Overweening Generalist

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rushkoff's Presentism and Further Musings on Time

Prof. George Carlin was performing on The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour - a TV show - in 1976. He told the audience about Time as a concept. He said that there is no "present" that we can say to be truly living in because just as we identify it...ZOINK!...it's gone. We've moved on to the next moment. "There's no present. Everything is in the near future, or the recent past." - copped from Sullivan's delightful biography of Carlin, 7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. The gnomish intellectuality of Carlin's POV on "presentism" notwithstanding, I do enjoy the para-Zen-like musing as a potent little philosophical riff, akin to Led Zeppelin's very simple but powerful, "Whole Lotta Love."

Both Carlin and Zep are "basic" but they rock-steady...On to my bit.

Douglas Rushkoff has produced yet another marvelous book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Because most of the libraries in my area don't yet have it, or if they do the waiting list is too long, and also because I don't have any money, I once again stood (sometimes sat) in a bookstore and did a very fast read of the whole thing, over about two hours. I will re-read it when it's less the molten hot commodity and I have more time to devote to it. Speaking of time/Time...

                                           Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff says that, within our collective historical consciousness, our technologies have landed us in "the future." Now, and for the foreseeable future, which is now. So let's start to feel freed up from thinking of book-like narratives of seeing a beginning, rising action, falling action, climax, denouement (or variations of that), because terrorism, child starvation and global warming don't have these narrative structures to them. They're not like: dictators in Europe out of hand, killing people, Hitler invades Poland, death, more stuff pushes the action, death, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, death, death, death, Victory in Europe day, death, slaughter, carpet bombing, lives stunted forever, Hitler and Eva off themselves in a bunker, death and then another dollop of mass death, "discovery" of the Death Camps, Hiroshima, death, ticker-tape parade. That sorta stuff. (In my reading outside idiot-making "school" I developed a  habit of imposing complex, intertwingling narratives-without-end...both because I find these conceptions of "history" more true-to-phenomenological "facts" although not "identical" to them, and because I simply find it far more instructive and interesting to conceive of historical narrative this way. Ya got a bettuh whaddyacall..."method"? Do me a solid and let's hear it.)

There's so much going on with our gadgets now that we're not managing time in the way that will make us more happy; we're too caught up in the modes of Industrial (and corporation's) Time and this really ought to stop. It starts with you: maintain eye contact when you're with someone you really want or need to be communicating with. Ignore the cell phone when it vibrates. The email, your text messages, scrolling for Facebook "friends" can wait. Rushkoff's one of My Guys, obviously.

Franz Boas, trained as a physicist but he then invented Modern Cultural Anthropology, traveled to live among the Inuit. Extensive immersion-within-the-field studies were essential in this new discipline, which sought to distance itself from the old anthropology: reading the latest dispatches from missionaries, spies, or pirates and making armchair proclamations about..."the" Pygmies/French/Laplanders/Maori/Turks/Yanomano, etc. Boas wrote later about "culture shock." It's something that must have been experienced countless times before by missionaries and pirates; but Boas was a true intellectual and very reflective. The utter newness of the ways "eskimos" lived, what they thought and took-for-granted as "reality" disoriented Boas; it was all too much.  His mind was blown by the experience. Culture shock became a to-be-expected in the training of cultural anthropologists.

I had the Experience when I spent three weeks in Tokyo/Kyoto/Osaka/Kathmandu. But Boas stuck it out. His students - people like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict and Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir and Zora Neal Hurston and many others developed an empirical view of "culture," and altered the idea of the Platonic One True Reality. A major aspect of cultural relativity is the observation that different peoples seem to experience Time very differently than Western Industrialized Humans, or anyone else under 24/7 electric lights/effective "grid", clocks everywhere, mass transit, schedule, schedule, schedule, metropolises, and mass communications.

Sociologist Alvin Toffler was a huge deal with he came out with his book Future Shock in 1970. This sort of shock was defined as "too much change happening in too short of a period of time," or something like that. It led to disorientation (and there was no Internet! no Twitter or Facebook or...blogs) and anxiety. It reminded me of Aldous Huxley's idea of the consciousness or nervous system on psychedelic drugs: it's as if "normal consciousness" was a garden hose with a kink in it, so the water only flows out in dribs and drabs, but on a psychedelic, the hose is unkinked and the amount of...information, perception, ideas, emotions...is overwhelming. It feels like a firehose in your brain, when what you're used to is...a dribble here and there. It can be - it will be - overwhelming. Your comfy old-sneakers whelm will be overtaken. But you knew that.

