Steven Soderbergh on “present shock” and the state of cinema

Present_Shock_by_Douglas_RushkoffIf you’re interested in books and ideas that explore the soul of a culture and civilization that in many ways seems to be flinging itself apart at the seams — and I know this describes most Teeming Brain readers — then be advised that Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, published in March, is emerging as, maybe, one of the most significant books of the year. You can see this in the fact that the buzz about it extends not just into the realm of book chatter as such but into the upper echelons of American public culture at large, where, in a fascinating development, Steven Soderbergh referenced it last Saturday in his keynote speech to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, saying that the book effectively describes his own growing sense of a giddy chaos, unease, and vertigo enveloping the entire film industry, including both filmmakers and their audience. (In case Soderbergh’s name is somehow unfamiliar to you: he’s the Academy Award-winning director of, among others, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Contagion, the Ocean’s Eleven remake, Magic Mike, Side Effects, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape.)

The official publisher’s description of Present Shock encapsulates the book’s message:

People spent the twentieth century obsessed with the future. We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, compile knowledge, and con­nect with anyone, at anytime. We strove for an instanta­neous network where time and space could be compressed. Well, the future’s arrived. We live in a continuous now en­abled by Twitter, email, and a so-called real-time technologi­cal shift. Yet this “now” is an elusive goal that we can never quite reach. And the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock.

Rushkoff weaves together seemingly disparate events and trends into a rich, nuanced portrait of how life in the eter­nal present has affected our biology, behavior, politics, and culture. He explains how the rise of zombie apocalypse fic­tion signals our intense desire for an ending; how the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street form two sides of the same post-narrative coin; how corporate investing in the future has been replaced by futile efforts to game the stock market in real time; why social networks make people anxious and email can feel like an assault. He examines how the tragedy of 9/11 disconnected an entire generation from a sense of history, and delves into why conspiracy theories actually comfort us.

A review at The Rumpus offers additional illumination:

As Rushkoff offers near the end of the book, “I imagine it took more effort than reading a book of this length and depth would have required, say, ten years ago.” That very difference is present shock. The book’s central premise is that we’re no longer in danger of what Alvin Toffler termed “future shock” but exist instead in an inescapable now. It’s the Zen ideal without any of the concomitant enlightenment, nirvana by way of sound-bytes. Rushkoff begins with the idea that narrative has collapsed. That ancient monomyth first popularly “grokked” by Joseph Campbell has been reduced to bits and pieces, digital ones and zeroes that tell no linear story but instead capture moments in a life freed from the context of temporality.

In five sections, Rushkoff takes the previous history of mankind and pushes it against the windshield of our current state of present shock. The human mind did not evolve to live in an unending now, and once we pulled at the thread on which the Bayeux Tapestry of the human story was built, everything began to unravel around us. The result is a functional inability to plan for tomorrow by learning from the past. We exist only in the immediate present, devoid of cues that might anchor us in linear time. Micro-transactions and algorithms exploit, and sometimes cause, market volatility by the nanosecond. There’s no way for a company to invest in the future when the next quarter is all that matters. Even our entertainment, from Pulp Fiction to Call of Duty, exists in a liminal state between story and social media updates. Our current media, whatever form it may take, is incapable of constructing a linear tale from our moment-to-moment actions. The story of our lives is entirely without sequence.

. . . Grossly simplified, Rushkoff is talking about the inability of our analogue minds to deal with a digital world. We’ve come so far technologically that we’ve outstripped our own capacity for evolution. The machines we’ve built seem to evolve far more quickly than we can hope to. Rushkoff would remind us that we built those machines and are their masters.

— Chris Lites, “‘Present Shock,’ by Douglas Ruskhoff,” The Rumpus, April 30, 2013

Soderbergh’s speech picks up this theme and offers a stark description of “present shock” as it looks and feels in the business and culture of contemporary cinema:

