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“Present Shock:” Media Theory for the 21st Century

It’s hard to keep life organized these days. Everything seems to be rushing by at 1000 miles per hour and nothing slows down. Between keeping up with work, Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, and countless other things, there is no time to just stop and take a break.

Amidst all this noise comes “Present Shock,” a book that tries to explain the insanity and give the reader a way to grasp the rapidly changing world around them. It is a breakdown of the impact of our technology laden, “always on” lives are having on our brains and our ability to function as people.

David Rushkoff, the author, describes the problem best: “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up…It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.”

At first, the premise of the book might seem like a New Age hippie rant against the modern, encouraging the reader to shun technology and return to a more basic life. The book is not the work of some quack, however. Rushkoff, is a well-respected media theorist, and his arguments are well thought out and engaging.

Rather than just rattling off a bunch of obscure statistics and studies that show how modern technology is bringing about the fall of civilization, Rushkoff takes the reader on a journey through history, breaking down trends in human society and how they have affected the people that lived then, and how things have changed today.

Throughout modern history, people have loved stories. We love them because they have a beginning, middle, and end. It is an arc that we can follow and understand easily. It is satisfying when the story is over because we have the whole picture.

That whole picture is just what we cannot get anymore. In all of our lives, Rushkoff argues, there are too many things going too fast to monitor. Every second, something new happens, and unless we are right there to see it happen, we are behind the times.

Rushkoff uses Twitter to explain this problem. With Twitter there is no stop. Updates are always happening, we can dip in briefly, but rather than getting a picture of everything when we stop in, we see just a snapshot of a constant stream that is happening even when we aren’t looking. It’s easy to want to get that whole pictures, to look at every last thing that has happened since you last looked, but it’s impossible. Twitter is always happening at a breakneck pace, and there is nothing that we can do to keep up with it without driving ourselves insane.

We are so obsessed with trying to keep up with this speeding reality, though, that we even buy technology that serves no purpose but to help us better consume the constant stream of information. Our tablets and smartphones are just windows into the chaotic flow that we check on obsessively lest we miss the something.

Ultimately, Rushkoff isn’t looking for a solution; he just wants to help the reader to understand technology’s impact on their life. That is a whole other problem, but it is also something Rushkoff says we can start to solve on our own. Just by realizing what “present shock” is and how it affects us day to day, we can start to break out of the hold it has on us.

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