Douglas Rushkoff on avoiding the present shock of social media

Download Flash Player to view this content.

First aired on the Lang and O'Leary Exchange (11/4/13)


Whether you spend time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or SnapChat -- or a combination of these sites -- it's hard to ignore that social networks and technology play an increasingly important part of our lives. They let us follow the news in real time, connect with our friends and share our lives with others. In 2012, there were 1.5 billion social network users -- an increase of 20 percent from 2011. But not everyone thinks this hyper-connected existence is all its cracked up to be, including author Douglas Rushkoff. He believes that instead of making our lives easier, social media is training us out of things like thinking about the future or focusing on the present. He writes about this dilemma in his latest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.

Rushkoff is critical of digital technology, but he likes to make one thing clear: it's how we use the technology and not the technology itself he has a problem with. When this technology was first introduced, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was seen as an opportunity to "to stay home in our underwear and work when we want and not really be punch-the-clock people any more," Rushkoff told Kevin O'Leary and Amanda Lang recently on The Lang and O'Leary Exchange. And that happened -- but it had an unfortunate side effect. The free time we created thanks to digital technology was filled with, well, digital technology.

"We ended up with these devices constantly clamouring for our attention," Rushkoff said. "Rather than reclaiming our time to do stuff that we want to do, we end up in the always reality of being always on Twitter and Facebook and email rather just getting to that stuff when we damn well please."

This constant digital presence puts us in a place Rushkoff calls "present shock." Social networks allow the past and future to "collapse" on your presence, so that you never truly experience the present as it's meant to be. Friends from your past add you to their friends or circles and ad agencies are using your data to figure out when you're getting married or buying a house or even how you're going to vote. We shouldn't just accept this as a new reality. According to Ruskoff, we should be questioning it. "The natural reaction is to go, 'Wait a minute, I want to be in on my present, not this collapsed thing," he said.

So how do we reclaim this time from our digital addiction? Rushkoff said it's about prioritizing your digital presence and approaching new networks and technologies critically. For example, Rushkoff is only on Twitter. He recently deleted his Facebook profile. But he also tries to control when and where he checks Twitter -- he's not on it all the time and it's not his default to check it constantly throughout the day.

There's another benefit to staying exclusively on one network: you avoid what Rushkoff calls"digiphrenia." Digiphrenia is "when you have multiple personalities out there all behaving and operating simultaneously." Managing four or five different accounts can be exhausting and time consuming. "When you have multiple personalities out there all behaving and operating simultaneously, it's very hard to keep yourself in one place. It's hard to keep it coherent when there is more than one of you operating at the same time."

Rushkoff agrees that social media is a useful, important tool for contemporary communication. He loves Twitter. But in order for it to be truly useful, we must be in control of it, when we use it, how long we use it and when we don't use it. And right now, Rushkoff believes, it's controlling us.

It's time to change that.

Related links: