Transcript for Douglas Rushkoff on "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now"

Jim Fleming: You ever feel overwhelmed by all the digital technology that's entered our lives? Feel pressured to keep up with your e-mail and Facebook posts? You're not alone. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff says this technology has changed our relationship to time, and we're having trouble adapting to it. Steve Paulson talks with Rushkoff about his new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now".

Steve Paulson: Doug, the title of your book "Present Shock" is a reference to Alvin Toffler's 1970 book "Future Shock". What's the difference between "Future Shock" and "Present Shock"?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I guess in some sense, maybe the sensation might be similar. The real difference is that the future that Alvin Toffler was describing, that we were moving towards, is here with us now. So, while Toffler was really warning us, really, to orient toward a world that was changing ever more rapidly, to basically be able to adjust to change itself. I'm arguing that that change has happend. That if anything, you know, as we passed from the '90s to the 21st century, we became less of a society that was just obsessed with the future and what's next, and what's happening, what's the next big thing, where is it all going? And we became a society thatwas very much in the moment, in a kind of a always-on, real-time, hyperconnected moment. So our focus really becomes less about "how do we adjust to change" to something much more like "how do we adjust to living in a world where everything is happening seemingly at the same time?"

Paulson: Hmm. Well you break this idea of Presentism down into five big areas and well, let's talk about those. One you call "digiphrenia." What is this?

Rushkoff: Digiphrenia is interesting and it kind of comes out of that video game sensibility. I mean, the beauty of video games is that, instead of watching some other character go through a story, you're the one going through the story. You know, you're the one making the choices in real-time, and you move from choice to choice to choice to choice rather than watching these canned choices. It's the sense of agency, but you know, the digital environment very often makes it seem like you don't even have to choose. You don't have to choose between this and that. You can choose both, and we're doing so many things online where we're choosing both that we've ended up with multiple instances, multiple incarnations of ourself, kind of running simultaneously on all these different platforms, and it's very hard to live with more than one you. You know, digital technology is great for copying things, but human beings don't copy so well. So there's you on Twitter that maybe someone's commenting on somthing that you did, there's you in your inbox that's filling up with messages that are waiting for responses, there's you on Facebook who might be being used to advertise a product you never even heard of while you're asleep, you know, and you'll wake up that you've been in these sponsored stories. So, how do you deal with all of these different "you"s running around simultaneously? That's sort of this digiphrenia or this digital confusion.

Paulson: So basically, you're saying that's it's enough to make you a little crazy. There's almost like this split personality here because we're tending to so many different digital personae.

Rushkoff: Right, and even if your personality is not split, your digital personalities are split and your single personality's gonna have to deal with all of them. I got the idea for the digiphrenia chapter when I was in the lobby of a hotel in Berlin. I kept trying to log into my Google calender to see if I could do one talk at the same time as another talk. Whether I'd be able to get from one to the other in time, and each place I went I could log in until I finally got WiFi and I'm in this lobby and I get this message back from Google that they locked me out of my calender because they said that I was trying to log in from too many places at once. Right? So Google Calender didn't believe that I was a human being. They didn't believe that one human could be in all those places at once, and that, to me, seemed to be the essence of, you know, the problem we have with digital culture. It's not this idea of information overload and all these people have all these problems with digital technology, and this, I promise you, "Present Shock" is not one of these books that's just whining and hand-wringing about the problems of digitality, but what I do get concerned about is our readiness to really, to put our human lives into digital time-frames. You know, digital technologies really don't understand time. They live outside time. They're just sequences. You know, your Twitter feed is not in real-time. It's just trying to catch up with you. Just because people are sending e-mails out to you doesn't mean that now you have to respond in real-time to them. Right? The beauty of digital technology was that it waited. You know that the early conversations that we used to have on the bulletin boards? We were all so smart because we had all the time in the world to respond to these things. We sounded smarter online than we did in real life.

Paulson: Right. The irony, of course, is that this was supposed to make our life better, was supposed to make it easier, and it seems like it just makes us feel crazier.

Rushkoff: Right, and that's because, and I mean, not to get leftist on your or anything but I really do believe it's because instead of using digital technology kind of for slack, which is what we saw it as, right, we're all going to be able to work from home in our underwear anytime we want, you know, because we'll get our work done and turn it in as it's ready rather than going to work for this eight hours a day and being always on while we're there, what we ended up doing instead was kind of taking the "Time is Money" efficiency values of the industrial age and translating them onto the digital age, where digital technology really, if we're going to embrace it the way we can, it's about really liberating ourselves from these obsolete industrial age priorities and embracing a totally different, really, way of working, and a much more peer-to-peer fashion where we create value and sell it directly to one another rather than going in and having these, now sort-of 9-to-5 jobs that are really just a relic of the first factories of the 1300s.

Paulson: Now another aspect of this Presentism that we've been talking about is what you call "overwinding." What do you mean by "overwinding"?

Rushkoff: Yeah, it's funny. I got the idea for overwinding when I was rereading Steward Brand's great book "The Clock of the Long Now" in order to write this one. What he argues in there is that we need to think in these great sort-of 10,000-year timespans.

