Douglas Rushkoff: “We’ve Disabled the Cognitive and Collaborative Skills Needed to Address Climate Change”

March 14, 2018

How does our relationship with digital technologies alter our relationship with the future, with the present, and with our imaginations?  It’s a question we’ve reflected on in various podcasts and interviews in this series. One of the books that most influenced me on this was Douglas Rushkoff’s ‘Present Shock’.  Rushkoff is a writer, documentarian and lecturer, whose work focuses on human autonomy in a digital age.

He’s a prolific guy. Fifteen books including the brilliantly-titled ‘Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus’, documentaries such as ‘Generation Like’ and ‘Merchants of Cool’, a podcast called ‘Team Human’, and several graphic novels. He has also worked as a stage fight choreographer, and played keyboards for industrial noise art terror combo Psychic TV.  He is a winner of the beautifully named ‘Neil Postman Award for Career Achivement in Public Intellectual Activity’, and is currently Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens in New York. It was a real honour to be able to speak to him recently via Skype. I started by asking what he meant in ‘Present Shock’ when we wrote “our society has re-oriented itself to the present moment”.

Present Shock was really looking at the way that I guess digital media in particular has changed the temporal landscape.  It’s changed the way we contend with time.  The Ancient Greeks had two understandings of time really.  Two words for time.  One was ‘chronos’, which is time on the clock.  You know, “what time did you crash the car?”  “I crashed the car at 4.17”.

The other idea called ‘kairos’, which is more like time as a readiness.  “What time are you going to tell your father you crashed the car?”  It doesn’t matter what the time on the clock is, you’re going to tell him when he’s feeling good, after he’s had his drink but before he’s opened his bills.  So that’s a kind of time that’s not a chronological time so much as a readiness time, an intuitive time.

What I believe is that digital technology has emphasised this more chronological time and disconnected us from some of the more intuitive or natural bottom up understandings of time.  Anything that’s not really a metric, anything that’s not measurable, goes away in the digital simulations or representations of the world we live in.

That also for me combines with the way that the devices and platforms of the attention economy really assault us.  They understand human time as eyeball hours.  The number of moments that we spend glued to our screens.  That’s the way that value is extracted now, is in terms of time.

So we took the internet, which was an asynchronous device that really let us do things in our time…  We could answer email on our own time rather than like a telephone, an analogue telephone where if it’s ringing you have to pick it up then or you miss the call.  Digital really has let us stack things.  Digital would really give us more command over time, but instead we’ve taken these devices and strapped them to our bodies and have them interrupt us.

Whenever someone tweets about us, or has an update, or an app wants to notify us about something that may or may not be of any importance to us, so we end up living in this state of perpetual emergency interruption where we can’t focus.

That’s really what I mean by the present changing.  That the present used to be actually where your body was, where your mind was.  And now we think of the now as what’s happening on our devices.  What was that last tweet?  What was that last update?  As if we need to keep up with the now, where in reality that digital now is trying to keep up with us.  We are in real time.  They are not in real time.  It’s that shift in sensibility, where we emphasise these digital assaults as if those are what’s really happening, as compared to what’s happening between us and our friends at any moment.

Photo: Audrey C. Tiernan

You wrote about how before the invention of these technologies, the only people who were in that state of ‘always on’ and in that fight or flight urgency of all this stuff coming in all the time, were 911 responders, air traffic controllers, and they worked very short shifts.  And the levels of cortisol that this puts into our system.  What is that doing to us, do you think, psychologically?  How is it changing how our brains work and how we function?

When you’re in the fight or flight mode, when your blood stream is being dominated by norepinephrine, really – I mean in some ways it’s interesting – you end up emphasising almost a systemic architectural perspective on the world.  You know, like those scenes in the new Sherlock Homes movies where everything stops, and they superimpose these diagrams over the screen of “Who’s going to punch who, when?” His mind works ahead.

You get into that sort of state, where you’re looking at everything schematically like that.  The problem is that when you’re trying to connect things in that schematic way, you often see connections that aren’t there.  It leads to a much more conspiracy driven, paranoid state of mind, where you’re looking for how are things aligned?  Who’s in charge?  Who’s the bad guy?  What’s happening to me?  It makes it much harder to bond with other people, you know, if you’re looking where their hands are, to see if they’re grabbing a weapon, you’re not looking in their eyes.

You’re not experiencing your vulnerability or connection.  You’re not likely to mirror other people’s breathing and forge real rapport with them.  You’re much more likely to start seeing everyone and everything else as objects, and yourself as a subject in defence against this.  Plus just being in a heightened state when you’re always reacting to the impulses that are coming in around you.  I mean, you’re not even responding for one.  But when you’re reacting, you can’t really make long-term plans.  You can’t be driven by your greater values.  You really have to put your big values aside and confront the immediate challenges that are coming at you.  It’s more like space invaders or something.

John Dewey had a definition of imagination where he said it was “the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise”.  What does living in present shock mean for our imagination?  What does it do to our imagination being in this kind of state?

I think the imagination is always active.  I wouldn’t say it kills imagination so much as directs it towards certain sorts of things.  Instead of envisioning a world that’s functioning the way we want, instead of doing that kind of big picture understanding of the world, we end up in much more immediate details.

If you’re being mugged, you’re not thinking at that moment about how do we systemically reduce crime by reducing poverty and dissatisfaction.  You’re really just thinking, “How do I keep the point of that knife out of my body?”  So you end up using your imagination to confront the immediate crisis after crisis after crisis rather than softening your gaze and recognising the greater patterns, which is what human beings do.  The kind of imagination that we do in crisis is the sort of imagination that a deer does, or something.  It imagines some predator jumping on it, so it runs away, as opposed to using our uniquely human pattern instincts.

So our imagination gets co-opted and loses its longer term perspective?

Yeah.  The kind of imagining we need as a society is the kind of imagining that people did around the campfire after a day of fighting off predators, and they’d think, “Well, you know, maybe we could build a fence, or maybe we could have shifts for people to guard us at night, so the rest of us can sleep more soundly.  Or, maybe we should move to the top of that mountain?”

It’s that collaborative…  I hate to call it ‘blue sky’, because it’s grounded, but the ability to do more larger movements.  To try to create systemic change.  I feel like it requires some pause.  Some respite from the constant struggle to fight off immediate dangers.  And when technology companies are leveraging our instinctual response to immediate danger as a way of getting our attention, with red buttons, or flashing screens, or whatever it is at that BJ Fogg at the Captology Lab at Stanford has learned will put us into fight or flight mode, it’s impossible to do that sort of thinking.

Image credit Frontline/ WGBH

When I was growing up all the magazines and books that we had were all about the future, and the future was going to be this, and the future was going to be that.  You write about how “the twentieth century was characterised by futurism and the twenty-first century by presentism”.  One of the places a lot of my work comes from is around climate change, and responses to climate change, and how communities and activists can mobilise people around climate change.  A lot of that is around having a vision of the future because business-as-usual is going to wipe us off the face of the planet, so we have to be able to imagine something.  We have to be able to populate that future with possibilities and things that are really enticing, and it feels we want to move towards it.  How dangerous is it when we lose the future?  When the future slips out of our fingers?

[His text alert on his phone buzzes]  Oh, it’s sending me messages, you see.  They’re coming in right now.  This is an example of it.  That ability to ponder is getting…  It’s because we’re using a screen that I haven’t adequately fortified against the onslaught of notifications.

The other problem is, there’s a way to do this on Skype, so we’re using Skype to talk, and that means that some icon of mine in the Skype universe indicates that there’s an instance of me in the Skype world, so now people are pinging at that to say hello, or to ask me for things.

It’s a minefield.

It’s a minefield.  So now I’m switching to invisible.  It’s a minefield.  So it’s really, it’s that.  I mean I don’t know if that answers the question but it feels like the universe just answered it, technologically if not spiritually.

If the future just becomes completely clouded with dystopia and complexity and concern and fear, and we can no longer see a way into it, and we see the rise of all these movements like, ‘Make America like it used to be in the 1950s’ or Brexit, which is our version of the same thing, and everybody starts retreating backwards into retrotopian sort of approaches, or dystopian kind of things, because we’ve lost that connection to the future, I guess I was after any reflections you might have on what happens to a culture when it loses that sense of the future, and what the danger is of that?

Well, we weren’t doing that well with the future anyway.  By the 1990s it was Wired magazine and futurism companies and consultants really using the pace of change as a way of frightening corporations into given them futurism contracts.  I feel like the future was overleveraged and exploited by people who wanted to make money.

On a certain level, falling back into the present is a good thing.  You know, because the present can reconnect you with your intuition, with who you are.  But the way we’ve done it is we’ve fallen more into that what I’m calling Present Shock instead of the present.  We’re in the impatient, 2 year old demands of the Tea Party, or Brexiters, or Trumpists.  “I don’t like the way things are.  I want it better now.  I want my thing now!”

Rather than exerting some autonomy or authority over their situation, experiencing where they genuinely are in the present, and navigating toward a better path, they just demand impatiently for more stuff or more something , now.  That’s the childlike impatience of a ‘presentist’ versus the Occupy movement or the permaculture movement, where people are understanding a different sort of now.

That we are currently enacting the future, that the choices we make now are creating the future.  That the future is not something you prepare for, but something you create in your moment to moment decisions.  How do we expand that awareness?  How do we truly embrace the present?  The sorts of reactionary movements that you’re talking about are highly reactive.  They’re reactive, impatient rage filled movements, they’re not fuelled by true intuition.  They feel like, “If they feel it in their stomach, if you’re feeling angry, then you’re close to your real human core”, and I would argue, “No.”

They’re exercising just childlike anger and then justifying it as some kind of shooting from the hip more intuitive approach to the world.  So a Trump supporter would say, “Look at him.  He’s going on that deeper instinct that’s our true inner wisdom.”  And it’s like, “No, he’s exercising surface instinct.”  That first level of animal instinct, but he’s not activating the frontal lobe, not the neocortex.  It’s the instinct of the reptile brain, of the brain stem.  Fight, flight, kill, fire, not fire.  But he hasn’t moved through either the compassion of the mammalian lobe or the logic of the frontal lobe.  He’s not there.

Image credit: PBS.

What does all of this mean for activism?  When we’re trying to bring people’s attention to the challenges of the world and people’s attention spans are completely shot to bits and spread very thinly.  What does this mean for activism going forward from here?

I guess a lot of things.  I always get in trouble when I talk about this but it’s really easy for activists to be tempted into one of the ghettoised corrals that have been created by commercial social media, or by neoliberalism, to divide us.  So if I want to be an activist as a gay, black, lesbian, whatever, from the South, and find just those intersectional concerns, at the expense of solidarity with all of the other people who are being oppressed by capitalism and racism and neoliberalism, then they’ve divided and conquered us successfully.

The problem with this kind of highly divided multi-tasked [phone pings again] – oh, there’s my wife – with this multi-tasked reality is that it becomes really difficult to forge solidarity or to make a movement.

See, still coming…

Is there anything we can do about that?

Kill them all.  Just you and me.  We’ll be the last two humans.  Just kill everybody.  No, I mean that’s where I think people want to go, right?  The current solution seems to be let thing keep going as they are, contend with the geo-political or environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions that wipes out 80% of the planet, so then there’s enough resources for the remaining 20% of us.  Which is such a terribly dark approach.  But it’s the one that the wealthiest people I know think is the most likely.

That’s why they’re buying land in New Zealand and Anchorage, Alaska.  They’re using climatologists to help them predict what are the safest areas to reside in over the next century, and they’re preparing for that.  These various Plan Bs.  I had a CEO of a firm ask me privately, after I did a talk, he asked me later in the green room, that he’s looking to figure out how to maintain control or authority over his security staff after an apocalypse.  In other words what he wanted to know is, “How do you motivate your guards to guard your compound when money doesn’t mean anything anymore?  Can I help him devise a social ecosystem through which he could maintain his authority over people in that scenario?  Or does he just have to programme robots to defend his perimeter?”

Jesus.  What did you say?

You know, I went through some Walking Dead-like scenarios with him, where we spoke about, well, if he was the only one that knew the combination to the storage facility where the food was, or if keeping him alive was the only way to keep a succession of doors opening in this sort of automated supply dispenser.  I tried to convince them that spending their time and resources on what to do as plan B was taking time and resources away from figuring out how to avoid it being necessary to execute a plan B.

It’s something I’ve called the ‘insulation equation’, where people think how much money do I need to earn to be able to insulate myself from the reality I’m creating by operating in this way?  Versus how much energy and time and money just to make the world a place where I don’t feel the need to insulate myself from it?  That’s a part that never occurs to these people.  In a way they want to multi-task.  They want to have insurance against the bad, but over-focusing on those scenarios in some ways help bring them about.

Over the last few months seeing there’s a lot of research coming out about the psychological impacts of social media, Facebook and people who started Facebook and designed things saying, “I don’t touch that shit.  I don’t let my children anywhere near it.  What have we done?  We’ve created something absolutely horrific and horrendous.”  The research around attention spans and so on.  Do you think if we look back on the digital age of the last 20 years as being an experiment, do you think in another 20 years in the future we’ll think that it was all worth it?

Well I guess it depends how it works out, right?

Looking at where we’re at now, on balance, how are we doing?

Well you mean specifically in terms of the development of digital age technologies?

Yeah, on our attention spans, on our culture.

We underestimated the speed and extent to which business would infiltrate these social and cultural technology spaces.  In the early days of the net, business couldn’t be convinced to even participate.  We spent years just trying to get AT&T to take over the net because the government didn’t want to pay for it anymore, and they didn’t want it.  They didn’t even want it.

They could be owning the internet, and they turned it down.  It was unexpected that it would become the province of business.  But once they came on, and by seeing what they did, which was basically spam, is how they started, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that they were going to use this to arrest human cognition.  That that was the object of the game.

That’s why I wrote in 1998 a book called ‘Coercion’, where I was saying, “Look, all of the techniques of traditional advertising and mind control and cult leadership are migrating to the net, and if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to end up with a very confused and manipulated population.”  That was 20 years ago.  People just laughed at it.  They said I was being paranoid.  Wall Street Journal essentially called me crazy.

They were most upset that I suggested that some of the finance companies were selling products that they were betting against, which I knew.  I had the evidence and they said it was just untrue, that that would be against the law.  And of course we found out by 2007 that’s exactly what Wall Street was doing, and it’s part of the reason the whole thing crashed.  So no, we screwed up.  It’s not completely over, but we’ve ended up over the last 20 years disabling the cognitive and collaborative skills that we would have needed to address a collective problem like climate change.  So for that reason alone, I’m concerned that we screwed it up.

Image credit: Johannes Kroemer.

That’s a pretty damning.  If your evaluation of 20 years of the digital age is that it has screwed up the cognitive and collaborative capacities, that’s not great is it?

No.  No, it’s sad.  It requires those of us who see these possibilities to think differently about our children even.  I don’t think it’s going to happen quite so soon, but the idea that my child’s made it to 13 now, and I’d prefer her to have had these 13 years than not to have existed at all.  I’m still thankful to creation and the cosmos for her having had her experience, but it’s still a pity if we can’t keep civilisation going.  If we’re really that foolish.

All that said, when I see the teen rebellion against guns now in America, it does make me think that the kids have adapted.  That to many of them the news on social media, it looks to them like an email from a Nigerian scammer looks to us.  Even if they can’t quite distinguish between real and fake news on Facebook, I think they understand that there are these real publications like the New York Times or CNN, and then there’s all this insane stuff, and that there are ways to parse reality from this and to take charge.  So hopefully they’re the shape of things to come; a much more sensible and reasoned approach.

In terms of trying to move things in the direction where those cognitive and collaborative tools are strengthened and reinforced and given new life, is that something that we can still do online?  Or is it something where we need to be building more and more of a space in our lives, in our communities, in how we relate to each other, where we’re putting a foot out of that?  Can we trust the tools that have created that problem to solve that problem, or do we need to fix this ourselves and step outside of that?

Both.  There’s no reason not to use networking tools.  You just have to understand what the tools are and how they work.  So if you understand that Facebook will not let you reach your own followers on the platform, then you understand what it’s for, and what it’s not.  You can’t use Facebook as a communications tool.  If you create the group of activists to change ‘blah blah’, and you have 10,000 people signed up, and you want to tell them all, “Hey, we’re going to go gather at such a place.  We’re going to go do this.  All hands on deck!”

You have to understand that because of the way Facebook works you’re not allowed to reach the people that signed up for your notices.  You would have to pay to reach them, and even when you pay, you might not reach all of them, because that’s not what Facebook is for.  So as long as you understand that, “Oh, okay, Facebook’s not for that.  Facebook is a different thing.  Facebook is there to help companies influence people.”  Then you realise, “Oh, we need to create a Google group”, or something, that people sign on to, so then they receive messages.  That’s fine.  It’s just a matter of understanding what tool do I need and then not using a tool or online just because it’s cool.

What do you need to accomplish?  Then find the tools that will let you accomplish what you need.  At the same time, remember that human beings in real space together find power.  They find a kind of power that they don’t find otherwise.  You know, in the civil rights movement, when people would come to a church and sing together, it does things.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a cult necessarily.  It’s just the way human beings socialise, the way we forge solidarity.

If you don’t leverage our evolved capacity for solidarity and social coherence, then you don’t end up generating the sort of power that we need.  You don’t end up making sense.  I mean at a certain point, you have to accept that being human is a team sport.  That we connect live and in person with each other.  That’s not a weakness but a strength.  And you can do that at the same time as you use the internet to organise various things.

One of the questions I’ve asked everybody that I’ve spoken to with this is, if it had been Douglas Rushkoff who had been elected President just over a year ago, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’ – so if you had felt actually what’s really needed is a big push through education, through university, through people’s workplace to really boost that power of imagination and that ability to look for possibilities and solutions – what might be some of the things you would do in your first 100 days in office?

As President?

Yeah, why not?

I mean, can the President do anything?

Let’s assume he can.

Yeah.  I mean if I was in charge, if I could wave some sort of magic wand, and shift things, I guess we’d have to look at the high leverage points in our society.  I would probably institute to start some kind of guaranteed minimum income or guaranteed minimum assets so that people didn’t have to worry about their job in terms of survival.

I would accept the fact that we make enough stuff.  That we don’t need to employ people just so they can live.  That the reason to employ people should be to get the work we need done.  So I would reverse the way we think of employment.  Employment is not a way of justifying giving people a portion of what we have in abundance, that jobs should be about accomplishing work that we actually need to be done.  I know it’s radical.  It sounds communist, but it’s what work is for.  What do we need?  That in itself would turn around so much.

That would change the energy crisis because we wouldn’t be burning oil just to justify employing people.  It would change the nature of production and consumption on its own.  I would restore education to its more original purpose, which was not to train people for employment, but in some ways to compensate people for life as workers.  It was about education was a luxury.  It was to have an educated population who could make voting choices.  Democracy doesn’t work if everybody’s stupid.  Giving the worker some experience beyond digging coal out of the caves, that they would be able to appreciate great art and literature.  They would be able to read the newspaper and make informed decisions about governance.  So that’s a pretty straightforward one.

I would start with just those two.  I think it would flip things around a lot.

Any last thoughts around the topic of imagination that I haven’t asked you a question to stimulate?

A lot of imagination has to do with celebrating and expressing what makes us uniquely human.  If you look at the imagination industries, they’re hoping to increasingly rely on technologies as a substitute for imagination.  They want to use machine learning to teach AIs how to write screenplays and make paintings and do all the things we normally associate with human creativity.

What they don’t understand is that while you might get new permutations of things, it’s all based on what’s happened before.  Human imagination derives from something other than repeated experience.  There’s something strange and wonderful going on.  There’s an essential difference between the unresolved and unresolvable work of a David Lynch, from all the other so-called prestige television on cable.

That real creativity, and real imagination, provides less answers than it provokes questions.  It initiates a process that most people today can’t tolerate because they want conclusion.  They want answers.  They want endings.  Imagination doesn’t do that.  Imagination opens things.  It creates questions.  Imagination is not death.  It’s life.  Most people don’t like life.  They want the security of death.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: building resilient societies, digital technologies, imagination