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presentism
Culture

Always present, not quite there

Sam Shaw
Right now, all around you, history is happening. In the midst of all this digital ecstasy  -  defined as an absolute identification with the present instant  - are we losing our capacity to stop, think and reflect?

Indulge now, suffer tomorrow: it’s a simple axiom that perfectly captures the constant struggle of modern life. We eat fast food. We smoke cigarettes. We shop on credit. We drink alcohol. We have sex.

And then we get fat. We get cancer and amass debts. We get hangovers. We have abortions. Our ‘now’ bias is where most of tomorrow’s problems begin.

The way we consume information is no different. Just as we evolved to stock up on fat and sugar whenever possible, we prefer sensation and fear, we like affirmation, we like entertainment and, of course, we love fluffy kittens. Our behaviour online mirrors our behaviour offline, leading to what The Economist labelled ‘cyber-hedonism’. We are drawn towards instant gratification at every opportunity.

Giving people what they want is far easier in an online environment than in a food manufacturing plant. Every website is a two-way mirror and every click, search and decision is crunched to reveal our hidden preferences. In this way, the digital economy has within it the means to constantly improve, update and optimise. It’s like eating a cheeseburger — one that tastes better with every bite. Every click brings us closer to our informational bliss point. Just look at the headlines on the can’t-look-away Mail Online (“What’s Wrong With Zooey Deschanel’s Eyelid?”). Relentless use of data, eye tracking and heat mapping made the site the world’s most successful online newspaper, outperforming both The New York Times and The Guardian.

Info addicts

We consume an average of 11 hours of information each day — more time than we spend sleeping — and it’s not just during ‘downtime’. We do it anywhere and at anytime: in the car, on the toilet, in the bedroom, even at a wedding. More than 60% of Britons own a smartphone, and Finnish researchers say we are developing new mobile habits, like smoking or nail biting. We take our phone out, unlock it, check it, lock it and then put it away — up to 150 times per day.

Everyone has experienced their families, friends or lovers becoming vacant statues, their minds darting around cyberspace, responding, searching, planning, reacting. In the technopolis, the ‘now’ overrules the ‘here’. Being hit by a car is no longer the main worry: it’s colliding with another disorientated technophile who is texting as they walk.

We make it worse by carrying smartphones that connect us to a global marketplace for attention. If the Mail Online is the McDonald’s of information, then Facebook is the Coca-Cola. Every time its billion users sign in, they’re asked to declare “what’s on their mind” to family, friends and followers. When the comments flood in, there’s intense pleasure in that affirmation.

What’s happening?

In addition to enabling us to demand attention, our smartphones also allow anyone to demand attention from us. And as we become more connected, our networks weave tighter into what sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow calls “an ecosystem of interruptive technologies”. The world crashes through our smartphones, pinging, poking and pestering us — watch this, share that, read this, do that.

This “blizzard of signs and symbols, imperatives and demands” is why life continues to feel faster, says Robert Hassan in 24/7: Time and Temporality in the Network Society. The news isn’t something we watch at ten o’clock — it’s fed to us every ten minutes on websites and RSS feeds or — on Twitter — every ten seconds.

We stay tuned as the story unfolds, with no clear sense of where it might be going — or indeed taking us. The computer games kids play today are living, breathing 24-hour worlds, driven not by a coherent narrative but by a sense of needing to keep up with everyone else. As the world moves we try to move with it; and we can’t look away for fear of missing something. The next ‘beep’ could come from anyone and mean anything. And just as the shift from analogue to digital clocks meant losing a ‘menu’ of different times in favour of one blinking set of digits, all that appears to matter in the online world is what’s happening now.

Speed over substance

Amidst this blizzard, it’s hard to truly process the data we encounter. Instead we skimread the highlights. Neuroscientists say that the brain’s ability to adapt to new stimuli — its ‘plasticity’ — is forging neural pathways to favour shallow, bite-sized chunks of information. It’s why television shows look more like connected YouTube videos; why students read abstracts of Shakespeare instead of the plays themselves, and why text messages are more popular than phone calls. The web is starting to optimise for shallowness over depth.

Once a technology becomes part of society, its ‘benefit effect’ sticks. In a hundred years’ time, cars may well be obsolete, but our desire to quickly get from point A to point B won’t go away. By the same token, Blockbuster’s demise doesn’t mean we can no longer rent films; we just do it differently.

