Present Shock

Before I was aware of the Alvin Toffler book, I first heard the phrase "Future Shock" as the title of a song by New Zealand rockers, The Gordons. Featured on their 1980 EP of the same name, it's a ferocious five minutes of punk repetition, with not much discernible aside from the same chords played over and over whilst the vocalist wails, "Future shock! Future shock!" It's one of my favourite songs.

As a phrase open to interpretation, "future shock" feels incredibly relevant to modern life, however in its pure Tofflerian meaning, it shows its age. Toffler's main argument is that the growing levels of anxiety and disconnection felt by people today are directly related to our movement from an industrial to a super-industrial, or at least post-cooperative, society. With our human interactions increasingly mediated by machines, the interactions themselves are becoming less human and more mechanical.

With over 30 years of hindsight, Toffler's ideas are hard to explain without making them sound luddite. His predictions failed to imagine the rise of the internet and social software and the degree to which these tools could bring people closer together. On the other hand, however, one can't completely shove it all aside as technophobic hogwash. How many Facebook friends does it take to make you happy?

Regardless of how relevant Future Shock is to me in 2007, I'm finding myself feeling something new lately that has me thinking of it again. It's not even a new feeling exactly, rather it's just something I've finally been able to put my finger on as a means of explaining the strangeness that I feel sometimes when not computing. It's not anxiety over the future at all, it's frustration that it hasn't arrived completely enough yet.

The virtual environment in which I spend so many of the hours of my days places a convenience at my fingers that no longer exists when I step away from the keyboard. I put the laptop in a physical bag and walk on feet for ten minutes to a train, where I sit for sixteen minutes before arriving in my neighbourhood and walking five minutes to my flat. Ten minutes, sixteen minutes, five minutes and some more minutes spent waiting for the train, possibly the worst minutes of all because I'm not specifically doing something. I read all the advertisements in under one minute. They stay there for weeks. If they were replaced by screens and changed infinitely, perhaps I would buy more.

I'm experiencing a sort of "present shock", a sense of disconnection resulting from being disconnected. The physical world fails to move as quickly as the virtual world to which I have adapted. Toffler didn't really give us enough credit to adapt to the rapid changes of the modern world, nor did he place enough value on how compelling a technologically-enhanced life would eventually become.

Just like Toffler, though, I'm not giving myself, or any of us, enough credit. My present shock is fleeting and almost as soon as I realise that I am feeling it, it slips away. I like the downtime, the slowness, the lack of teleportation choices from Transport For London. Most times I just play Nintendo.

In all seriousness, however, it fades and I love it. When I go away somewhere on holiday, I'm not one of these freaks that has to bring a fucking Blackberry or an iPhone or whatever the latest connection-maintaining device is. Our adaptability defines us as much as fast evaporation defines present shock. It's a perception of extreme slowness experienced during the in-between moments of transition from a technologically-enhanced, high speed realm down to one that is chiefly physical and acutely real-time.

Although I may live mostly in a highly excited state of overstimulation, after passing through momentary present shock I'm pleasantly back where I started. I'm not sure where that is even, but it feels real.

The Gordons - "Future Shock"

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