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 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT