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You may now turn on your electronic devices, and perpetually be online

Author Douglas Rushkoff Illustration Miguel Montaner


If you’re like me, the only time you’re not tethered to the Internet is during that no man’s land between the airplane door closing and your flight reaching cruising altitude. You know what I mean: the only time when you’re not allowed to use your smartphone or laptop. It’s the single opportunity to unplug, look out the window, read this magazine or, heaven forbid, talk to the person seated next to you.

With inflight Wi-Fi becoming the norm—on 200 United aircraft by year’s end and fleet-wide in 2015—these moments when you have plausible deniability for being offline and out of touch are getting fewer and further between. For now, there are 15 or even 20 whole minutes during takeoff when you will be unreachable—and somehow, the world is going to have to survive without your instantaneous response.

We are all suffering from what I have come to call “present shock”—the human response to living in a world where everything is supposed to happen now (full disclosure: it’s also the title of a book I published earlier this year). It’s a real-time, always-on existence, without space to enjoy the underlying rhythms that used to inform our lives. I mean the simple stuff, like day and night, or the four seasons.

Ironically, air travel was what woke us up to the fact that we live in time. Jet lag used to be considered folklore. There was no scientific justification for it. Then, Major League Baseball managers began to notice that pitchers won more games when traveling from east to west than west to east. How could that be? Humans do better when their day/night cycle is expanded rather than contracted. The State Department eventually caught on, and began manipulating diplomatic schedules to give our negotiators an edge.

Of course, most of our industrial age processes ride roughshod over such cycles. We struggle to be more efficient and profitable in our professional lives. Everything is supposed to go straight up. Even the money we use—debt-based central currency—has a built-in clock: it has to be paid back, in time, with interest. That’s how time became money, and how efficiency and growth became the underlying ethos of our age.
Digital technology was supposed to change all this. Computers and networks were going to make more time for us all. Instead of commuting to work and punching a timeclock, by now we were supposed to be logging in from home, on our own schedules and in our pajamas. In the Internet’s early days, we took our time responding to an email. As a result, we sounded smarter online than in real life.

But something happened along the road to techno utopia. Instead of choosing when we would log in and work, we ended up just staying logged on perpetually.

Rather than turning our greater choice and efficiency into more time for ourselves, we turned human time into the new commodity. Our economy no longer had any more physical territory through which to grow; developing nations were no longer willing to be colonized, and the boundless frontiers that kept the industrial age accelerating for five or 10 centuries started to look pretty bounded, after all.

The only place left to grow was on the landscape of human attention. There were still moments when people were not buying or selling, consuming or producing. And those could be tapped. So instead of using our devices when we might want to, we ended up strapping our smartphones to ourselves. They alert us every time someone sends us a message, update or tweet. We end up in a state of perpetual emergency interruption that used to be endured only by 911 operators. We get “phantom vibration syndrome”—the sensation of a smartphone buzzing in our hip pocket when it’s not.

This obsession with whatever’s happening on our little screens actually yanks us out of the real present. All those messages are not something we keep up with; all those tweets and pings are actually trying to keep up with us.

We keep misinterpreting our many incoming digital signals as the real-time alarms of the industrial age. That’s like responding to an incoming email message as if it were a ringing phone. It is not. It will wait. But if we continue to make this mistake, we will end up like those kids attending rock concerts but watching the whole thing through their camera phones. They miss what’s actually going on.

The beauty of the pervasive Internet—the ubiquity of Wi-Fi signals, even on an airplane crossing the ocean—is its availability. It’s there for you, waiting. It is always on—so you don’t have to be.

Now that you’re at cruising altitude, I’ll leave you to your own devices.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now and several tweets you should read when you can log back on.

3 Responses to “Wi-fly”

  1. Kim Cone Says:
    September 26th, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    That’s one of Africa’s last blessings. Many places remain where one is outside the reach of either phones or internet!

  2. David Welsh Says:
    October 7th, 2013 at 11:38 am

    In par. 4, I believe you are referring to the article “Baseball teams beaten by jet lag” in Nature 377:583, 1995, which attracted much media attention. Your assertion that there was no scientific justification for jet lag prior to this paper, however, is inaccurate. Please refer to the references therein, or the many important studies published since then. I hope you do a better job of fact-checking in the rest of your book!

  3. Walter Lai Says:
    November 16th, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    Africa’s blessing? I don’t think so. The fact that the internet is always there doesn’t mean you are obliged to attend to it. It is our slavish obsession with our tools that is under scrutiny here.

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