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⌚ The present time

Let's take a deep breath and remember what reclaiming the web is all about: augmenting our ability to think freely for ourselves; creating time; and extending our ability to cooperate. There's no-one better than Douglas Rushkoff to present the second part of this for us: creating time.

The presentation is summarized extensively below for those who apparently "don't have the time", and Rushkoff will show you how this attitude is a shortsighted way to live life which reveals basically everything wrong with the way we currently use the internet.

Brief

"Slackers were a people of the early and mid-1980's who wanted to create more time to have fun and read and think [...] The net looked like this great way to create time. We were all gonna get to work at home, in our underwear, in our own time, and exchange and transact directly in some kind of an Etsy, Burning Man-like rave of culture and intellect. But something else happened on the way home from Wired magazine, which is that the internet instead became the poster child for the dying Nasdaq stock exchange and, as I see it, the dying industrial age economy. So, instead of using the net to create more time for people, we turned human attention into the next commodity."

  • In the extractive perspective of corporate capitalism, human attention is an untapped resource. We were only spending 8 hours a day working and 2 hours consuming, so why not encourage us to spend 48-hours a day working, consuming, and socializing? This is possible if we break up our attention into four parallel tracks - all in the pursuit of "mining time".

"Instead of getting an internet which gave us more time to think; instead of getting an internet that worked not like a phone, but a properly asynchronous technology that would sit and wait until we were ready to deal with it; instead of having sequential conferences on bulletin boards like The Well where you would take hours to craft a response to something, we ended up with a digital space where we were constantly being interrupted [...] We end up in this state of constant emergency interruption which I don't think is healthy neurologically or culturally."

  • What Rushkoff is exploring is whether the digital media environment is genuinely asynchronous. Here is the ultimate argument for "bad blockchain UX". Maybe this is really our opportunity to build properly asynchronous experiences and train people to work and create in their own time, rather than something to be papered over as best we can with solutions that compromise the inherent properties of the protocols on which they build?

"Are we moving into a political landscape where we no longer have 'ends-justify-the-means', goal-orientated, future-based campaigns, but rather some kind of a presentist, process-orientated, consensus-building politic; more embodied by something like Occupy than it is by a two-party ideological debate?"

  • This was said in 2013, and has turned out not to be true. Yet. It is still a powerful question, the answer to which depends on whether you think the current political climate is a trend, or a temporary reaction against the trend.

"Finally, are the folks who should be helping us think about this instead just taking a very 20th-Century, almost Biblical, template and superimposing it on this presentist world we're living in? In other words, are they so intolerant of a world that doesn't have a defined conclusion; which doesn't have a goal; in which we're not leading towards some climax, that they overlay this bizarre notion of a singularity?"

  • Rushkoff went on to extend these ideas in Team Human, which is another fantastic read for any budding media theorist. His voice is a critical counterpoint to SV singularity worship.

"The book is a humanist work, and I'm declaring myself with Jaron Lanier and other humanists. I do believe there is something special about people that we don't quite understand and that our efforts to upload ourselves or simulate our realities will fall short of what it actually is to be human. Our best defense against present shock is to be in the genuine present."

  • This is a spiritual statement, and it may seem that the ultimate end of both Rushkoff's work and "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and all the 'bizarre singularity stuff' is one and the same. However, there is a critical difference: Rushkoff is saying we, us messy human beings, have to find our own way into the genuine present. Kurzweil is saying that the machines will do it for us. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle?

Conspiring against the actual OS

"It does require still being together, looking another person in the eye, learning how to breathe together. Conspire: literally, 'breathe together'. It requires us to see how human environments empower us against abstract entities which depend on our isolation and alienation [...] This local, body-based sensibility is the thing which can bring us to understand the kinds of time that can't be measure on a clock or a calendar or a computer. The underlying human rhythms."

  • This is followed by a question about where exactly between Kurzweil and Lanier we can locate Rushkoff's ideas, to which he replies:

"I love digital technology, I just think we're misapplying it when we use it to amplify the obsolete agenda of a 13th Century economic operating system. There was an emerging, peer-to-peer economic landscape in the 11th and 12th Centuries in Europe, through which people were developing local currencies and trading in local bazaars, and we had the rise of a middle class like we've never seen in history."

  • The feudal lords were not included in this wealth creation, so they made it illegal through charter monopolies. Therefore, instead of creating, we had to get jobs. Instead of being paid for what we made, we got paid for the time we worked. It was a temporal shift. The invention of the clock and a specific kind of sovereign currency are co-incidental, not coincidence. This works as long as the economy expands, because more money must be paid back than is lent out - a feature which led to the perverse growth mindset we still suffer from today.

  • Critically, new kinds of economic systems, if engineered well, could free us from industrial-age clocks and allow us to adopt a different kind of temporal landscape, which means a different kind of money and transaction that is "much more real-time based, rather than being biased to storage and saving over time, or both." We know from Andreas that engineering both is an actual possibility currently underway.

"We could have transactions that are earned into existence."

  • It's bold because it's important. Peer-to-peer, electronic payment systems are not about debt vs ownership. They are about earnings based on time vs earnings based on creativity.
💡 Take a moment to reflect on this statement.

"The problem with technologists who disrupt any given industry is that, once they've done that, they go back to Goldman and ask for a Series B. They're not willing to undermine the operating system that they're sitting on top of [...] What I want them to do is break that OS, or challenge it, or come up with an alternative. Why do you need to go back to corporate capital and put the clock back into businesses that weren't on it!?"

  • This moves into a discussion about old industries being disrupted by networked services which didn't even intend to do so. Rushkoff argues that many internet-age services - like Pandora - are locally disruptive, but then turn to the NYSE to get funded and so fail to challenge the real paradigm they ought to be disrupting.