Another Net guru, Clay Shirky, coined the term "filter failure" as a sort of update on "future shock." This implies that we were all trained to acknowledge that some sort of mental "filter" or way of practicing a....mental hygiene? was part of our educations. (Was it yours?) Rushkoff, one of those that Richard Rorty would have labeled a Strong Poet, has minted some of his own terms here, the two that stick out most clearly being "digiphrenia" and "fractalnoia." On Rushkoff's blog he posted some of his favorite early reviews and media interviews, which probably flesh a lot of this out better than I've done here...

                                        George W.S. Trow

It's firehoses for everyone now, seemingly, and you don't even need LSD. Everyone is On, all the time, now, 24/7. Twittering, blogging, texting, chatting, On Demand. So where in the narrative arc of life or some current news story are we? We don't know. (I think George W. S. Trow had some amazing things to say about our lack of context - he loathed what TV had done to our sense of history, and see his short - so it won't eat up your TV-time - book Within The Context Of No Context.) And yet gadzillions of bits of information about what's "going on" is readily available. The Boston Marathon was bombed. There's a story! Now: to find out. Notice how the story plays out into the "future" (what will Unistat do with Tsarnaev?) and the "past" (was Tamerlane under the guidance of plotting, malevolent terrorist elders?). When will we "know" that this story has a climax and denouement? Answer: we will impose some sort of "ending" ourselves.

What, then, about our very real problems, like starvation and global warming? Here the story has even less of a discernible narrative arc. It looks like we can ameliorate, manage, divert, defer...the idea of the 19th century novel and our sense of historical events has broken down, aided by our extremely sophisticated communication gadgets. In his previous book, Program Or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments For The Digital Age (which is short and doesn't demand too much of your...time), Rushkoff urged us to be in our own real time, to not always be plugged in and "on," to live our lives without the imperatives of our digital gadgets, which are programmed by others, the code hidden from you. Are your gadgets using you to do what some corporations want? Or are you using your gadgets in accordance with your consciously-negotiated and present and personal values? His recent book seems to take on a far grander theme: how our sense of Time is and has been affected by technology.

The section on chronobiology was particularly interesting, and when I have more time alone, at home, to delve in it, I think I'll skip back to those bits first.

Another area of his thought I wish to study further: I confess I don't feel I've grokked in its fulness the riffs on money and capitalism and the dated Industrial Age and how we can get out of this mess. Rushkoff says we live in a "steady state real time economy" now. Maybe I'm brainwashed by the Corporations or Control, but I need tutoring on that one. He certainly seems to think he's on to something. Must...obtain...book...

One thing: why do we plan for the "future" when the banks will just steal all out retirement money anyway and any corporation we work for could not possibly care less about us? (This reminds me of the fiery, sharp, acid, and hilarious Lee Camp, reacting to the possible positive aspects of the recent news story that CEO pay has increased  1000 times since 1950 over what the worker makes. See HERE.)

At any "rate" (HA!), Time marches on and we're all wired with lots of information, to put it mildly. Do we know how to make sense of it all? We certainly have ample opportunities to panic, react with fear, paranoia, and to propagate more erroneous and just plain pernicious info outselves. Also: notice how we must always be "catching up" on the latest whatever. We've fallen behind. (Really? What are our lives about? Completing multiple "jobs" that we uncomfortably saddle ourselves with, seemingly of our own "free will"?)

Is this the "new normal"? I don't know, but I do know that the next person who says, "Well what I heard was that..." about a very recent news story will make me want to slug them in the mouth...but I won't. The OG don't swing that way. He all about Peace 'n shit. But do try to cite a source?

Rushkoff says we can make meanings of our lives filled with information by using a very powerful human tool: pattern recognition. And yet: he seems to buy the idea that we're in a post-narrative age; I tend to go along with this golden postmodern trope, but note there are enough Nuts who are angry that the rest of us won't swallow what they and only they possess: the Ultimate One True Truth. Rather, I see a radical breakdown of thousands-year-old hardcore narrative tropes. Most people are not hardcore ideologues who have one consistent POV. And Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes in his Bed Of Procrustes that people who think that intelligence is about noticing patterns that are relevant are wrong; in a complex world "intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant."

Finally, I got the idea that We have some semantic issues. I already thought that - hell I ALWAYS think that - but Rushkoff hammered more of it home. I was reminded of the great old anthropologist Weston LaBarre's term "group archosis," which he defined as "Nonsense and misinformation so ancient and pervasive as to be seemingly inextricable from our thinking." (found on p.53 of Robert Edgerton's book Sick Societies

Similarly, the world systems-theorist Immanuel Wallerstein dropped the term "unthinking" on me while I was reading his Uncertainties of Knowledge, p.104. Opposed to rethinking, unthinking as a word emphasizes that there are very deep-seated notions that, even though physical sciences have shown them to be inadequate, these notions nevertheless stay with us and lead us epistemologically astray.

Some Previous Blogspews on "Time"
History and Perception of Time: Labeling and Control
Historical Consciousness and Deep Time: A Ramble
Still Caught In Time
Five Brief Riffs On The Oddity of Time
Keeping Up To Date On Time Travel


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

More and more, modern life seems to be about deciding what to tune out. Bryan Caplan had a interesting blog post about that:


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

What do you tune out, Michael? I ignore most of TV (except for local baseball and 1-2 half hour shows). I have a presence on Facebook but I'm seldom there. I have a long commute, but I've cut back on NPR in favor of podcasts. I never watch comic book movies. I seldom know anymore what the pop hits are. I can never listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than 5-10 minutes and seldom try.

Anonymous said...

I have my own methods of deciding
what to ignore. If I can I go to the
source materials, you'd be surprised
how clear the originators explanations can be. Later adders to
have a nasty habit of using obfuscese
for some strange reason quite unfathomable.

They also tend to present things in
concretized fashion, the idea that
something might be incomplete never
seems to occur to them.

The next method is to check links
placed there by interesting people.

This gives you a web of opinion and
people and turns up interesting
things to think about.

For the sanity I avoid the media
and its phoney narratives because
anything that is important will
still be important next week/month/
year. I used to buy the Brittanica
book of the year instead of the
newspaper...: ^ ).

Someone you trust will make sure
you hear about any item you miss.

? Is there a frame ? Rushkoff is
always on the hunt for one, but he
has always seemed suspect while
remaining interesting. I know that
humans seem to need one to make a
bit of sense out of the seemingly
random mess that has always been
our surround. However it always has
been extended far beyond any
boundary and tried to explain far too much in most cases.

Trying to achieve "closure" or the
last paradigm only seems to work
until some character exposes a
Lovecraftian vista of unknown data.

I realize this is preaching to the
choir since RAW et al said most of
it better. Lee Camp can make it
seem somewhat funny.

michael said...

@Tom: Thanks for that link; I think Caplan has some ideas many of us can make use of.

I'm not on Twitter (never sent a Tweet, not yet anyway), not on FB, and I don't text. But all of "that" is hot topic with friends. It seems, to some degree, increasingly, we MUST be engaged in social media. I think maybe I've hurt myself by not being on it..but I really don't want to be "out there." A very wise friend of mine understood the aspect of disclosing info about myself that I think should be "private": "But THEY already know anyway, right?" I think she's right.

It's been about four years now: I don't know what movies are out in the theaters now. I figure that, if they're good, they'll find me; I'll find them. Stuff is easier to find now, and it seems to not really "go away." There was a time when we knew that if we didn't make it to the movie theater by 8:15, this is the LAST showing before the movie moves on. When then could we catch it? Before VCRs/DVDs/Internet/DVRs, etc: maybe in five years we'll see it on TV, with commercials. Wow.

But troubling, to me: in, say 1995 I think I entertained an idea about "personal privacy" that was not uncommon. Now that value seems quaint and nearly impossible to uphold, only 18 yrs later. And I've been paying maybe too much attention to this every step of the way. Why did we allow this to happen? Because secretly, we want to be "known"?

It's a rare time when I even recognize a current name on the pop charts. If I do recognize the name, I don't know what the music sounds like. In public I will hear what I take to be something like the "current sound" of pop, and - I know I sound like a codger - it's bloodless, perfect...it sounds like a machine composed it and recorded it.

I do not listen to AM talk radio, but I do listen to Public Radio. I listen to a lot of DVDs and I often go to the library and check out all sorts of weird music - even some current bands that I think I might like.

