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Editorial: Beware digiphrenia (not to mention fractalnoia)

Did you see the Colbert show interview the other night with author Douglas Rushkoff about his new book Present Shock? We were re-watching it on the internet at work just now when – hold on, just got a text – where were we? Oh yes, right: when Rushkoff was explaining the meaning of his subtitle, When Everything Happens Now.

“We end up living in this kind of perpetual state of interruptive emergencies that used to be endured only by 911 operators or air traffic controllers,” Rushkoff said. To which Stephen Colbert responded by asking him to pose for a smartphone picture he could Tweet to a friend.

“That didn’t take us out of the moment, did it?” Rushkoff said, laughing.

“I’m no longer following what you said,” answered Colbert.

Behind the banter is a thought-provoking book about changes affecting the way so many of us live. Rushkoff is a media theorist who has been writing for years about the transformational effects of the internet and personal technology. The title of his new book is a play on Future Shock, Alvin Toffler’s prescient 1970 warning of the day when change would come so fast we couldn’t keep up with it.

That future, Rushkoff writes, is now. In fact, he says, everything is now.

The notion of narratives in life – with beginnings, middles and ends – is behind us, in Rushkoff’s view. Consider The Simpsons, trapped in a TV moment for decades now as only the pop culture references around them change. Or Game of Thrones, the red-hot HBO series about a mythical medieval land that is leading . . . nowhere, really, beyond another show the next Sunday night. (Or any other “now,” if you stream it.)

More fundamentally, Rushkoff writes, this leads to a society with no sense of direction, no shared goals or vision for a better future. Even so, we expect immediate results from our political leaders, no matter how complex the problems they face. It’s all about the moment.

Rushkoff has a clever way of naming the consequences of this emerging reality. There’s digiphrenia, the technology-enabled state of being in more than one place at the same time. (Think kids at one party texting their friends to find a better one.) Or overwinding: “trying to squish huge timescales into much smaller ones.” (Black Friday, Rushkoff says, when a year’s worth of shopping is compressed in a stampede’s moment.) And fractalnoia: attempting to make sense of the world only in the present tense.

Rushkoff is more analytical than alarmist, and he suggests we can all do our part to counter-balance these dynamics. Making technology fit human needs, rather than the other way around, is all-important, Rushkoff told Colbert. When Facebook “friends” you’ve spent decades getting away from distract you from face-to-face interactions with in-the-flesh friends, Rushkoff said, that’s a problem.

“What if all of that human history was just to kill time until the iPhone got here?” Colbert said. “My iPhone can entertain me in the men’s room. This is my friend.”

To which Rushkoff laughed, as did the studio audience and all the viewers at home. It was a good joke, to be sure. But really, the argument Rushkoff makes deserves our serious – and lasting – attention.

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