Appetite for Acceleration

Book Review: Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (2013) by Douglas Rushkoff

Everything is getting faster. The incoming call on our mobile device (while we are already talking on the landline phone); the answer to an email that we just sent, popping up in the corner of the window; the latest tweets; a flight that we are about to book: everything wants our attention now. There is lots of whining these days about how multitasking, work intensification and ever-acceleration processes make us tired and sick. But so far, though, nobody seems to have found a viable way to escape acceleration – besides plugging out the internet for a couple of hours or days. Which brings us to the putative root of the problem: technology. Is it really that technology, by some mysterious mechanism, forces us to increase the speed by which we react to all sort of information?

Media-theorist Douglas Rushkoff shares some interesting thoughts on this in his recent book Present Shock. When Everything Happens Now. Usually, we tend to regard people’s widely-observed inability to resist distractions by incoming emails or twitter messages as a kind of psychological weakness: Something like grasping for sweets or nibbles instead of real food in order, bringing us the immediate satisfaction of a rising level of blood sugar. Rushkoff has a more interesting story to tell. He suggests that we should see our involvement with digital media communication as some sort of overdose – an overdose of “temporal compression”.

Here’s the story: Various media actually allow us to compress time. By itself, this is a quite useful. But compressed time is hard to digest because, upon consumption, it sort of unfolds again – like data files that are being unzipped. Too much of suddenly unzipped information, though, put stress on the cognitive system. This is why we suffer from acceleration.

That sounds too fantastic? Have a look of the details of the story. First, there is some background theory that Rushkoff has to offer. The theory is about “flow” and “storage”. “Flow” and “storage” are two modes of functioning, going along with different instruments and media. Trouble starts when “flow” and “storage” get mixed up – when media and instruments designed for flow are also used for storage, or the other way round.

An example for this is email. The email-inbox presents itself as “flow”. As Rushkoff puts it: Working our way through the inbox is “one big, unfinishable loop”. But then the storage-mode is interfering with the experience of flow. An email can contain a message as short as a Tweet, but it also can be a long and complicated task demanding our attention. Rushkoff: “It is like opening a Pandora’s box of data and responsibilities. A week of the sender’s preparation can instantaneously unfold into our present”. In case of email, there is a simple fix for the problem (at least for the sender of an email). Just separate “flow” and “storage”! Instead of enclosing all the information in the message, put it in an additional document attached to the email or, better, link to a document online somewhere else.

“Flow” and “storage” are two modes of functioning, going along with different instruments and media.

Another example, which comes more to a surprise, is money. Money also is a medium. As such, it is designed to transform “flow” into “storage” and thus enables a temporal compression of the sort which can do more harm than good in certain situations. This, indeed, is what Rushkoff is claiming: “We naturally tend to assume it [money] is equally good at flow and storage, or transactions and savings – but it’s not. That’s why injections of capital by the Federal Reserve don’t end up as widely distributed as policy makers imagine they will.” The reasoning behind this is something like this: Money in form of a central currency encourages hoarding, not spending. Other currencies than money rather encourage spending. Examples for these currencies can be found in historical economies based on direct exchange of goods or in present day local and alternative currencies such as TimeDollars. These kinds of ‘flow’ currencies, Rushkoff thinks, would help failing economies more than investment in form euros or dollar.

Whether or not one agrees with Rushkoff’s analysis in this particular case of economic reasoning: What’s interesting about his approach is that the uneasiness with the experience of everything getting faster becomes part of a larger picture. We should not only look at time-saving inventions in the literal sense or at those inventions which enhance mobility or communication when we want to come to an understanding of the “Present Shock”. Surely: Media are at the root of the problem. But it’s media in a fairly broad sense, including such media like money.

More importantly: Rushkoff shows us that rather than being forced by technology, we actually do have choices. It’s not media abstinence that he recommends, but rather using and designing media in such as we really need them. Time compression is fine. But in some cases, it’s more a bug than a feature.

Ralf Grötker