I feel myself chasing the “now” all the time. Last June, on my way to the stage to speak about the phenomenon of present shock at the Personal Democracy Forum, the NSA scandal hit the wires and CNN began pinging my phone for me to appear on air. Sensing a kind of meta-moment, I switched the approach for my talk and wove the emerging news story into my remarks, reading live updates from my phone as I talked about our urge to be caught in the now. Using any other example of a fast moving news story would have felt past tense. My talk became more of a demonstration: an example of present shock about present shock, on a day of present shock.
It wasn’t always like this. As recently as the end of the 20th century, the zeitgeist was animated by a kind of forward-leaning futurism. There was a sense that we were accelerating toward a big shift fueled by new technologies, networks and global connectivity. Today, that shift may have finally occurred, but rather than encouraging us to look further ahead, it has instilled in us a pervading “presentism.” Our 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.
This new paradigm is fundamentally scrambling our politics. Our leaders’ ability to articulate goals, organize movements or even approach long-term solutions has been stymied by an obsession—on their part and ours—with the now. Unless we adapt to this new presentism, and soon, we may edge more dangerously close to political paralysis.