I do love old movies. I watch a lot of documentaries. I will go two days without even turning my cell phone on. I go a day every two or three weeks when I don't check email or read anything online. I think I am very much the Gutenberg Man that McLuhan wrote about in such fine quirky interesting luminous detail.

michael said...

@Anonymous: I like "obfuscese." I think I heard Chomsky answer an audience member's Q: How do I start to try to understand world politics? And Chomsky said you need to "triangulate." That word really stuck with me, like a magic word. You read something about some aspect of something you want to know more about. You look at the lingo, the special words and how they're used. Then you read about your topic from some other angle. Then another angle. Then you start to get all kinds of ideas, and you follow up on them.

The idea of the original source has always stuck with me. The source of the Nile: must find, hacking through jungle with machete, gun and camera.

When I get to Ur-like sources, I look at the social intellectual networks the thinker worked within, and the assumptions about "reality" from that epoch.

It never ends. Nor do I want it to. I want to know everything, but I can't, so I choose a measly 873 topics to constantly pursue, mostly because they're so compelling and fun. If we have enough interests, we find the tendrils from one area are deeply wrapped around a few other areas, in ways we never would have guessed when we started out.

What a geek I am, but I find it all a complete thrill. I'm never bored. If only I could get PAID for this!

I think you have something with Rushkoff and framing and nailing the Final paradigm. There's something very earnest about Rushkoff that I find endearing. RAW told me offhandedly that Rushkoff didn't understand his ideas about "belief" and especially science. The Maybe Logic guys had interviewed Rushkoff about his friend RAW and Rushkoff seemed sorta bothered that RAW didn't "believe anything." RAW said off-handedly that either Doug didn't read The New Inquisition or he didn't understand it.

Not long after I went to reading/book signing Rushkoff gave in Hollywood for his Nothing Sacred book, and had him sign my new copy. I said I'd just spent some time with Bob and he said that you need to read The New Inquisition. He looked at me like he was suddenly afraid of me. It was odd.

Hell, maybe I am sorta scary?

Anonymous said...

Of course you are scary, if you're
not scary you're not doing it right.
I have found that most people who
find others frightening do so for all
the wrong reasons. Just because you
can consider a large range of actions
does not mean you are going to act
them out.

The reason generalists exist is to
bootstrap a failed society group back
to some semblance of civilization
after the crash. If the crash does
not come we still have been busy
at sifting out what is useful from
the endless flow of human weirdness
as it goes by.

I'm currently re-reading Pandoras
Legions from Baen Books free library (internet ebook), humour
being in short supply on serious
subjects it's worth a look.

Igor said...

I don't have anything to add to the discussion at the present moment, but I very much enjoyed the read. Time is a fun subject to dissect.

michael said...

@Anonymous: the role of bootstrapping for civ interests me greatly. I like the way you put it; but we need more of us?

I haven't read Christopher Anvil/Harry Crosby yet. Looks like I'm delinquent!

michael said...

@Igor: Thanks for the cool vibes. When I started the OG I didn't know how interested in Time I was; it just sorta bubbled out of me. And I feel like I haven' even made a dent yet.

If you've written something on the subject, please feel free to drop a link here at the OG!

Eric Wagner said...

Great post. Rushkoff appeared on Colbert last night...or "Now" if everything seems Now now.

Happy Pynchonmas.

michael said...

Oh wow I missed Rushkoff on Colbert. But we're in that Day and Age: I'll find it.

I'm not sure about Rushkoff's framing of permanent "future now" but I dig it as a rhetorical ploy; it works, it sounds great and has a rhythm I can dance to. I give it a 9.

I had forgotten about Pynchon's birthday, but the on the night of the 4th I got into a heady discussion about TP with someone at a raucous birthday party. I said he's living my ideal life: a fantastic and famous writer and yet unknown: he's not noticed everywhere he goes. The idea of "celebrity" and strangers constantly spotting you on the street and wanting to "know" you or touch you or take your picture or follow you around 'cuz they done seen ya on the teevee...just seems totally nightmarish to me. I would not - unlike most Murrrkins, apparently - want to be a "celebrity."

Now THAT got some people talkin'!

Eric Wagner said...

I enjoyed Rushkoff on Colbert. Poet Robert Pinksky had a great surprise cameo on the same episode with a Prom-posal poem.