I think that the most interesting talk that I attended at this conference was Douglas Rushkoff’s. It’s increasingly rare these days that someone would mount a stage in front of hundreds of people, with nothing to show. No slides. No videos. No visual assistance of any kind. He just got up there and spoke. He did so intensely, engagingly, and in a way that made me really think. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
But in the spirit of full disclosure, it was abundantly clear that Rushkoff doesn’t care much for what it is that we do; we exist as supporters and sustainers of Chronos instead of Kairos. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what he has to say.
The ancient Greeks used two different words to describe time. Chronos is quantitative, as in “there isn’t enough time” whereas Kairos is qualitative, as in “it was the right time.” Both are important ideas for us, because both affect how we live, how we think, and how we do our jobs. And Rushkoff’s lament is that we have sacrificed Kairos for Chronos – we have given up our sense of having a moment that is right (for a host of reasons) to behave instead within a “time is money” ethos.
To put this in shopper marketing terms, we could say that we’re always looking for kairotic moments to connect powerfully with shoppers, thereby helping them to choose the product we’re promoting. So the where, when, and why that we need to communicate needs to be aligned to create this more profound moment, but often it’s the case that speed is the overriding consideration. When you move too fast, the future ceases to exist. There is only a pervasive present, a constant and overwhelming state of reaction, which leads to this feeling of “present shock.”
For Rushkoff, present shock is a part of living in a digital age, one in which we all thought that we’d have more time. Instead it became a new frontier, another space into which we would expand, like a gas. We live in what he calls the “attention economy” where human time is the new commodity. Attention is so precious, and shoppers and consumers aren’t going to give it to just anyone.
Because of our love of all things digital, we walk around with ever-buzzing pockets, alerting us to all manner of communications, from tweets to statuses to emails to pins. Rushkoff calls this the “perpetual emergency interruption”, a once rarefied stream of anxiety-inducing alerts that were reserved only for 911 operators and air traffic controllers. We’ve become accustomed to being “always on” without recognizing that we have given ourselves “digiphrenia” or multiple instances of ourselves, happening simultaneously. While our physical selves sleep at night, our Instagram selves are being viewed by not quite anonymous others; our Facebook selves are connecting with new friends; our Pinterest selves are infiltrating new boards; and our Twitter selves are sending funny videos. We have become, in a way, digital Sybils, with interconnected but separate selves, vying for airtime.
Storytelling in the Continuous Now
We’ve been trained as storytellers. We are tasked with communicating the virtues of a product or service and framing those virtues in ways that are relevant for a target audience. We ideate with those virtues in mind, and our concepts, strategies, layouts, copy, and engagement plans help create the story. Classic story structure is one that has a relationship to time, but one that is predicated on history. It is history that provides the framing for how the story needs to be understood today. In his book, Rushkoff asks, “How does the current story of career and retirement adjust to life spans increasing from the sixties to the one hundreds?”
We often create work that is made up of a series of touchpoints, all connected by a through-line – an organizing principle that connects all of the elements. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Without an arc of progression, story changes fundamentally. There is a building, and then release, of tension that allows the reader (or shopper) to be emotionally connected to the narrative. Rushkoff notes “The higher into tension we have gone, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. That’s why he can plug in whatever value, idea, or moral he chooses. Or product.”
But in a continuous now, in the perpetual present, there is no arc. Rushkoff calls this “narrative collapse.” So what do we do with our training as storytellers if traditional narrative has disappeared? It’s a paradigm shift, really, away from a flowing, time-oriented story, to one that is more patchwork. As tv viewers flip from channel to channel, avoiding commercials and basically consuming 3 shows at once, a new kind of story has been created, one that has no beginning and no end. It just keeps going. No tension is released. It’s always on.
It seems that we need to learn to tell stories differently. We need to understand how to allow each individual unit in the broader patchwork to be strong enough on its own to be meaningful, and not so reliant on the others to get the story across. In other words, each part is its own whole.
In this attention economy, maybe we need to tell our stories always in bullet time, slowing the action down to see all of its splendor and detail so that it doesn’t pass us by. Or, perhaps we all need to become Quentin Tarantino, and look at things less sequentially, and more adjacent; because just off to the side of our focus is a context that can open a door to an all new story.
No matter what, we’ll need to keep thinking about both chronos and kairos. Let’s get stuff done when we need to, but let’s also try to come up with the right idea, at the right time, in the right place, for the right person. We can’t give in to present shock. We need to keep thinking creatively about how to stay relevant, knowing it exists.