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.How does this fit into Kernel?¶
The ways in which we transact with each other and express what we value literally create the kinds of time in which we live. All the little things - from when we start our week, to how you think about and enact your savings and investment strategies - add up into whether you live in and experience daily what the Ancient Greeks called Kairos (the "right", opportune time) or Chronos (regulated clock-time). So much of what we're exploring here comes down to a constant and all-pervasive experience of what Rushkoff refers to as presence. If we take an
intentional approach to the technologies we build and use,
are humble about what we can and cannot know, and
work with the patterns of our own lives with honesty and courage
then we may just find the kinds of freedom that can only be lived in the moment, not written about or described after the fact.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".
This way of thinking has landed us in what Rushkoff calls ‘present shock’ where stories of analog progress connecting past and future have been replaced by the constant emergency of being ripped out of the flow of time in order to make some kind of choice:
"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."
People sometimes complain about “bad blockchain UX”, but here is the ultimate argument for why the longer response times of this new technology might in fact not be such a bad thing after all. 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 underlying protocols?
Prompt: At first, the internet looked like a great tool to do what?
"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 asked in 2013, and so far it has not come to pass. Yet, it is still a powerful question, and whether it still might depends on if the current political climate is a trend, or a temporary reaction against a longer-term trend towards more diverse and flexible kinds of collaboration.
"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 his 2019 book, Team Human, which is another fantastic read for any budding media theorist. His voice is a critical counterpoint to Silicon Valley singularity worship.
"Ultimately, Present Shock 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: “be in the genuine present”. By declaring himself with Lanier, Rushkoff is declaring himself against work like Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, which Rushkoff describes later as “bizarre singularity stuff”. It may seem to be a semantic difference: what, after all, is the difference between being in the “genuine present” and experiencing “singularity”? However, there are critical differences: 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?
Prompt: What is the best way to navigate present shock and a world without a defined conclusion or singular goal?
Being in the genuine present.
Conspiring against the actual OS¶
Rushkoff is quite clear on what he sees as the prerequisite of avoiding present shock and coming into a genuinely human present:
" think it requires us to be in real places with real people, making eye contact, establishing rapport, learning how to breathe with another person - literally conspire: '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 measured 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 problem was that the feudal lords were not being included in this massive creation of wealth, and 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.
This idea is not unique to Rushkoff and draws on a rich intellectual tradition, more of which you can find in this interview with Stefan Eich:
Institutional changes concerning the state and money play out alongside profound shifts in how we experience living within time [...] Public credit temporalized the state which now found itself hanging by threads of credit but also empowered by its new ability to pull in resources across time. Fiat money – that is money backed by the credit, the word, and the tax power of the modern state – is wrapped up in that transformation and it carries within it not only the obvious link to the state but also to language and the future.
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 with a different kind of money that is "much more real-time based, much less biased towards storage and savings over time and much more biased towards transaction" Or we could create a genuine middle way. As Andreas Antonopoulos said, engineering money is an actual possibility currently underway.
Prompt: What does conspire mean, literally?
Earning transactions into existence¶
💡 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 Sachs 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.
Prompt: If you're not willing to conspire against the actual OS our society runs on, and accept traditional venture capital or corporate money, what are you actually doing?
Putting yourself back on the clock. Submitting to someone else's routine. Repeating the same old patterns which prevent us from breathing easily together. (pick any one)
Asked what it would look like if modern technology were to truly live up to its potential for transcending the industrial age model, Rushkoff suggests that–for instance–the music streaming service Pandora would in the long term turn into peer-to-peer music sharing application, rather than relying on–and catering to–venture capital investors:
"And 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 on you–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. We don't want jobs. We want our basic needs fulfilled and a degree of comfort and security which will enable us 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 moshiach, we get messiah, we get the calendar, we get progress,w e get goals, 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 means that we can call into shared awareness how we each value our time and what kinds of time we value collectively, rather than have this be obscured by the perverse incentives of systems which privilege only a few.
Rushkoff then describes the technological and cultural move from a sweeping analogue second hand to a digital clock, with the effect it had on our media environment. It replaced linear story cycles with sequential jumps from one moment in time to another. Similarly, 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 satirised, 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."
Prompt: If we optimize for creating jobs, we must - inevitably and by definition - create less ____.
The conversation at this point moves into a description of "presentist" narratives and the further breaking down of the 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 with a beginning and an end [...] It ends up much more fractal! It turns out we don't have to have an end to reality."
At 43 minutes, the conversation moves into the Q&A section with the audience. The first questioner wonders if this is really a novel problem because, for instance, Buddhism can be seen as a 2500 years old 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 points again to Chronos (clock time) and Kairos (human time, timing). Text, the clock, digital technology are all inventions that take 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 from the trick to being here now in a digital era.
"I think that there are ways to reinvest in our humanity that are particular to our age, and one of them is as simple as trying to optimize our technology for our growing sense of humanity, rather than surrendering what’s left of our humanity to our growing sense of the technological."
How can we use technology to enhance creativity?
"We all know that 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 its original purposes [...] That is: it's OK to have a business which 'just' supports its employees and users."
We are unable to be totally locally reliant - i.e. you cannot make your phone yourself, you need a complex global supply chain. How can we navigate this?
"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, then 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."
Prompt: Think back to the different prices of money. Why is it important to have local, community-based currencies in a globalized world?
Because money is more expensive for small business than for large corporations, and local businesses are more aligned with the communities in which they operate.
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 understand the humanism Rushkoff is arguing for in the context of Bitcoin? Does the notion of humans interfacing with inanimate objects in itself lead to the presentism and present shock he's talking about?
"I don’t want to conflate Present Shock with Presentism. 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 others. 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."
"The monies we have now don't allow for [the social cohesion that we get through mutual dependency]. 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."
Imagine if 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!
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.
You at one point warned against links because they are drawing too many connections. Could you say a little bit more about why this makes you nervous or hesitant?
"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."
Prompt: Technology is only helpful insofar as it helps us create time to do what?
Be with others.
Fireside with Douglas¶
You can find the notes we gathered prior to this conversation here.
“We can escape from these dehumanising systems. The way ahead will be found by those who are unwilling to be constrained by the apparently all-determining forces and structures of the industrial age. Our freedom and power are determined by our willingness to accept responsibility for the future. Indeed, the future has already broken into the present. We each live in many times. The present of one is the past of another, and the future of yet another. We are called to live, knowing and showing that the future exists and that each one of us can call it in, when we are willing, to redress the balance of the past.
The celebration of man’s humanity through joining together in the healing expression of one’s relationships with others, and one’s growing acceptance of one’s own nature and needs, will clearly create major confrontations with existing values and systems. The expanding dignity of each man and each human relationship must necessarily challenge existing systems.
The call is to live in the future. Let us join together joyfully to celebrate our awareness that we can make our life today the shape of tomorrow’s future.” - Ivan Illich