Media Environments

"I don't mean peer-to-peer sharing of Sony music. I mean peer-to-peer sharing of music that we make. This would create a different kind of social marketplace that would allow music - not to get New Age - to retrieve some of its sacred value as opposed to its monetary value. And why is it OK that it retrieves some sacred value? Because it turns out that we don't really need everybody making money, because we don't really need to get to full employment, because we don't all really need jobs, because we have more than enough stuff already."

  • This is also critical: jobs are not the problem. I don't want a job - I want my basic needs fulfilled and a degree of comfort and security which will enable me to make a meaningful contribution. Jobs are an artifact of the industrial age and a certain way of existing in time.

"What I am looking at in Present Shock is what McLuhan called the difference in media environments created by different technologies. The invention of text is what put us in time to begin with. With text, we got accountability [...] With text we got a religion that was based on accountability: it was a covenant, a contract with God [...] We get moschiach, we get messiah, we get the calendar, we get the past and future, we get laws, we get sabbath. With the clock, we get the industrial age, we get efficiency [...] we get interest-based currency and the idea of trying to do more in less. We get a time-is-money, efficiency-based culture."

  • Time is not money. Time is time, and making money into an open protocol that anyone can access gives us the opportunity to free value from its dependence on transient expression. Rushkoff describes the move from a sweeping second hand to a digital clock, with the effect it had on our media environment. It replaced story cycles with sequential movement. In a world of remote controls and DVRs and asynchronous behaviour, the great narrative arcs which have held culture together until now no longer function.

"We don't care if Homer gets out the power plant before it blows up; we care about what scene is being satired, what connections we can make, how this is going meta on that and then meta on this and so on [...] It's a very different, presentist approach to problems where we move through media much more like a video game: in real-time, first-person, choice to choice."

  • The conversation moves into a description of "presentist" narratives and the further breaking down of this single crisis-climax-sleep, hero's journey arc typical of Western culture into something more like a role-playing video game, where we

"Uncover reality, rather than move through a singular narrative [...] It ends up much more fractal! It turns out we don't have to have an end to reality."

Questions?

  • At 43 minutes, we move into the Q&A section. The first question asks if this is a novel problem because, for instance, Buddhism can be seen as a system for dealing with present shock and pulling you deeply into the now. To which Rushkoff answers:

"The problem has been around forever, but the form of distraction from the present changes."

  • He describes chronos (clock time) and kairos (human time, timing). Each invention - text, the clock, digital technology - takes us out of kairos and into chronos and, in each case, the answer is the same: to fall back into the present and to be here now. But the trick to being here now in an industrial era is different than the trick to being here now in a digital era.

  • The second question is about using technology to enhance creativity.

"We all know two kids with a laptop can create an application that changes the world. The problem is: how do you help them see that the first thing to do after they get some success and traction is not to sell it to people who will use it against it's original purposes [...] That is: it's OK to have a business which 'just' supports its employees and users."

  • A question about cultural preservation comes next, not relevant to this brief. Then a question about our inability to be totally locally reliant - i.e. you cannot make your phone yourself, you rely on a complex global supply chain. Rushkoff acknowledges this and replies:

"Hopefully, we'll get complex technological goods from a complex global economy, and food & human goods from a local economy. Which means we'll need more than one kind of currency."

  • Why does the currency matter so much?

"If you're using a bank-issued currency, then it has to be loaned into existence and requires payback. Also, if you're using a centrally-issued currency, than Walmart will have an advantage over local business. The only advantage local business is going to have over big global business - because money is more expensive for local businesses - is if the local business starts with local re-investments in itself [...]

"In all of these things, we're looking at a new balance between your hard drive and RAM. We've been in a hard drive society for a long, long time and it's all about storage. We're moving into RAM, as individuals too: much more present-based access to memory as opposed to just hoarding stuff [...] We can balance some of the ills of long distance economic activity with a few mechanisms to help local economic activity compete effectively. If we are in a free market economy, we should have free market currencies."

  • Is kickstarter a viable alternative for people who don't want to get funded by corporate capital? Also, what about Bitcoin?

"Kickstarter is much more real-time: you're matching supply and demand instead of having a capitalist speculate on future value [As for Bitcoin], I'm not looking at a currency that you're trying to hoard; you're not investing in a currency, but rather using a currency merely to promote transactions so that you can get the stuff you want and do the stuff you want."

  • How can we read the humanism Rushkoff is arguing for in the context of Bitcoin? What is the effect of humans interfacing with inanimate objects - does it lead to the presentism and present shock he's talking about?

"Present shock is our initial wobble at moving from a linear-time-based society to this digital, choice-based, highly interruptive society [...] Presentism is really the ability to embrace and survive and reclaim our humanity on this landscape. Any technology only helps us reclaim our humanity insofar as it helps us create time to be with other people. It's the face-to-face, real-time human interaction that matters. And the more you do that - and this starts to get out there - the less money even needs to be a part of the equation."

  • Imagine we used open protocols for money to ensure that no-one ever needs money again? That would be a true redefinition of wealth. That would be a story worth writing home about.

"The monies we have now don't allow for that. They're not supposed to. They're part of a system through which we've been taught not to trust each other, not to transact. We've been taught that money is a cleaner way to engage. Hopefully, we'll start to trust each other more than the stuff."

  • Of course, it might take multiple global crises to get people to this point, but living in hope remains - at the least - a better psychological attitude than living in despair.

"It's just a matter of creating balance between the sense of infinite connections and the sense of holism. It's the same challenge you find at any level: take groups and individuals. If you over-identify with the group, you lose yourself; if you over-identify with yourself, you lose community. It's just something we have to be conscious of now if we're going to remain coherent."