We embrace technology for its ability to accelerate our lives. Just as air travel shrunk the world beneath our feet, digital communications brought the world to our fingertips with a previously unfathomable immediacy. The consequence, according to English author Will Self, is that we are stuck in the unaging and untarnishable ‘now’: “It seems to me that in the past decade or so, the half-life of our memories has become artificially extended. Instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, one we flit-click about and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth—until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard [...] Now the letters of the threads that run continuously beneath the live reporting look to me like the cogs of a virtual flywheel, one that spins ever faster as it tries to provide our inertial present with motive force. More events, more comments on those events, still more events provoked by those comments, and in turn, comments on those comment-induced events. The actual is sliced, diced and winched forward, only to tumble off time's assembly-line into the great slag-heap of now.”
This notion is something that media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls ‘presentism’, the idea that digital technologies “live outside [of] time and bring us everything in these sort of present tense bits or units.” Presentism also marks the end of the linear narrative. He argues: “if we are moving from this linear temporal mode to now this very stop/start sequential choice after choice after choice mode, it really is like moving from linear narrative to something more like hypertext, from a smooth world to something that feels much more like stepping stones. And I do think that our social lives, our personal lives, our political lives, our economy and even our spiritual lives are going to adjust to this very new temporal landscape.”
What are the implications of this obsessive and never-ending present? Here are four to consider:
Attention span—Swiss novelist and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, says “Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is.” Rushkoff states that nowadays “Every moment is a decision point.” Self wraps up the thinking by saying, “It may well be that what our society also requires is some kind of slow news, a manner of reporting present events that will at once acknowledge the novel situation, and also redress the balance between the ancient history before the Web and a monstrous—and babyish—present.”
Big picture—Self and Dobelli certainly agree that too much news makes us lose perspective of the bigger picture. Dobelli argues that accumulating facts does not help understand the world, that it is relevancy that matters and powerful movements with transformational effects that develop under the journalist’s radar. For Self, it is about the ability to spot recurrences: “Such a slow news might bear witness, even as events occur, to the fact of there being recurrences. It might properly contextualize our institutional scandals and individual humiliations within a longer view.” The science of hindsight.
Cognitive errors—Dobelli’s latest book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, catalogues more than 100 cognitive mistakes we make, often without knowing it. The mother of all mistakes is known as the confirmation bias. Quoting Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” So in a way, we’ve gone from broadcasting to narrowcasting as the media fragments its offerings, allowing us all to choose which version of the world we want to accept, something also known as ‘cyber-balkanization.’
Risk maps—The more sterile information, the less obvious it is to see a difficult case when we have one in front of us, which blurs our ability to properly assess risk. As a result, says Dobelli: “News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated. Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.”