A few months ago I was on this Jet Blue flight from New York to Burbank. And I like Jet Blue, not just because of the prices. They have this terminal at JFK that I think is really nice. I think it might be the nicest terminal in the country although if you want to see some good airports you’ve got to go to a major city in another part of the world like Europe or Asia. They’re amazing airports. They’re incredible and quiet. You’re not being assaulted by all this music. I don’t know when it was decided we all need a soundtrack everywhere we go. I was just in the bathroom upstairs and there was a soundtrack accompanying me at the urinal, I don’t understand. So I’m getting comfortable in my seat. I spent the extra $60 to get the extra leg room so I’m trying to get comfortable and we make altitude. And there’s a guy on the other side of the aisle in front of me and he pulls out his iPad to start watching stuff. I’m curious to see what he’s going to watch — he’s a white guy in his mid-30s. And I begin to realize what he’s done is he’s loaded in half a dozen action sort of extravaganzas and he’s watching each of the action sequences — he’s skipping over all the dialogue and the narrative. This guy’s flight is going to be five and a half hours of just mayhem porn.

I get this wave of — not panic, it’s not like my heart started fluttering — but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane — or both? Now I start with the circular thinking again. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s generational and I’m getting old, I’m in the back nine professionally. And maybe my 22-year-old daughter doesn’t feel this way at all. I should ask her. But then I think, no: Something is going on — something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. We have people walking around who think the government stages these terrorist attacks. And anybody with a brain bigger than a walnut knows that our government is not nearly competent enough to stage a terrorist attack and then keep it a secret because, as we know, in this day and age you cannot keep a secret.

. . . So that was my Jet Blue flight. But the circular thinking didn’t really stop and I got my hands on a book by a guy named Douglas Rushkoff and I realized I’m suffering from something called Present Shock, which is the name of his book. This quote made me feel a little less insane: “When there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we’ve even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time.” That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us. I think it’s having an effect on our culture, and I think it’s having an effect on movies. How they’re made, how they’re sold, how they perform.

— “Steven Soderbergh’s State of Cinema Talk,” Deadline Hollywood, April 30, 2013

Happily, his entire speech was recorded:

State of Cinema: Steven Soderbergh from San Francisco Film Society on Vimeo.

Note that this is all related to Soderbergh’s recent announcement that he is going to retire from filmmaking and look for other creative outlets — a point he reiterates in the speech.

Thoughts, anyone? Are you perhaps suffering from present shock yourself, perhaps hearing and feeling that frantic, persistent “hum” Soderbergh talks about in your own life, work, family, self, world? I can tell you that I’m certainly feeling it myself, and that this is progressively and deeply driving me toward a “retirement” of my own — not a literal but a figurative one, but of such intensity that it does in fact begin to cross over from figurative to literal in certain details of (non)action and (dis)engagement.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 4, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Internet & Media, Society & Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I came across something about Rushkoff’s book a while back, but I haven’t read it. I am intrigued and perplexed by what it might (or might not) mean.

    Is our era more disturbingly shifting than the industrial age that brought mass communication and mass transport, that shifted vast populations from a rural farming life into the big cities? Or go back earlier. What about the Axial Age that brought writing, urbanism, multiculturalism, individualism and all of modern civilization?

    Society has seen some massive upheavals over the centuries and millennia. If anything, I think we are still reeling from the shock of the Axial Age and everything following are the rippling effects.

    Still, that doesn’t lessen the impact of present changes. It is a situation of massive changes upon massive changes. We haven’t been able to catch our breath for centuries. At some point, overload if not total collapse seems quite probable. We are testing the boundaries of human and earthly capacity as if we have no concern beyond the next election cycle or at least not beyond our own retirement, fuck everyone who follows after us.

    I’m a GenXer like Rushkoff. I’ve often noted that our generation was the last to have something resembling a normal childhood. We rode bikes, ran around the neighborhood, played in creeks, and generally ran free to explore the world… with computers, cable and video games just beginning their ascendancy, although not yet playing any central role to everyday life.

    There was something about the internet that changed the paradigm entirely. I had a simple computer as a child. My dad, as a professor, even had internet. But this technology didn’t mean much to me until well into my 20s. Discovering what was possible in this connected age was mind-blowing. I literally felt my brain being reorganized. It was an odd experience because my brain naturally makes connections in the way internet does and so suddenly my suppressed tendencies were unleashed.

    I’m not sure about present shock, but many trends and forces are aligning or falling into parallel grooves. One of these factors alone might not mean much. Added together, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I’ve stopped paying attention to a lot of this simply because at this point I understand the details as well as I’m likely going to and no one knows the future. I’m just here for the ride.

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