For Douglas Rushkoff the future is now -- and that's the problem

By Andrea Huspeni , written on March 21, 2013

From The News Desk

In the digital age, the future no longer matters. All we have is now, says media theorist Doug Rushkoff, author of the newly released "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

In it, Rushkoff explores what he calls "presentism," a concept evolving around  “everything is real-time, always-on, pervasive, and constant.” While invigorating, this concept also presents challenges -- from investors expecting a quick return to the inability for startups to scale to their true potential to consumers becoming wary of permanency to altering how startup culture is formed.

We caught up with Rushkoff to discuss presentism and how this emphasis on the now can affect entrepreneurs and startups.

PandoDaily: What the hell is presentism?

Doug Rushkoff: Presentism is what comes after futurism. The future is so passé – a fad of the 90s, when we were all leaning into the millennium, speculating on the infinite possibilities of our dotcom economy. Then, at the turn of the millennium all this seemed to change. People became less interested in what their investments might be worth someday, and instead started to care about what they're actually worth right now. The sequence of economic crashes helped that along. Individuals couldn't refinance their way towards owning homes, and neither could businesses expand as a way to stay on the right side of their debt structure.

Presentism is also a result of the pervasiveness of digital technology. Everything is "now." Each moment is a new decision point more than it is part of some journey through time. In digital media, we are participating in a real-time event, not being taken along some linear path.

During a recent presentation, you discussed "living in a real-time, instantaneous, simultaneous, always-on, timeless, goalless, post linear time." How does that relate to startups and entrepreneurs?

In the biggest sense, business changes from a future-oriented plan to a present-oriented process. People want to earn money not by investing, but by trading. They were disappointed that Facebook "failed" because they bought the stock in the morning and earned no profit by afternoon. This is a tough environment in which to focus on long-term competence or goals. What real-time means for startups is that "lean" doesn't require austerity, so much as doing everything on the Atkins diet. No starch, no filler, all protein and fat, all kinetic energy, no potential energy. No hard drive, all RAM. The business process is the end in itself.

Doesn't austerity mean the same thing? 

I see austerity as doing with less, period. It's a tightening of the belt across the board. Just cut down the power to the computer. The leanness I'm suggesting is more about changing the diet, not just reducing consumption. It's not a matter of cutting the budget or expending less energy than expending it on certain kinds of things. It's not cutting down on power to the computer -- it's moving resources from the hard drive to RAM.

For a startup, it would mean learning how to be in a constant development cycle where feedback and results are one and the same. We invite larger groups in to be beta testers and treat them as employees. We use the product ourselves so that we know what's working whether or not we do a user test. The time lag between product development and user feedback goes away, since user feedback is product development.

As you mentioned, investors don’t have the patience for long-term investments, they want to see a profit by the end of day. Do you think this is why a lot of products fail and/or why “featurish” products come to market?

The impatience certainly doesn't help build sustainable companies. The organic timing of a market or a product development cycle takes back seat to the very external and artificial time frames of angel capital or B series investors. Most angels want to see their return as early as the three-year point and this forces companies to pivot and abandon a potentially great product just to create the illusion of momentum.

The other thing I see a lot that is extremely "present shock" is when startups go "meta" on their own ideas, as a way of appearing more infinitely scalable. So the company that does something decides it is no longer in the business of doing that thing, but providing the platform through which other people and companies can do that thing.

I'm sure there's a few cases where this is a legitimate development path. But more often than not, it's because the company can't succeed doing the thing they really do – at least not fast enough for the folks who invested in them. So they "go meta" on the original prospect as a way of transcending the clock they were on and beating time.

You claim that kids are turning away from Facebook, because they don’t want to deal with the ramifications of what they post, and instead are turning to apps like Snapchat to live in the now. What proof do you have? 

So far, it's more anecdotal than hard data. I have been doing talks at high schools and colleges about Facebook, and over the past few months when I talk to them about Facebook, the vast majority says it's not where they put their attention now. I've asked for a show of hands three or four times now, and the majority say that Facebook is for older people – that it's "too slow" and too "permanent." So this observation is still very new for me, and while it's consistent with some of what I was talking about in "Present Shock," it's something I'll be doing some real research on as I move forward, because it's a great example of a response to "Present Shock."

I understand the importance of culture and how it takes time to cultivate. But in the startup community, time is a problem, and it is a pretty transient ecosystem. How do you implement culture in this current state?

You don't start a culture from scratch. I think the culture for a startup begins in the group being served – the proposed customer base – more than the group inventing the answer. You can eventually create the kind of slowed-down tide pool from which a company culture can emerge. To do so you have to protect it, not so much with walls as with competence. Whatever your org. chart, at the center of a growing company live the most competent members. In the transient ecosystem this team becomes the constant. They need to be treated as the heart of the company. This team then becomes the thing that people in the company want to be a part of and that prospective employees from outside the company clamor to join.

You say that past companies' worth and value was based on time. If you were around 15 years, you were able to build a product, a reputation, a culture, and investors funded it realizing it may take awhile to see a return. Today, how are startups valued?

Putting it bluntly, most people funding startups are really not that smart. They are funding other people's projects, because they have no ideas of their own. And 90 percent of the money out there is stupid money, just trying to get in on the deals identified but the smart people. So while there are folks like Fred Wilson and Alan Patricof being brilliant, thousands of angels use a shotgun approach, simply attempting to get access to deal flow and hoping that every tenth or every hundredth investment pays off.

To win under such conditions means that successes have to happen on the order of Pinterest or Facebook. So startups are valued *only* for their ability to scale. A company that ends up making 10 million bucks a year, steadily, is worthless in their eyes unless it's a candidate for acquisition. But it's the investors who are trapped in the industrial economy. They are the ones in present shock because they have no concept of a sustainable, steady state business success. They can only understand the big payoff, and can't understand ongoing dividends.

If a culture speeds up, can it ever slow down again? If not, where do you see all this heading in the years to come?

"Present Shock" isn't about speeding up. It's about moving into the present. It's a kind of timelessness. We are becoming an a-historical society, with no sense of story, no sense of goals. We're going from a world where we find meaning over time to one where we do it in the moment. It's a digital society, where everything is a sample or a duration. And it's not a question of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. And we've likely got a century or even a few like this ahead of us.

Where I see this going is that we begin with some wobble -- the kinds of initial reactions to a presentist, real-time world. But slowly, over time, we become more mature in our ability to deal with this new temporal environment. We get steady-state marketplaces, peer-to-peer exchange using non-debt-based currencies. We get people behaving ethically even without the threat of a vengeful God. Doing it because it makes more sense in the present. We could even get startups no longer thinking of themselves primarily as the start of something else, but as real businesses doing real things right now. No exit strategy in sight, because there's nowhere else to go.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]