WE LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE WE WANT EVERYTHING NOW AND EVERYTHING HAPPENS NOW – ON DEMAND. TIME IS BEING DISTORTED. PRESENTISM IS A RESULT. IF YOU HAVE TIME, READ ON — WELL GO ON, START READING, YOU HAVEN'T GOT ALL SECOND!
HERE’S A BEHAVIOUR you may have experienced, may perhaps even be guilty of – Some friend or colleague requires a quick response from you regarding a certain issue. Not long ago, they would have picked up the phone, the most immediate form of long-distance communication. Now, increasingly, they send an email, in the expectation that it will be answered immediately, rather than read only when one is good and ready – like old-fashioned paper mail. And this happens all the more so because what is a minute of typing for a sender might open a Pandora’s inbox of hours of work for the recipient. The widespread belief now is that everyone spends their time frequently and spontaneously breaking away from reality to dip into the virtual, just in case some electronic missive is tugging at their sleeve, crying out for attention – which, of course, is precisely what more and more of us do do. The smart phone: it is both companion and curse. But what, at a more profound level, one beyond that of mere irritation, is going on here? Some might call it ‘presentism’, others – notably the American big ideas intellectual Douglas Rushkoff, the leading critical thinker on the subject – prefers the more hardhitting ‘present shock’, named in association with Alvin Toffler’s book, Future Shock. The consequences of the collapse of time, Rushkoff says, have never been more prevalent in our lives. To the demand that an email be answered as soon as it arrives he even ascribes a condition – akin to a medical condition that is – which he calls ‘digiphrenia’: the panic that results from the assault of information – whether that be via email, app,
feed or social media – and the seeming sense that one can’t keep up with it, underpinned that is by the more worrying sense that one even should. Constantly breaking our attention with real time, our pace of life – or, in a way, our two lives, one physical, the other electronic, a kind of Second Life made real – is dictated by technology. The richness of experiencing time as something with meaning and purpose is constantly being undercut by keeping pace with a digital time understood merely as passing seconds, minutes and hours. It is, if you like, the world of the watch – another piece of technology that constantly reminds us of the artificial divisions of the day, and in turn our lives – rather than that of the diary, with all that suggests of reflection on a life lived. If that sense of losing control to an onslaught of data – most of which would incur no penalty if examined much later, or, indeed, never examined at all – is familiar to you, then the other ways in which media theory suggests technology is shaping our sense of the present are even more disturbing. Indeed, if you buy into the theory, it’s spilling over into our very understanding of the world in ways that are, frankly, mind-blowing. A deep breath may be required before reading on... With an analogy which watch fans might appreciate, Rushkoff calls one presentist symptom ‘over-winding’ – our growing habit of compressing time and its consequences into ever smaller scales in a bid to make the now responsible for effects that actually take much longer real time to occur, much as one might over-wind a watch in the hope that it can somehow compress or store even more energy than it physically can. In tech’s instant access world, culture is left thin and (less than) temporary, the weight of history seems irrelevant, the ramifications for tomorrow even less important, and the now is given more significance than it actually has. We live in instantaneity, reflected in the way we shop. For example, we click to buy now with delivery the same or next day, and little sense of anticipation or satisfaction is able to build in between. Attention Deficit Disorder is no longer a malady confined to small boys, and they don’t typically have smart phones – not yet anyway. When they do they will, like ‘present shocked’ grown-ups, fret whenever WiFi is, incomprehensibly, unavailable. That understanding of the world, further skewed by this experience of compressed time, is also reflected in the temptation – almost a kind of programming we are undergoing – to make connections where there are none, in a desperate attempt to make sense of it all. Data streams constantly and, existing outside of time, in a way that is disconnected to everything else. That is utterly bewildering for us humans, natural seekers of patterns and constructs that help us comprehend what is going on around us. That stream washes away any footholds. We can’t consciously manage it any more, can’t keep an eye on all that is happening as the stream seemingly demands we do
»CONSTANTLY BREAKING OUR ATTENTION WITH REAL TIME, OUR PACE OF
LIFE – OR, IN A WAY, OUR TWO LIVES, ONE PHYSICAL, THE OTHER ELECTRONIC,
A KIND OF SECOND LIFE MADE REAL – IS DICTATED BY TECHNOLOGY. «
– not that stream, implying something that can be dipped into occasionally, is an apt metaphor. Perpetual tsunami may be more accurate. The present isn’t big enough, let alone our brains, for the demands, knowledge, opportunities for self-expression and shared experiences that the internet age has brought. The solution? Make our own connections, however unsubstantiated by the facts or ideas that we have no time to ascertain or develop, however disparate the data may be – which is certainly fuel for the recent spike in conspiracy theorising. And, what is more problematic, desperately make those connections around the one static point in this universe of ones and zeros: ourselves. That, it’s been suggested – returning again to the notion that presentism is a kind of technology-induced disease with symptoms – is akin to a kind of paranoia. Anyone who hasn’t yet ditched Facebook might especially know how that feels. This slippage in our grasp on reality – real reality, out there, not through our devices – is compounded by the fact that our very human way of making sense of things through narrative and story-telling, unfolding over time, is collapsing. Reality TV is story-free, while much other TV now is less structured around the traditional linear beginning-middle-andend. The latest experiential video games reflect this perfectly now – they have no real end or goal. More worrying, news increasingly operates in the ever-present, responding immediately to events whether or not those events have even begun to be understood, dropping one story, yet to properly unfurl, as soon as another comes along. And if that sounds a trivial concern, note how that can shape behaviour and our own expectations of behaviour: politicians are similarly now expected to respond to events with the same knee-jerk reaction, making policy on the hoof; the public is unwilling for them to request time to formulate a more considered, and productive, response. An ideology? What’s that? There’s no long game. Small wonder, without over-arching narratives, time doesn’t seem to move forward – but feels stuck in a permanent present of sequential little spectacles, empty comments and fleeting trends. Rushkoff for one adds up these experiences, and the time-less state we’re in, to reach a rather startling vision of a possible future (remember what the future was?): that in time, tech’s ceaseless communications may drive us all slightly mad, making us akin to zombies, comfortably deadened to life – and even to human traits the likes of morality – because that’s the only way to break free of the endless stresses that the constant bombardment of data brings. Unless, that is, we start to, as it were, reclaim reality. A different, less apocalyptic outcome may be if we each start to take deliberate choices to, as Timothy Leary and those of the 60s counter-culture had it, turn on, tune in and drop out – although this time the mantra would be more turn off, tune out and – denuded of our devices – drop back into reality. We may be locked into the system as a society, but we can make these choices as individuals. Read whole books, one book at a time. Have a conversation – face to face, that is. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen the latest ‘most talked about’ TV show or checked your Twitter feed for days. Dial down the social media whirl. Take a day off the internet every week. Answer that email when it goddamn suits you, not the second your smart phone pings. Stop looking at your watch. Take back time.