Present Shock and Future Consequences

by Ray Grigg

The future isn’t what it used to be. The psychological and sociological impact of rapid technological change on individuals and cultures was serious enough in the 20th century to inspire Alvin Toffler’s seminal book, Future Shock. The section headings — The Death of Permanence, Transience, Novelty, The Limits of Adaptability, Strategies for Survival — reveal the serious stresses and adjustments required to survive in a society undergoing constant upheaval and information overload.

Those, it seems, were the “good ol’ days”. The rate of change, with its immediacy and pervasive flood of information, has increased exponentially in the 21st century, to such an extent that the distance from the present to the future has essentially disappeared. The result, according to Douglas Rushkoff, in his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, is the escalation of impacts to a disorienting and debilitating new phase.

“The crises arrive from everywhere, and all at once,” contends Rushkoff. “The responses do, too.” The elimination of a lapse between the present and the future has destroyed the opportunity to explore, assess and clarify. “There’s no time for context,” Rushkoff notes, “only for crisis management.” The “very meaning behind what is happening is more elusive than ever before,” so we are left to “cobble together narratives and hunt for conclusions” using little more than sparse information and general impressions. “Welcome,” he writes, “to the world of ‘present shock’ where everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big now.”

The creation of this “one big now”, Rushkoff explains, has two principal effects. The first “is the amplification of everything that happens to be occurring at the moment”. The necessary second effect is “a diminishment of everything that isn’t.” The result is a pervasive and overpowering “presentism” in which the insistence of the moment fully occupies consciousness and displaces any opportunity to consider what we are doing, why we are doing it, and where we are going. The cultural impact is to produce a kind of collective ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which is characterized by frenetic activity,impulsivity and poor concentration. Under these circumstances, we have little sense of control or order, and no sense of future or consequence.

This is an unstable and precarious condition that induces a subliminal uneasiness and anxiety. The combination of change and presentism, together with a loss of direction, produces the feeling of unpredictability and contained panic so characteristic of our culture. Being fully engaged by the barrage of moments provides little opportunity for making choices or finding purpose. We have no awareness of future because we have to time to consider it. In the passing of flashing moments, we are vaguely aware of incredible speed, of hurtling through circumstances toward somewhere, but without a consoling sense of destination.

“Our old obsession with the pace of progress has been drowned out by the onslaught of everything that is happening right now,” explains Rushkoff. “It’s impossible even to keep up, much less to look ahead.” Consequently, “traditional stories with beginnings, middles and ends just don’t work anymore.” And this “extreme present” is not a place “conducive to building lasting movements”. It does not support a strategy of constructed progress sustained by a focused effort and guided by a consistent vision. Foresight is foreign to present shock.

Herein lies a serious problem. The environmental, social and economic challenges we face are structural, pervasive and persistent. We cannot address them when our attention is continually being usurped by the imperative of each fleeting moment. Our collective psychology, created by the growing dominance of the present, is incompatible with our situation. If Rushkoff’s analysis is correct, we have a fundamental mismatch between the way we think and the challenges we face.

Evidence supports his analysis. A chilling litany of ominous news items arrives in disturbing headlines, each garnering immense attention then quickly disappearing into the next crisis of the moment. Every extreme weather event is reported in dramatic detail, yet the increasing frequency that has been charted statistically since the 1970s still registers little warning. Ocean acidification and dead zones, industrial overfishing and massive gyres of polluting plastic are media features that are promptly followed by other reports of dying coral reefs, melting Arctic ice and rising sea levels. But even this procession of events doesn’t seem to coalesce into widespread worry. Each event seems to be individualized and isolated from the others, offering little sense of perspective. Massive species loss and habitat destruction join soil depletion, mutating diseases and the multiple stresses of a population explosion to create a parade of debilitating scenarios, yet none of this engenders public concern remotely proportional to the severity of the implications. A culture that is incapable of integrating all this information into a coherent message and acting accordingly should be gravely alarmed.

If Rushkoff is correct about present shock, the cultural malaise is not apathy or indifference but obliviousness. The individual moments of significance don’t gather into a meaningful pattern. Each dramatic instant appears and then disappears without being duly registered and evaluated. Initiative is abandoned to inadvertence. So the result is a future forfeited to whatever happens — whatever that may be.