The new ‘power of now’ and the perils of the hyper-present

With modern technology, living life ‘in the moment’ has never been easier. But this new nowness is far from what earlier advocates had in mind, and might only be distracting us from the planet’s ever more pressing challenges.

This week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos will see a host of political and business leaders facing up to an ever-growing roster of pressing global problems. But a new article from Douglas Rushkoff suggests that one of the primary challenges these pioneers face relates to the very process of getting things done in the modern age, as a result of technologies which priorities the ultra-recent over the relevant.

This modern phenomenon of nowness might seem to have intellectual antecedents in the twentieth century, a time in which it was the future, rather than the present, which occupied minds. Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling spiritual guide, The Power of Nowpublished at the dusking of the twentieth century, was a call to arms (or perhaps alms) exhorting readers to embrace the present moment in all its wonder, at the expense of regret about the past and fear about the future. It was in this sense a product of its time (appropriately enough); a tract written for a generation subscribed to the “core delusion” that “tomorrow’s bills” are a problem for today.

Decades earlier, Alan Watts, the Anglo-American philosopher, had offered a similar critique of the misplaced priorities of twentieth century society. In a lecture worth quoting from at length, Watts bemoaned the fact that his fellow twentieth centurials “spend most of our time, and a great deal of our emotional energy, living in time which is not here, living in an elsewhere which is not concretely real. So much so that although we might be quite comfortable and happy in our present circumstances, if there is not a guarantee, not a promise of a good time coming tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, we are at once unhappy, even in the midst of pleasure and affluence … we want to be sure, more and more that our future is secured. And for this reason, the future becomes of more importance, to most human beings, than the present.”

Watts and Tolle may not have foreseen that the first decades of the twenty first century would bring a new refocus on ‘now’. With the rise first of 24/7 news channels and mobile phones, and now social networking services like Twitter which have adopted the functions of both, it has never been easier to engage with the present. And viewed from one perspective, the results are rosy. The sheer mass of data created by millions of Internet users around the world every minute is helping us to flummox flu, spot new species and maybe even ward off internecine war. On a microscopic level, too, we have never been better connected.

Yet what is most pointed about this new preoccupation with the present is its full-on failure to liberate us from the stresses of past and future. Far from it: as Douglas Rushkoff argues in his long-read for Politico Magazine (‘long-read’ being an iconic retronym for the age), our hyper-connected world now has more, not less, anxiety, experienced with an unprecedented intensity and instancy. Rushkoff’s name for this phenomenon is “present shock, where everything is happening so fast that it may as well be simultaneous. One big ‘now’ … the amplification of everything that happens to be occurring at the moment, and a diminishment of everything that isn’t.”

Having diagnosed the problem cogently, Rushkoff moves on to describe the symptoms, chief of which is a sclerotic political elite, unable to set out bold, constructive and far-reaching visions, preoccupied with fire-fighting the scandals and pseudo-scandals which seemingly emerge on an hourly basis. (And note the historically low level of actual scandals to have actually emerged from the current US administration.) Somewhat regrettably, Rushkoff follows up his pithy diagnosis by committing the cliche of the modern technical writer, the almost reflexive resort that, to paraphrase, ‘the very technologies that got us into this mess are going to get us out of it’. He suggests some rather half-baked treatments, including a suggestion that large-scale online government projects such as Obamacare should “be thought of as a permanent beta-test wherein engineers are iterating toward improvement in a present that’s never quite perfect”. (Somehow the Silicon lyric ‘move fast and break things’ doesn’t sit so easily with regards to government-backed healthcare.)

What’s undeniable though is that the genie of connected technology is out of the bottle, and he’s certainly generous: each of the trillions of server requests for photos to be uploaded, tweets delivered and videos viewed is a wish apparently fulfilled for a grateful Internet user. Yet this gratitude is felt ever more fleetingly; our thirst for more entertainment and information more quickly is forcing each individual item into a smaller packet, as the rise of Twitter, Vine and Snapchat attest. The result is nothing more than a shadowy, antimaterial version of what Watts and Tolle, as well as in another time Wordsworth and Auden, saw as the spiritually affirmative potential that living life ‘in the moment’ could offer. Truly, the ‘now’ has never been more ascendant, but it is experienced at the level of the transactional, not the transcendental.

As Rushkoff notes, “as recently as the end of the 20th century, the zeitgeist was animated by a kind of forward-leaning futurism”, but this “old obsession with the pace of progress has been drowned out by the onslaught of everything that is happening right now. It’s impossible even to keep up, much less to look ahead.” With truly global and interconnected problems like pandemics, climate crises and resource scarcities encroaching on the horizon, reclaiming our focus on the future seems like an inescapable necessity.

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