Paulson: And this is sort-of following-up on an actual clock that is being built, or maybe has been built, that will last 10,000 years.

Rushkoff: Right. I'll be interested to see if they actually finish the actual clock. I guess there's enough money that went into it. To me it was just as valuable as a thought experiment, really. What would it be like, to build this thing? What would it mean? The most important thing is that people, he wants us to think in these 10,000-year spans rather than just, you know, next year or even next century. What is the impact of this over 10,000 years? And I was trying to do that, you know, and I had this plastic water bottle, I was about to get on a plane, and I didn't see a recycle bin. There was just a trash can there, and I'm like, "Do I just throw it out?" you know, "Is it gonna be 10,000 years?" and I realized it wasn't feeling like a "long now" to me. It was feeling more like a "short forever", and that's where I got the idea of overwinding where, in a Presentist society, in an always-on, sort-of micromanaged society it's very tempting to try to compress these really long timescales into really short periods of time. So you'll see examples of that, say, on the stock market where people don't buy in order to invest in the future of a company. They buy in order to make on the trade, right? So people buy Facebook in the morning and they're made five minutes later that it hasn't gone up and they go sell it, and people who aren't satisfied with that, you know, they end up buying derivatives on stocks, which are really just a way to buy the future stock now, or they buy a derivative on the derivative.

Paulson: So are there solutions here? I mean, one of the things that you talk about is what you call "spring loading". What's that?

Rushkoff: Well, spring loading would be a positive way of looking at winding, saying "Okay, we can do time compression, but let's do it consciously and willfully rather than just as a way of trying to beat the clock," or "Let's at least apply it to areas where timing is necessary." So there's a hospital in Israel. They wanted to be able to sort-of have a hospital in a box that you could just pop on a soccer field somewhere and it would just kind of expand. So what they do is that they take a whole lot of time that they put in to preparation. "Okay, what if we're going to have a OBGYN clinic and we're going to have a disease thing and a virus control and something for refugees and starvation?" You know, they work out the whole thing and they actually do pop it in these crates and they stick it on a cargo plane and they sit and wait, and when the Haiti earthquake happened and when the Japanese tsunami happened, Israel sent over this plane, they popped this thing out on parachutes and the doctors and nurses land on a different plane, and in hours they have a giant, working hospital. Now, the hospital they put in Haiti was better than any local Haiti hospital, and they just dealt with such high volumes of people, and that's the sort-of really positive way of looking at time. How you can compress something and then explode it out.

Paulson: Well it raises questions, fascinating questions about what we mean by "real-time." There was the traditional sense of real-time of you know, it was kind of what we would do with our physical body, you know, not dealing with any kind of digital technologies, and yet, real-time has, I think, has taken on and entirely different meaning now.

Rushkoff: Oh, it has. Real-time means this sort-of always-on Twitter feed. "Oh, that's real-time." Of course that's not real-time. That's five minutes ago, ten minutes ago, ten seconds ago. It's still not you in real, in real-real-time. The Greeks actually understood this, way back when, even with the sundial or whatever they had. They had two different words for time. You know, there was they typical one, chronos, which means "time of the clock." Like it's 4:01, and they had this other word, kairos, which meant "timing," and "timing" was more about your readiness, or the appropriateness. "Timing" was what only humans could really understand. It's like, I crashed the car at 4:01, but what's the best time to tell dad that I crashed the car? You know, is that 5:01? No! It's timing. You know, that's after he's had his drink and before he opens the bills, right? It's much more subtle, and the more and more time you spend aware of timing and being ready, the more you being to connect with all of these cycles that, you know, you could call them New-Age but they're actually real. You know, when you ask my how I work, I work according to the moon. You know, I became aware of Irving Dardick, this Olympic trainer who was getting all these great results by sort-of matching peoples' workout routines to lunar cycles and looking at different weeks at different tides, and it also affects your body's chemistry differently.

Paulson: How do you do this? You work according to the lunar cycle?