While technologies, products and businesses die out, the desires they create within us remain. Our expectation for speed is in fact the reason your attention is waning right now. Yes, because you’re a critical reader, but also because time feels more precious than ever. We get cross if it takes 15 seconds to stream a film online, but compare this with driving to Blockbuster. Technologies foster expectations and when it’s time to upgrade our technologies — which we do every year or so — we also upgrade our expectations.

Impatience as a customer virtue

In the 21st century, the pace of everything is set by one company — Google — whose genius was in turning impatience into “a customer virtue”, according to Harvard professor Michael Schrage. One-tenth of a second was too slow for the company’s developers, so they developed Instant Search to suggest answers to users before they’d even finished typing the question. People hardly noticed, but it saved a combined 350 million hours in 2012.

As the digital world becomes enmeshed with the real world and we routinely shop, bank, communicate, research, play and entertain ourselves online, we are all running at Google’s speed. Every commodity is available and on demand. No more dating, have instant no-strings sex with someone on Grindr; forget waiting, get a loan decision in six minutes from Wonga. And forget employment contracts; join the growing number of ‘zero-hour’ workers of Britain, who are only called the morning they are needed for a job.

In the midst of all this digital ecstasy — defined as an absolute identification with the present instant — are we losing our capacity to stop, think and reflect?

Rewriting history

At the turn of the 20th century, a revolution gripped history scholars. The premise was simple: the subject should be freed from the clutches of political and military interests and used to analyse past mistakes while exploiting findings in the interests of progress.

At the same time, another media revolution would reshape history into an entertainment product.

Hollywood has spent the past hundred years plundering and processing historical events — from the Titanic disaster to Pearl Harbour and every significant world event in between — into profitable cultural products devoid of critical thought. History’s central scribe is the scriptwriter; truth and accuracy are seen as details that obscure a good story. Ordinary individuals are elevated into characters, icons and heroes, while complex sequences of reality are transformed into epic tales of heroes and villains, smoothing over history’s cracks.

A study last year asked children to read a short historical text before being shown a film from the same period. The film was riddled with bullshit. Half of what the children later recalled was what they learned from the film: bullshit. At a time when the average 13-year-old spends 30 hours in front of the TV each week, but just one hour learning history, it will come as no surprise that Mel Gibson and Braveheart have become common touchstones in the Scottish independence debate. A journalist from Vice magazine explains the “profound effect” the film had on many of his friends, who developed “a sudden, intense resentment of ‘The English’ and to this day unapologetically cite the film as an influence on their politics.”

While entertainment is harmless, edutainment is pernicious. It debases history and edits our past into something ‘enjoyable’. The mistakes and blunders; the pains of war, slavery, colonialism and oppression vanish. Instead, the past evokes deferential awe for its heroes, fashions and cultural movements. And as we compare our past’s triumphs — its brave individuals overcoming evil forces just in time for happy endings — we feel intimidated by its grandness. We become alienated from our present and all its unedited chaos.

Retromania

Meanwhile, the culture industry pours billions of dollars into finding and cultivating the next big thing. Tweenagers are plucked from YouTube and thrust in front of executives; shelves are littered with biographies of ‘icons’ who have barely hit the age of 25. It churns through subcultures at light speed, leaving nothing but a trail of exhausted potential. Hype kills the very thing it’s hyping and the pressure to recoup investments stifles cultural progress. The producers of culture are left, as cultural critic Fredric Jameson said, “with nowhere to turn to but the past.”

As each year passes, the past ferments into an ever-more potent mythology, its ephemera sliced, diced, recut and reissued into increasingly valuable cultural products. The famously billowy white dress worn by Marilyn in The Seven Year Itch can fetch $5.6m at auction. Kurt Cobain might have blown his head off with a shotgun, but can still make it as a character in the Guitar Hero franchise.

Culture-makers are upping the ante. Tupac Shakur, the rapper who was murdered in 1996, became 2012’s most talked about artist after his reincarnation as a hologram at the annual Coachella festival. At no time previously has a society been “so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past”, says Retromania author Simon Reynolds.

As the culture industries have absorbed and emptied out history, its raison d’être — learning from what went before — has been hollowed out. History is now little more than a source of rose-tinted nostalgia threatening to engulf the present: Adele, Mad Men, Daft Punk, Lomography, vinyl, The Artist, Instagram, vintage — we are all haunted by a ‘glossy mirage’ that never really was.

