Nashville Tennessean columnist Ray Waddle sums it up well...
Shortly before his death in 2007, novelist Norman Mailer ventured into theology, speculating that the modern world has become a bloody battle between two unpredictable forces — God and Satan. And a third rival is rising fast to match those two — human free will.
The world-bending effects of our tech revolutions tempt us now to think we can stand on our own, claiming more power than the devil and no need of God. For Mailer it was frightening to think of a future of synthetic humans, robotics and other giddy products of human ingenuity.
“If I have been ready to question God’s judgment on many a matter, I am wholly reluctant to put faith in our judgment,” he said in On God: An Uncommon Conversation. “We are far from equipped to deal with the cosmos.”
Mailer would be consoled to learn that our hurtle into the techno-utopian future has already hit a bump: We’re having trouble managing today’s information glut even at this early stage in the futuristic blueprint.
In his new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, author Douglas Rushkoff talks about the way we experience data and media these days — as a steady-stream dictatorship of continuous email, tweets, Facebook updates and news aggregators so relentless that we never catch a breath, pull back to get perspective, or respect the linear nature of human life.
“We have a completely new relationship to time,” he says at rushkoff.com. “We live in an always-on ‘now,’ where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.
“Wall Street traders no longer invest in a future; they expect profits off their algorithmic trades themselves, in the ultra-fast moment. Voters want immediate results from their politicians, having lost all sense of the historic timescale on which government functions. Kids text during parties to find out if there’s something better happening in the moment, somewhere else.”
Flowing from this screaming whirlwind of what he calls “presentism” are various unintended consequences. One is a renewed itch for conspiracy theories. When there’s no time to organize data overload into a larger narrative or ongoing storyline, then the only way to make sense of it is to find real-time connections and patterns so everything connects to everything else right now, no matter how implausible.
A second consequence, Rushkoff notes, is a yearning for apocalypse, a final silencing of the incessant data torrent. The urge might be post-Christian or secular, but the impulse harkens to ancient religious instincts about the end of time.
All this will be an embarrassing (or momentary) setback to can-do utopians. But to those of us who never believed human nature would change even though the technology does, it’s no big surprise. It’s a quaint piece of hubris to think we could ever collapse time, master the “now,” pull the essence from it, elude the prison house of interpretation or defy the very physics of the 24-hour day, the need for sleep and food and other people.
What comes to mind is an endearingly analog insight that still offers sanity in a culture chasing the new algorithmic deities. Writer I.B. Singer once said: “God is a writer, and we are both the heroes and the readers.” The idea implies a cosmic plot line, an “Author’s” story unfolding through the sinews of linear time, a tale requiring our patience and courage. For whatever reason, the bones of the universe include the stubborn persistence of minutes, hours and eons as well as beginnings, middles and ends (more or less in that order). “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser once said.
Books take time (as the author of Present Shock wryly acknowledges). So do friendships, marriages, civilizations, religions, children, memories, the confirmation of facts, the triumph of wisdom — a step at a time, moment to moment, bordered by blessed intervals of silence.
The enemies of these things always lurk around: arrogant impatience and fantasies of purity and human perfectibility. Technological visions of a frictionless future scrubbed clean of raggedy human limitation lead to totalitarianism, cruelty and madness. The story of the world has always said so.