared with Gen Xers and Boomers, more apt to push the line of appropriateness with the content posted online. If the goal today is to rack up as many Likes as possible, the ends may seemingly justify the means. Whereas Gen Xers and Boomers debate the distinction between fame and infamy, this is non-issue for the younger generation. “The metrics on their images don’t distinguish between infamy,” states Rushkoff.
These issues were explored in the PBS Frontline special,Generation Like, which had recently aired when I spoke with Rushkoff. He was the producer, co-writer, and correspondent for the feature. The special garnished a good deal of media attention, so Rushkoff was being pulled in multiple directions. I was curious if he was still able to find time for quiet reflection. For a man noted for groundbreaking ideas, I wondered how he dealt with the bombarding media request that might keep his mind distracted and on the surface.
“I spent the last three days just canceling things,” says Rushkoff. The big attention hit, while beneficial in the immediate for his Frontline special and book, has certain downsides for a big thinker in need of a certain level of calm. “It’s coming at the expense of my sanity,” says Rushkoff. “And it’s preventing me from creating the time and space to write my new book.”
Rushkoff’s next book will explore digital currency. His newfound strategy of finding the adequate mental space to have quality thoughts came about after he tried to contact his writer friend at BoingBoing. Instead of receiving an instant reply, something expected in 2014, he was greeted with an automated message stating that the writer is working on a book and will not be replying unless the message is essential.
It was a wake-up call for Rushkoff, who realized that he had to gain better control over his time commitments and mental distractions. He had to find a way to use technology instead of feeling used by technology.
We’re at moment in time where we are having a serious conversation about the role of the technology in our lives. Outside of the distractions that may get in the way of quality thinking, we have concerns more fantastical in nature. Sci-fi concepts that once seemed far-fetched, such as Singularity, now get discussed with a straight-face. When we try and imagine the future, commentators have drastically different predictions about how it will play out.
While Rushkoff can’t be sure about how it will shake out, he does declare that he is on Team Human. His main goal, he says, is to “impress on people the specialness of our humanity.”
I’m also on Team Human, entering this brave new world with an eye towards maintaining a semblance of authentic interaction no matter how virtual our future becomes.
Welcome to the now, now. Let’s see how we deal with it.
Stay in touch with Douglas Rushkoff
David Ryan Polgar is an attorney, educator, and author of Wisdom in the Age of Twitter. His site Overplugged examines our evolving relationship with technology, partnering with noted Cyber psychologist Dr. David Greenfield.