Insta-archive

Psychologists fear the whole world is being subsumed by a narcissism epidemic. Aggravated by social media and a ‘have-it-your-way’ upbringing, young people, best characterised by their Instagram selfies are more likely to display narcissistic traits than previous generations, while instances of NPD (narcissistic personality disorder) are on the rise more generally.

Social media became popular by transforming media production into something we can all do. With one-sixth of the world in its grip, Facebook’s emphasis on sharing and openness has managed to turn what was once a series of private choices into public decisions. We’ve become a billion bit-players of history, all authoring what founder Mark Zuckerberg calls the “story of your life”.

Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist who researches social media, says our norms for forming identity have moved online, but similarly our virtual lives have begun shaping our realities. Like the music fan recording a gig on her smartphone, her need to evidence her existence in a place and time overwhelms her lived experience. Memories become pictures and eyes become cameras. Jurgenson calls it “documentary vision”.

In her 2012 book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle describes an entire generation of teens exhausted by the “pressure for performance” on Facebook — constantly having to make decisions about how they present themselves, what they will feed the newsfeed. These kids are incapable of escaping, lest they feel invisible, forgotten or left out of the world.

As Facebook pulls more data from your life — the music you listen to, the places you visit, the products you buy (or even consider buying) — it’s taking ownership of a billion histories, and becoming the world’s most prolific historical source. Facebook has nearly 1,000 pages of information about you.

The memory business

An explosion of wearable cameras among technophiles — from Memoto’s miniature clip-on camera that takes a photograph every 30 seconds to Google’s much-hyped Glass — will usher in the dawn of the memory business and a new wave of corporate documentation.

While memories become commercial products owned by corporations (yes, Facebook owns the pictures you post, not you), personal history is undergoing the same transformation as socio-political history. Just as Hollywood edits the past to flatter the present, social media users untag themselves from photographs, delete friends and hide posts. We are no longer simply protagonists in our own lives; we have become expert biographers, scriptwriters, PR managers and editors.

Just as technology gives us the means to transform our memories into media, it also provides us with the means to recall the past. “The past is ever-present,” says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, a professor at the University of Oxford, “ready to be called up at the click of a mouse.” We consume our memories to satisfy our inertia in the present, our ‘best bits’ relived like GIFs looping endlessly before our eyes.

Swipe through our edited photographs and digital timelines and we do exactly what the culture industry did — fetishise our own (very recent) past. Instagram lends our immediate present a more authentic and soulful character, while lo-fi Lomography kids go even further, eschewing the perfection of the digital image for an imperfect analogue process. We play scratchy vinyl records and drink Coke from glass bottles, we clutter our homes with period-styled furniture that gives us ‘character’. It’s the same retro-induced fascination with farming, craft and knitting. There’s a danger, however, that as we overdose on nostalgia we risk alienation from the present.

Don’t be a hero

Influenced by Hollywood-style history lessons, we all risk wanting to play hero. We see vigilantes and technophiles organising, spurred on by a Twitter-induced ‘hero complex’ and the relentless spread of unverified rumour. The World Economic Forum warned that we all represent one of the biggest threats to security over the next decade.

The risk of social networks causing ‘digital wildfires’ is a direct manifestation of “the rapid spread of uncontrollable and destructive information”. They loom large in an instant, real-time world where news is constantly breaking and “hysteria isn’t necessarily just on high, but rather, all around us” according to Microsoft researcher danah boyd (lowercase intentional).

The internet as we know it is still less than 25 years old — about the same age radio was when Hitler exploited it to broadcast to millions in real time, and in turn mobilise many into action, obedience or resistance. I worry we may be too busy sharing the endless YouTube parodies of Downfall (the 2004 dramatic film about the final days of the Third Reich) to realise the effects of social media on the most disenfranchised and vulnerable, wherever they happen to consume their information.

Let the 2013 bombings in Boston be a warning, not of terrorism, but of technology as a mirror of our dangerous impulses in an always-on world. In the ensuing rush and panic in the immediate aftermath of the tragic event, the world turned briefly upside down: the police were being informed by the news; the news by social media; and social media by Hollywood mythology. Innocent people became part of a witch hunt as the net coalesced in real time around its own burgeoning hero complex.

In the fast-moving world where immediacy beats all, there’s a present-minded mob looking for a villain to sacrifice while the world watches on. That next villain could be you.

Sam Shaw is Head of Insight at Canvas8, a London-based agency that helps businesses to understand and plan for cultural change. For a more in-depth exploration of these concepts, read Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff. @NewIsOld. Image credit: CC Greg Neate.

60%

Of Britons own smartphones

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