Skip to main content

The joke may be on Zuckerberg

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Wed April 17, 2013
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in April announces a new product for Android called Facebook Home.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in April announces a new product for Android called Facebook Home.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Doug Rushkoff: New Facebook app allows you to be disoriented even more by message flow
  • Zuckerberg butt of joke in ad for new app with employee ignoring him for Facebook updates
  • Facebook is the eternal "now," he says, with future, present coalescing in bogus reality
  • He says Facebook is really a big data collection agency, and it's losing supporters and users

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- Facebook's latest defense of the mental distraction it creates for its users? It's not a bug, it's a feature!

At least that's the meaning I take from a Web commercial for the new smartphone start screen, Facebook Home, in which founder Mark Zuckerberg's announcement of the portal's launch is disrupted and interrupted by a host of Facebook updates.

"After all your hard work," he says to a group of employees in their work space, "Facebook Home is ready to ship." But as he continues, one employee glances down distractedly at his phone and begins thumbing through his, new, supercharged Facebook Home device. Zuckerberg's voice fades as a "screaming goat" appears on a desk and bleats loudly. A friend leaps out of nowhere, racquet in hand, saying, "Dude, forget work -- come play!"

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Eventually, the whole office is a race track and then even a pool party that only the one, distracted employee can see and hear. Of course, the employee has missed the whole announcement. When it's over and Zuckerberg asks for his response, he glibly replies, "You know it, Mark." Zuckerberg has no idea he's been ignored.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



By casting himself as the butt of the joke, it's as if Zuckerberg seeks to inoculate himself from critique. Can't we all just lighten up? Everyone knows that this stuff is distracting. We have all pretended to be listening to someone on the phone or in real life while actually checking e-mail. At least Facebook is aware of it, and -- if the commercial is to be believed -- the distractions it offers are pretty darned engaging. Yes, you can be with your friends and at work at the same time.

Except you can't. The ad is an apt, if sanguine, depiction of what I've been calling "present shock," the human incapacity to respond to everything happening all at once. In a rapid-fire, highly commercial digital environment, this sense of an overwhelming "now" reaches new heights. Unlike computer chips, human beings can only process one thing at a time. Whatever succeeds in attracting our attention only wins it at the expense of something else. Joke as we might like about it, our efficiency, our accuracy, our memory and our depth of understanding go down when we try to multitask.

Yet Facebook collapses time in more ways than that. Consider how people from your distant past, as far back as, say, second grade, can show up right in your Facebook present, asking to be "friends." If you click yes, they will show up right alongside and indistinguishable from your current friends. The distance once afforded by decades of time vanishes in the Facebook universe, as everything old is now again.

Zuckerberg explains Facebook Home
Source: Zuckerberg forms nonprofit

But wait, there's more. It's not just the past that comes careering into the present on Facebook, but the future. Facebook is just the front end -- the consumer interface -- of a big data engine. Facebook and its affiliates are busy churning the data generated from every keystroke to figure out who of us is likely to go on a diet, get pregnant, change political affiliation, question our sexuality and more. All so advertisers can act on our probable future behaviors by targeting marketing messages to us today.

Facebook brings us both friends from our past and advertisements from our future, all competing to distance us from the boring but emotionally grounded present. And this temporally compressed digital landscape is supposed to be our new "home."

Meanwhile, as if to prove that humans really can exist in more than one place at the same time, our Facebook profiles continue to carry on our online lives for us even when we're not logged on. An advertising feature called Sponsored Stories inserts our names and pictures into advertisements, so that we may endorse products tangentially associated with people or things we may have once "liked." To our friends, it looks like we're adding a live update, while in reality, we're sleeping, eating or even tweeting elsewhere.

This is the disorientation produced by present shock. I call it digiphrenia, the experience of trying to exist in more than one incarnation of yourself at the same time. Of course, now that we're in on the joke, we're supposed to realize that coming back online to discover one of our other selves has been hawking a coffee bar we've never even visited isn't a violation: It's sort of funny. Just take it in stride, like Zuckerberg does.

In the end, however, the joke may really be on Zuckerberg after all. Young people, teens in particular, are drifting away from Facebook for less overwhelming social applications such as the 140-character Twitter and the intentionally temporary photo service Snapchat.

And when I looked up Facebook Home online to try to find out just what it was, the first search results that came up were from users sharing how to disable it. This way, consumers can buy the discounted phones on which Facebook Home ships, and turn them back into a regular Android smartphones, where Facebook is just another app we can use in our own good time.

Ha.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT