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Douglas Rushkoff Makes the Digital Economy Work for You

The social theorist on why new technologies are ushering in a paradigm shift, and how the transition will redefine how business is done.

The “always on” nature of our society has generated a variety of warnings about the dangers of staying connected all the time. (We’ve published some warnings ourselves. See, for example, “The Offline Executive,” by Henry Mintzberg and Peter Todd, s+b, Winter 2012.) One of the most interesting comes from social theorist Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013). According to Rushkoff, the real issue is the pervasive immediacy of the digital world and its effect on the way people experience time.

Events no longer unfold into patterns that people can perceive naturally; instead, looking for patterns becomes a constant preoccupation, because the old, patient cues of story and structure are gone. Human institutions haven’t yet caught up to the nature of this new world, resulting in (among other things) a widening gap between the way business is traditionally done and the way people actually engage with brands, products, and one another.

Rushkoff has spent his career thinking and writing about the influence of technology on how we work and live. He now believes that we are witnessing an evolution as meaningful as the transition from feudalism to the Industrial Age. Those companies that adapt, he says, will be the winners in the digital economy. Rushkoff sat down with strategy+business to discuss this transition, its historical context, and how businesses can respond.

S+B: The key message of Present Shock is that digital technology changes people’s perception of time, and that changes everything else. How does this happen?
RUSHKOFF: When I was a kid, I had a simple analog alarm clock. The second hand swept slowly through each minute, suggesting a real beginning, middle, and end to every minute. When my dad replaced that clock with a digital one, my perception of time suddenly changed. A minute just stood there, poised at 9:01. Or 9:02. Each minute was less some portion of an hour than it was a discrete pulse.

Likewise, innovations from call waiting to the remote control to the DVR have given us the ability to break into conversations, change channels, or fast-forward through stories. This challenges our sense of continuity as well as our dependence on linear stories to create meaning.

Present shock is my term for our panicked reaction to these circumstances, and our inability to seize the opportunity they engender. When I first encountered the Internet, for example, I thought digital technology would make more time for us—not less. Unlike a ringing phone, email just sat there in the inbox until I was ready for it. I answered email in my own time, crafting the most brilliant responses I could. And most of us sounded smarter on the Internet than we did in real life! 

S+B: But that’s not what happened.
RUSHKOFF: Instead of using digital technology to make more time for ourselves, we did the reverse. We saw technology as the new growth industry—as a way to extend the obsolete practices of the Industrial Age. Even though we had exhausted the world’s physical territories (there was no more room for colonial expansion), we now had a new territory: human attention. And so we strapped our devices to ourselves, having them ping us every time there was an update or message. We ended up in a state of perpetual emergency interruption.

Likewise, our businesses end up reactive rather than proactive—doing crisis management because they haven’t found a replacement for long-term thinking. On a deeper level, I believe this is because we aren’t recognizing the opportunity of the new temporal landscape. It’s bigger than analog versus digital clocks. It’s ultimately an economic shift.

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