Last week, I reviewed Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. This week, GeekDad is excited to present 5 exclusive excerpts from the book. Today, we start with a set-up from the preface to the book, and then dive into “narrative collapse”, a symptom of our modern culture letting go of the traditional narrative structure.
Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
It’s why the world’s leading search engine is evolving into a live, customized, and predictive flow of data branded “Google Now”; why email is giving way to txting, and why blogs are being super- seded by Twitter feeds. It’s why kids in school can no longer engage in linear arguments; why narrative structure collapsed into reality TV; and why we can’t engage in meaningful dialogue about last month’s books and music, much less long-term global issues. It’s why an economy once based on long-term investment and interest- bearing currency can no longer provide capital to those who plan to put it to work for future rewards. It’s why so many long for a “singularity” or a 2012 apocalypse to end linear time altogether, and throw us into a posthistoric eternal present—no matter the cost to human agency or civilization itself.
But it’s also how we find out what’s happening on the streets of Iran before CNN can assemble a camera crew. It’s what enables an unsatisfied but upwardly mobile executive to quit his job and move with his family to Vermont to make kayaks—which he thought he’d get to do only once he retired. It’s how millions of young people can choose to embody a new activism based in patient consensus instead of contentious debate. It’s what enables companies like H&M or Zara to fabricate clothes in real time, based on the instantaneous data coming from scanned tags at checkout counters five thousand miles away. It’s how a president can run for office and win by breaking from the seeming tyranny of the past and its false hope, and tell voters that “we are the thing we have been waiting for.”
Well, the waiting is over. Here we are.
If the end of the twentieth century can be characterized by futurism, the twenty-first can be defined by presentism.
Chapter 1—Narrative Collapse
Computer games offer a healthier, or at least more active, response to the collapse of narrativity confounding much of the rest of popular culture. They also offer us an inkling of how we may avert present shock altogether and instead adopt approaches that successfully re- orient us to the all-at-onceness of life today. Instead of panicking at the death of the story, players become the story and delight in acting it out in real time. The people designing the game can still communicate values if they choose to; they simply need to do it by offering choices instead of making them in advance.
This approach is applicable almost anywhere narrative is fail- ing. In the world of politics, this would mean taking the tack of the Occupiers prototyping new modes of activism—eschewing ends- justify-the-means movements and developing a normative behavior, instead. In retail, the equivalent would mean deemphasizing brand mythologies and focusing instead on what is called brand experience—the actual pathway the customer takes through the real or virtual shopping environment. It’s not about the story you tell your customer; it is about the experience you give him—the choices, immersion, and sense of autonomy. (It also means accepting transparency as a new given, and social media as the new mass communications medium, as we’ll see in chapter 4.) In medicine, it means enlisting patients in their own healing process rather than asking them to do nothing while blindly accepting the magical authority of the doctor and a pharmaceutical industry. Understanding these cultural, political, and market dynamics through the lens of gaming helps us transition from the world of passively accepted narrative to one that invites our ongoing participation.
Games point the way toward new ways of accomplishing what used to be done with stories. They may not be a cure-all, but they can successfully counteract some of the trauma we suffer when our stories come apart. Our disillusionment is offset by a new sense of participation and self-direction.
Get Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now From Amazon.com ($15.85).