Present Shock And The Fantasy Of Change

Submitted by Charles Hugh Smith from Of Two Minds

Present Shock and the Fantasy of Change

It’s remarkably easy nowadays to experience Present Shock overload. I wrote about Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now recently (Present Shock and the Loss of History and Context May 22, 2013); the book discusses the manner in which always-on digital media, communication and work flatten the natural narratives of time and context into an associative sea of free-floating information.

With history and context both disrupted, it takes a huge amount of work to maintain a context that “makes sense” of our actions and conceptual narratives. Just maintaining this coherence requires a constant investment of time and mental energy. In this sense, the constant threat of filter failure or information/task overload acts as a kind of ambient friction, draining a significant amount of time and energy from our limited resources.

When I find my worklife decohering/splintering, an internal Code Red is triggered and I go into slash-and-burn mode, reducing commitments and circling the wagons to conserve my mental energy for truly critical long-term tasks. In a way, the multiple commitments and digital distractions of modern life conspire against long-term projects and the coherent organization and investment of one’s time and energy they require.

In other words, as distractions and pressures mount, we become ever less able to focus on the truly important projects that are long-term by their very nature.

As a former builder, I often turn to building a house as an instructive analogy.

The easily distracted and constantly overwhelmed person will be unable to build a house, or even get through the design and permit stage. In a similar fashion, the person who indulges in continual instant-gratification consumption/impulse buying will never be able to save enough capital to exit wage/debt serfdom. The same mechanism sabotages long-term projects such as losing weight, improving diet, etc.

In this way, the tools that are sold as improving our productivity, connectivity and knowledge actually undermine our ability to function effectively and competently in the larger narratives and contexts of our lives.

I consider this part of a phenomenon I call the fantasy of change: on the one hand, the constant flux of disassociative, decohering digital inputs creates the illusion that we’re successfully managing change; on the other hand, these inputs sabotage our ability to manage real change in our lives.

This phenomenon also has broader cultural and economic manifestations. The flattening of history and narrative generates a distortion field around the present, persuading us it is largely impervious to disruptive change.

For example, millions of Millennials (born 1982-2004) are pursuing high-cost university educations in the belief that multiple degrees are now essential to being offered a job. Even as evidence piles up that the economy has changed in fundamental ways such that even advanced degrees no longer inoculate the owner against financial insecurity, millions of young people feel they have no choice but to indebt themselves and spend scarce family resources on a questionable-value education.

The underlying assumption here is the present will endure, and change will be marginal. The idea that the narrative of history suggests major disruptions of the status quo are cyclical and thus inevitable doesn’t register. In this case, the fantasy is that the status quo won’t change dramatically, even as it already has changed dramatically. The disassociative sea of digital data masks our awareness of real change and decoheres our efforts to assemble a coherent narrative and context for these fundamental changes in our economy and society.


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