November 18, 2010
News & Opinion: Program or Be Programmed
Douglas Rushkoff follows his full size, largely distributed Life, Inc. with an indie distributed, smaller book called Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. The biggest difference though, is not the size or distribution -- but that it may be his most powerful writing yet.
As technology increases, so does our willingness to be involved in it. I, for one, will never forget the first time my cell phone rang in public. This was the mid to late 90s. My wife began working at a new company selling large wireless phones. The company promised they would be "the next big thing." But as an early adopter, when that phone rang and people realized what I had, it was more embarrassing than popular. Now, nearly everyone has one. How has this technology, for instance, changed how we think and work? From there, what about the internet and computers? What about media? Are we controlling the choices we make, or are we swept along with things? These kinds of questions are the starting points of Rushkoff's book. And his thoughts on these questions are profound, analyzing the situation via both current sociological insight, and ancient principles. It's an important read. Use this brief Q&A we exchanged today as reference, and be sure to pick up the book. The attraction to technology is largely based on how we perceive it makes our lives easier. What do you see as the fundamental issue with that perception? Technology creates more choice. Sometimes this is great, but sometimes it's unnecessary or forced. Call-waiting is great, sure. But it forces a person to make a choice between the conversation he is having and the possibility of the other one he *could* be having. That's great for medical emergencies, I suppose. But it puts the current conversation into a less fixed space, always under potential threat. And all this increased choice would be fine if we were really allowed to choose. Can we choose not to answer emails from the boss or a client after office hours? Sometimes not. So life gets more complex, and often less fun. It's definitely great for everyone else to be tied to these technologies. Everyone except ourselves. The real attraction to these technologies, I feel, is the social possibility. We hardly experience it anymore, but there is still a great social potential with these tools. With the internet, Nicholas Carr sees human cognition diminishing, while Clay Shirky sees a surplus. What are your thoughts about what computers are doing to our brains? I care much less about what computers are doing to our brains than what we are doing to one another's brains *through* computers. Computers are biased in certain ways, but it's people and the programs they make that are either improving or rotting our brains. So I think Shirky and Carr are both wrong, both too techno-determinist. In the short run, Carr is more right: we are using these tools to make ourselves simpler and stupider, while our machines become more intelligent and more complex. We immediately fill up Shirky's "cognitive surplus" with more meaningless data processing. People do not have more time to think, and if a moment does arise, you can be sure Google Corp will be there to absorb it. The answer, of course, is for people to begin to use these tools intentionally. But that would mean understanding what the tools can do and what they have been programmed to do. That's why I wrote my book. Businesses are failing, schools are declining, even banks are going bust because they don't understand the very basics of digital technology and culture. So I wrote a mercifully short 140 page book to get them over that hump. The few who do spend the hour to read it will experience all of this a whole lot differently. But it really takes that full hour. I couldn't take people through it in less time - but most feel they can't afford even the hour - not without more of a guarantee that they'll make a bunch of money within 90 days of closing the cover. How is communicating with someone across the globe via technology "not real?" If the information exchanged is satisfactory, what's missing? Well I don't know that it's not real. It's just not in person. So sex, for example (at least for me) works way better in person than over the net. Something about having the other person's body within arm's reach makes the act more intimate and more physical. The same is true of other kinds of communication. 93% of human communication is non-verbal. 7% is the words. So most online forums really just recreate the sensation of Aspergers', where we can't process any social cues, and can't determine the context of remarks. And even in video, we can't really see what's going on. Has their breathing moved into sync with my own? Are their irises getting bigger or smaller? Are they mirroring my posture? All of the subtle cues that tell us - our highly evolved brains - whether we are gaining or losing rapport are muted. So sure, exchange data. How many cartons of widgets do we need to send to Utica? But don't think you're actually connecting the way you can in real life. People used to rebel against "the system." Is that even possible anymore? Sure it is. Just don't make every choice they're offering. Pick none of the above. Try that for just a day or two and you'll know what it is to be a rebel. Short of becoming full blown programmers, what are some basic steps individuals can take to be more involved in how they use technology? Yes of course. That's why I wrote the book. I think that if people learn the ten very basic biases of digital media, they will be in a great position to use it intentionally rather than passively or haphazardly. Just learn the biases - is it biased towards close up or far away? What does it do to scale? How about openness? Once you understand these, you don't really have to know how to program the machines. Then you can get on with programming society.