Book Review: Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff


Make no mistake: We are in the present, and some say it isn't pretty. We have reached social media's critical mass. Though perhaps a noble goal in the beginning, the democratization of every unfiltered voice and opinion has flipped over to reveal an underbelly of sticky vitriol, anger, and extreme polarization. And through its pores seep a poison that is attacking our reality on all sides. Millions of reactions in the ever-elusive present, through mediums of instantaneous and global resonance, impact our ability to feel safe, honor tradition, and maintain life balance. Are we on the verge of a nuclear war after a single Tweet? Should one Facebook post alleging crime end a career before a process of law is followed? Can I truly disconnect in a world that's always on?


We haven't experienced anything like this before, and, understandably, it's uncomfortable. Some may even say traumatic, liberating, and both. Still, more studies are beginning to reveal just how much of a physical and mental toll this post-post era of feedback and noise is taking on us. In 2013, through his book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff began naming the multitude of feelings this new reality conjures. Reading his book in 2017 and 2018 (it took me a while), the theories on the impact of a digital world that he presents felt as poignant as ever. It helped to validate my very visceral responses to the constant onslaught of silent voices roaring through my phone, and it illuminated a path forward, one of increased ownership over the ways I let now-ness inhabit my body.


The book is complicated, at times abstract and esoteric. In reading it, I sensed the difficulty Rushkoff may have experienced in attempting to distill his theories into a sensible and approachable narrative. But this difficulty reflects the extreme complexity of his subject matter. Indeed, the first chapter is devoted to Narrative Collapse, the process by which the concept of “story” has been boiled down to an essence devoid of slow-building context.


But this book needs time to be processed, and it is insistent on that time, in spite of today’s rushed world. And there lies the key lesson I gleaned from it: Acknowledging the present doesn’t have to be coupled with passive surrender. We still have the faculty of choice, of curating the ways in which we let social media’s barrage affect our progress as unique individuals. We can maintain technology as a tool to help us understand the world better, but it doesn't have to be the primary vehicle through which we interact with that world. Though robots look increasingly lifelike, the magic of humanity still reigns supreme.