Rushkoff: Yeah, believe it or not, because what new research is showing, I mean you can see it in the book or- there's a bunch of places: is a good place to look at this stuff, or go to Irving Dardik's Superwave site. So this is edge science, if you will. So it's the kind of thing that, you know, you do a little experimentation on yourself and see what works and what doesn't. What I found out from them was that over a 28-day lunar cycle, there's sort-of four main weeks. 28 days is four seven-day weeks, and in each week a different neurotransmitter seems to dominate our brain chemistry. The first week is acetylcholine, the second week is serotonin, the third week is dopamine, and the last week is norepinephrine. So if you know that, you go "Oh my God, it's not just me, but everyone is on acetylcholine this week. That means they're going to have good energy, they're going to be peppy, it's going to be great for introducing them to new ideas." Serotonin week, everyone is going to have a lot of energy to work, you know, everyone is going to be very productive, so that's when I do my writing. I don't even worry about the next week. Dopamine week? You're not going to get anything done dopamine week, that's when you're going to go ski and party and go nuts, right? And the final week, norepinephrine, that's the fight-or-flight neurotransmitter, so that's putting everybody in a very sort-of analytic, structural, sort-of Barack Obama mindset, you know. That's where to organize my calender, that's when to organize the chapters of my book. So when I did that I stopped thinking of dopamine week which did turn out to come up every month as writer's block. That's not what it is, it's something else. This is the time when I'm going to enjoy people and have my parties and do crazy stuff, you know, and then when I looked at it that way, you know, I just did it, my efficiency, in terms of words, my wordcount went up about 40%. Paulson: Really? Rushkoff: Yeah. When I worked, really, according to these sort-of underlying biological clocks, and this stuff, which we look at as folklore now, you gotta remember, we looked at jet lag as folklore and old wives' tales until it was majorly-- Baseball managers started to realize their pitchers did way better when they traveled from the East Coast to the West than when they traveled from the West Coast to the East and it didn’t make sense until they really came to understand how biological clocks worked how our relationship to our melatonin in the sun and there's all these other cycles. That’s what keeps people alive and in time and you know when we ride rough shot over either with shift work, trying to always be on trying, to have the same responses in the second week of a cycle of the third or the fourth ,that we’re always the same, and you can push over it if you’re a professional. You can do your show every day but if you become aware of it you can realize, “Oh my shows this week are gonna be more like this and my shows that week are gonna be more like that you can really schedule you know an actually challenging one.

Paulson: You’re giving me whole new ideas on how to produce radio here.

Rushkoff: It’s true, and then put the music stars and those folks on dopamine week, you know, you can play a tune and do all that. It really does work.

Fleming: Douglas Rushkoff is the author of “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."  He spoke with Steve Paulson. You feel like you’re living in present shock? Perhaps we should start an online support group called Digiphrenics Anonymous. Or maybe that would only make things worse. Anyways we’d love to hear from you. You can send us email through our website at You’ll also find links to our Facebook and Twitter accounts there.

Comments for this interview

Migration to EMV chip and (Hodoolan, 08/20/2014 - 3:20am)

Migration to EMV chip and personal identification number (PIN) for face-to-face card transactions in Europe is nearly completed. Following are the most important factors underlying innovation.

Enjoyed this segment (LR, 05/29/2013 - 10:35am)

I enjoyed this segment and TTBOOK is one of my favorite shows on NPR. The snark in the initial comment is disappointing, but I'm learning it's to be expected in online discussions. I think it's useful to accept that I won't like everything I hear on NPR and to hold the belief that it's good to listen to various opinions and explore my own boundaries and assumptions.

I really don't expect this show to be a hard grinding fact finding interview show. Instead I enjoy the TED like environment of simply presenting ideas. I did additional research after this show and will explore some ideas further on my own. If I come to disagree with things I have heard, I can't imagine I will want to discredit (or shame) Steve, his guests or the show in retribution for presenting ideas I don't fall into line with. I might however try to find a civil way to counter.

On a personal preference note, I do wish we could do away with the idea that others need to be shamed when they say something that runs contrary to our own perspectives and values. This is about power and dominance, and it does not have a place in civil discussion. In following the thread, I see defensiveness not movement or listening.

More Disappointed Than Ignorant (RF, 05/17/2013 - 1:51pm)

@Mark: You are out in the open about what you do and believe. I have no complaints with you and your business (I just don't agree with you on just about all of what you do). In my view, you were badly served by Mr. Rushkoff. He could have used a better, and more accurate, term to describe what is done on the sites he discussed.

My disappointment is with Steve and TTBOOK. Many times there will be a soft-pitch interview, but at least there is one time where a question is asked that is contrary. Something along the lines of, "What about people who say [opposite of the guest's point of view]?" This reflects some thoughtfulness and, if the point is well made, thoroughness on the part of the interviewer. This did not happen in this piece, and that's a pity. I'm disappointed in Steve and the TTBOOK editorial team. Mr. Rushkoff is there to make his point and sell his book. It's not his fault.

I never expect to always agree with the views I hear on TTBOOK. I listen to the program because I expect to hear things that are new to me and things that challenge my thinking. I feel the interview did exactly the opposite; and that is why this piece is not among the best of "To the Best of Our Knowledge."

Go in peace, Mark: you are not the problem I had with this episode.

thank you (LH, 05/16/2013 - 2:27pm)

I enjoyed this piece immensely. Our relationship to and our perception of time factors heavily in determining the quality of our human experience. Very interesting to explore how new technology is impacting this experience & how new research is giving us more options. Thank you.

RF Ignoramus (Mark Filippi, 05/16/2013 - 12:49am)

RF -

What does my site hide exactly? And as far as cutting edge science, I think you'd have to sit down and write me a list of people more cutting edge than the people who contributed to http://www.somaspace(dot)org/2010contributorbios(dot)html

Are they all on your approved list? Not a chance. Dardik was there for one. I'm sure you'll have issues with the stuff from HeartMath too...and Tom Myers and Karl Pribram...pack of radicals.

Maybe you'd like the ones who hang out at the Snowflake Conferences I've attended since 1997...

I'd be happy to let Steve ask me about them and anything else he wants vetted...

Anytime RF, MRF 05.16