Bob Dylan’s Chronicles v.1 meets Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock


The times have they stopped a-changin’?


In his early days, Bob Dylan was an artist who was commonly mistaken for a politician. Everybody wanted to vote for him, but he wasn’t running for anything. Some thought he was the Prince of Peace; others wanted him to lead them to Washington, DC in a huge mob with torches and pitchforks and more torches, and just burn the place to the ground. But Bob knew the British had already tried that in the war of 1812 and it hadn’t done anybody any good.

I just read Bob Dylan’s book Chronicles v. 1 anachronistically. It came out in 2004, when I was finishing my Ph.D. and discovering that 9/11 was an obvious inside job, so naturally I was too busy to read it. (If I’d been doing my dissertation on Bob Dylan rather than Moroccan saints’ legends, and hadn’t figured out 9/11, I would have read it promptly and synchronistically.)

So Dylan’s Chronicles v.1 isn’t even a decade old. Yet it already has that odor of musty old Civil War ghosts from somebody’s ancient attic, marching around singing haunting songs that nobody ever bothered to write down…the kind of songs that have to be dredged up from deep in the minds of generations that have forgotten them.

It was ghosts like that that triggered the 20-year-old Bob Dylan’s genius. He spent a lot of time in the New York Public Library:

“In one of the upstairs reading rooms I started reading articles from newspapers on microfilm from 1855 to about 1865 to see what daily life was like. I wasn’t so much interested in the issues as intrigued by the language and rhetoric of the times…It wasn’t like it was another world, but the same one only with more urgency, and the issue of slavery wasn’t the only concern. There were news items about reform movements, anti-gambling leagues, rising crime, child labor, temperance, slave-wage factories, loyalty oaths, and religious revivals. You get the feeling that the newspapers themselves could explode and lightning will burn and everybody will perish.”

Today, if you went to the public library and read newspapers from, say, 1963 through 1968 – the years Bob Dylan went from a wannabe coffee-house folksinger to a rich, reclusive icon – you might find yourself equally intrigued by “the language and rhetoric of the times.” You would read about wars, demonstrations, assassinations, drugs, new art forms, religious revivals, revolutions (sexual and otherwise)…sort of like today’s newspapers, only with vastly more urgency. And maybe the burning tension between all that immediacy, and the distancing effect of yellowing newsprint, would cause something in your brain to snap, and you would step outside of time and become an artist like Bob did.

Or maybe not. Maybe today, yellowing newsprint has gone the way of the black-and-white film and the daguerreotype. Maybe the they times they were a-changin’, but they won’t be a changin’ any more. Maybe we’re stuck in the cyber-flatland of the perpetual present – a thesis Douglas Rushkoff explores in Present Shock.

Douglas Rushkoff, like Bob Dylan, is a counterculture icon, even if he isn’t exactly a household word. Unlike Dylan, who was falsely painted as “the spokesman of his generation” when he was really just an unusually creative folksinger, Rushkoff actually has been a sort of voice of his generation: The “digital kids” as one of his titles puts it. Which is to say that Rushkoff, unlike Dylan, is very much bound up with his times.

And those times, and maybe time itself, are coming to an end. Rushkoff’s life’s work thus far summarizes the trajectory of the cyber-counterculture, from its utopian hopes to its dystopian fears to its disintegration into the endless present that is the subject of his new book.

It all started around 1990, as – unbeknownst to almost everyone – the worldwide web was about to engulf the planet. Rushkoff, like his friend Timothy Leary, wondered whether computer networks might achieve what LSD had failed to accomplish: Enlighten the planet, banish greed and war, and usher in a new era of cooperation in the pursuit of happiness. How? By connecting everyone. By inaugurating a new ethos of playfulness. By opening up uncensored communication and exposing the truth. By creating a new “gift economy” in which information would be lovingly shared rather than stingily hoarded. And by connecting like-minded visionaries, those “cultural creatives” whose synergized minds would keep right on a-changin’ the world for the better.

In Playing the Future (1996) Rushkoff told us not to worry, our “digital kids” would be fine if we turned them loose on the internet, let them play computer games, and just stood back and let them create a cyber-libertarian future. (My fifteen-year-old read it when he was ten, marshaled its arguments effectively, and talked us into letting him do self-directed home schooling; he is now a budding libertarian economist-philosopher.)

But Douglas Rushkoff is no pollyanna. Throughout his series of eleven books, and especially since Playing the Future, Rushkoff has been coming down from his initial utopian high. His biggest step down was Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say (1999), a brilliant deconstruction of mind control that ranks up there with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine as must reading for anyone who wants to understand the post-9/11 world. (Had everyone read Coercion when it came out, the biggest act of coercion in history – the 9/11 psy-op – would have failed, and we would be living on a far better planet.)

Rushkoff’s penultimate book, Program or Be Programmed is in many ways a sequel to Coercion, which described the relationship between commercial/military mind-controllers and their victims as a sort of predator-prey feedback loop, in which each side has to keep getting smarter just to survive. Program or Be Programmed summarizes the opportunities and dangers of the new cyber-universe we inhabit. The upshot is that we need to all be computer programmers, or at least “reality hackers,” or we will be victimized (or at least programmed and exploited) by the programmers and hackers. There is no middle ground.

That’s a fairly grim observation. But Rushkoff’s new book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now paints an even bleaker picture.

Jean-François Lyotard already told us, in La Condition Postmoderne (published, appropriately enough, in 1984) that all the big stories or “grand narratives” had fallen apart. Not only the great religious sacred stories, but even their secular progeny – including Marxism and the Enlightenment myth of eternal progress – were in ruins. All that was left were the discordant fragments of “little stories” lying all around us, like rubble after the collapse of civilization.

In Present Shock, Rushkoff tells us that now even the little stories – even narrative itself – is disappearing. In the world of instant-messaging, he says, email becomes (for many people) just another form of instant messaging. We are stuck responding to ever-more-incessant demands of the present, with no time to step back and consider the broad sweep of things…or even to tell any kind of story. Since storytelling is the way we master time, we are losing that mastery and becoming slaves of the endless present.

One of the things that storytelling does, as it constructs its model of the passage of time, is to include some things and exclude others. But as storytelling collapses, and as the internet brings every bit of information in the world together in present time, we are losing the ability to parse information and construct meaning. Hierarchies collapse. Authorities and anonymous idiots vie on the same plane. Everything becomes equally connected to everything else.

Rushkoff argues, in his chapter entitled “Fractalnoia,” that this ubiquitous connectivity explains the popularity of “conspiracy theories,” which he views as a paranoid tendency to over-connect the dots. For Rushkoff, the concern over chemtrails (or geoengineering if you prefer) is just a bunch of specious connections between “the weather, military, economy, HAARP, natural disasters, and jet emissions.” And chemtrails is just one of the many “conspiracy theories” which are themselves specious connections between “a myriad of loose ends, from 9/11 and Barack Obama’s birthplace to the Bilderberg Group and immunizations” (198).

There is some truth – at least at the abstract, theoretical level – in Rushkoff’s diagnosis. The kind of conspiracy writing I do (alongside many others) is a desperate attempt to inject historical context into the all-too-real dystopian eternal present Rushkoff describes. Mainstream writers simply parrot the “latest news” – Bid Laden assassinated, a shooting at Sandy Hook, the Pope resigns, etc. – as that “news” is constructed by the institutions of power. People like me put out the unofficial historical context in which such events can be understood.

Like the lamestreamers and the Twittiots, I try to pounce on each big event as soon as it happens and get my post out there as quickly as possible. But unlike them, my purpose is to supply the missing historical context. And unofficial history – the stuff repressed by the mainstream – is much wilder and scarier and more entertaining (as well as more educational) than official history.

When Bid Laden was supposedly tracked down and assassinated (instead of being captured and interrogated, as would have happened if the government’s stories about 9/11 and al-Qaeda were true) and then thrown in the ocean “in accordance with Islamic custom” (!) I had a skeptical story out in just a few hours. When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, I immediately reminded people that most big terror attacks are inside jobs, as everyone who has studied Operation Gladio, Operation Northwoods, and similar incidents knows. And when the Pope resigned, and when the new Pope was elected, I had stories out about Vatican corruption posted on the same day.

My stories are not paranoid attempts to connect everything to everything else. They are very specific efforts, concerning specific stories, designed to raise people’s awareness of unofficial history, which is generally far more accurate than official history. (Official history is always written by the victors, by the powerful; its purpose is always to serve the interests of the powerful, not to get at the truth.)

What Rushkoff misses is that it is not unofficial historians like me who are trapped in an eternal, over-connected present; it is the official culture that has so degenerated. Independent media, free to expose most of official history as a tissue of lies, is fighting back against that dystopian eternal present by putting present events in real historical context created by truth-seekers, not well-paid liars…which is what the mainstream journalists and historians are.

Rushkoff’s boneheaded obliviousness to the real import of the “conspiracy” stories sweeping the internet does not invalidate his larger thesis; rather, it confirms it. But it’s too bad that such a sharp analyst of cyber-countercultures should miss the real significance of the most important cyber-counterculture ever: The community of independent media voices and unofficial historians. The most important historical consequence of the invention of the internet, thus far, has been the rise of the 9/11 truth movement, whose alternative narrative is now favored by the majority of the people (as opposed to the powerful institutions) of our planet.

Rushkoff is right when he argues that 9/11 killed storytelling, killed linear time. But he doesn’t really understand why. 9/11 killed official culture’s ability to understand and make sense of the world – because the official version it gave us of the most important historical event of the century, if not of all time, was so transparently ludicrous. As National Medal of Science winner Lynn Margulis told us, there has been no science since 9/11: A culture that thinks skyscrapers can magically fall through their path of most resistance at free-fall acceleration, without demolition charges removing their vertical support, is no longer scientific; it is effectively back in the Stone Age.

Since official culture, drowning in its own self-imposed idiocy, can no longer construct meaning, it is the internet-driven counterculture that is re-writing history. While the lamestreamers and twittiots are stuck in a mindless eternal present, those still capable of cognition are using the internet to represent the past more accurately, and build the future more intelligently. And in that future, the US and Zionist empires – the malign forces behind 9/11 – will be gone. And the world will be a better place…if the masters of war don’t drag it all down with them.

It’s the voice of the people, the voice of the folk, that carries the truth. That’s what Bob Dylan figured out. That’s why he left Hibbing, Minnesota and went to New York and started studying the folk poetry of half-forgotten ballads and yellowing newspaper articles.

And yes, the times they still are a-changin’. Something actually IS happening here, but you don’t know what it is…do you, Mr. Rushkoff?


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Dr. Kevin Barrett, a Ph.D. Arabist-Islamologist is one of America’s best-known critics of the War on Terror. He is the host of TRUTH JIHAD RADIO; a hard driving weekly radio show funded by listener donations at and FALSE FLAG WEEKLY NEWS (FFWN); an audio-video show produced by Tony Hall, Allan Reese, and Kevin himself. FFWN is funded through FundRazr. He also has appeared many times on Fox, CNN, PBS, and other broadcast outlets, and has inspired feature stories and op-eds in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Chicago Tribune, and other leading publications. Dr. Barrett has taught at colleges and universities in San Francisco, Paris, and Wisconsin; where he ran for Congress in 2008. He currently works as a nonprofit organizer, author, and talk radio host.