This quest for digital omniscience, though understandable, is self-defeating. Most of the information we get at lightning speed is so temporal as to be stale by the time it reaches us. We scramble over the buttons of the car radio in an effort to get to the right station at the right minute-after-the-hour for the traffic report. Yet the report itself warns us to avoid jams that have long since been cleared, while telling us nothing about the one in which we’re currently stuck—one they’ll find out about only if we ourselves call it in to their special number. The irony is that while we’re busily trying to keep up with all this information, the information is trying and failing to keep up with us.
Meanwhile, the extraordinary measures we take to stay abreast of each minuscule change to the data stream end up magnifying the relative importance of these blips to the real scheme of things. Investors trade, politicians respond, and friends judge based on the micromovements of virtual needles. By dividing our attention be- tween our digital extensions, we sacrifice our connection to the truer present in which we are living. The tension between the faux present of digital bombardment and the true now of a coherently living human generates the second kind of present shock, what we’re calling digiphrenia—digi for “digital,” and phrenia for “dissordered condition of mental activity.”
This doesn’t mean we should ignore this digitally mediated reality altogether. For just as we found healthier responses to the fall of narrative than panic and rage, there are ways to engage with digital information that don’t necessarily dissect our consciousness into discrete bits right along with it. Instead of succumbing to the schizophrenic cacophony of divided attention and temporal disconnection, we can program our machines to conform to the pace of our operations, be they our personal rhythms or the cycles of our organizations and business sectors. Computers don’t suffer present shock, people do. For we are the only ones living in time.
If the clockwork universe equated the human body with the mechanics of the clock, the digital universe now equates human consciousness with the processing of the computer. We joke that things don’t compute, that we need a reboot, or that our memory has been wiped. In nature, our activities were regulated by the turning of the Earth. While the central clock tower may have coordinated human activity from above, in a digital network this control is distributed—or at least it seems that way. We each have our own computer or device onto which we install our choice of software (if we’re lucky), and then use or respond to it individually. The extent to which our devices are conforming to external direction and synchronization, for the most part remains a mystery to us, and the effect feels less like top-down coordination than personalized, decentralized programs.
The analog clock imitated the circularity of the day, but digital timekeeping has no arms, no circles, no moving parts. It is a number, stationary in time. It just is. The tribal community lived in the totality of circular time; the farmers of God’s universe understood be- fore and after; workers of the clockwork universe lived by the tick; and we creatures of the digital era must relate to the pulse. Digital time does not flow; it flicks. Like any binary, discrete decision, it is either here or there. In contrast to our experience of the passing of time, digital time is always in the now, or in no time. It is still. Poised.
I remember when I was just ten years old, how I used to stare at my first digital clock. It had no LED, but rather worked a bit like a train terminal’s board, with a new number flipping down into place every minute. I would wait and count, trying and failing to anticipate the click of the next number flipping down—each time being surprised by its suddenness in a micromoment of present shock. My dad’s old alarm clock required him to wind it up each night, and then to twirl a second winder for the alarm. Over the course of the day, the potential energy he wound into the device slowly expressed itself in the kinetic energy of the motion of the arms and bell hammer. My digital clock just sat there, interrupting itself each minute only to sit there again. Its entire account of the minute 7:43 was the same. Digital time is not some portion of the circular day; it is an independent duration.
In the digital universe, our personal history and its sense of narrative is succeeded by our social networking profile—a snapshot of the current moment. The information itself—our social graph of friends and likes—is a product being sold to market researchers in order to better predict and guide our futures. Using past data to steer the future, however, ends up negating the present. The futile quest for omniscience we looked at earlier in this chapter encourages us, particularly businesses, to seek ever more fresh and up-to-the-minute samples, as if this will render the present coherent to us. But we are really just chasing after what has already happened and ignoring whatever is going on now. Similarly, as individuals, our efforts to keep up with the latest Tweet or update do not connect us to the present moment, but ensure that we are remaining focused on what just happened somewhere else. We guide ourselves and our businesses as if steering a car by watching a slide show in the rear- view mirror. This is the disjointed, misapplied effort of digiphrenia.
Yet instead of literally coming to our senses, we change our value system to support the premises under which we are operating, abstracting our experience one step further from terra firma. The physical production of the factory worker gives way to the mental production of the computer user. Instead of measuring progress in acres of terri- tory or the height of skyscrapers, we do it in terabytes of data, whose value is dependent on increasingly smaller units of time-stamped freshness.
Time itself becomes just another form of information—another commodity—to be processed.
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