Pam's Reviews > Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age

Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff
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The ideas in this book are 5 star worthy though the execution a 3 but the ideas are very important, so worth the read. Each of us as well as humanity need to have a deliberate relationship with technology, Rushkoff argues. Let us be clear Rushkoff is no crackpot he is degreed, learned, and thoughtful (his bio - He definitively makes the argument that the debate over the societal value of the internet and technology is irrelevant (he states the obvious, “it is here to stay so move on,” in such a way that should convince even the spiritual descendants of the Luddites), Rushkoff raises the more important question of do we direct technology or be controlled by those who master technology and the technology itself? “Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.” A bit dire and seemingly over dramatic, Rushkoff proceeds to develop a well argued position that indeed we are not looking at the opportunity with enough self awareness. There are a number of substantial points that Rushkoff discusses and actually calls out in an article that I found to be just as benefical as the book for those that don’t have the desire or time to read the book (
Every time humans acquired a new technology they had a dual nature both passive and active: “When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.”
Though the evolution of digital technology seems to be a natural progression built on previous innovations, it is significantly different: “Computers and networks are more than mere tools: They are like living things, themselves. Unlike a rake, a pen, or even a jackhammer, a digital technology is programmed. This means it comes with instructions not just for its use, but also for itself. And as such technologies come to characterize the future of the way we live and work, the people programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works. After that, it’s the digital technologies themselves that will be shaping our world, both with and without our explicit cooperation.”
Our future has tremendous possibilities: “Just as words gave people the ability to pass on knowledge for what we now call civilization, networked activity could soon offer us access to shared thinking—an extension of consciousness still inconceivable to most of us today. The operating principles of commerce and culture—from supply and demand to command and control—could conceivably give way to an entirely more engaged, connected, and collaborative mode of participation.”
Technology provides disruption and wields unexpected drawbacks: ”Educators who looked forward to accessing the world’s bounty of information for their lessons are faced with students who believe that finding an answer on Wikipedia is the satisfactory fulfillment of an inquiry. Parents who believed their kids would intuitively multitask their way to professional success are now concerned those same kids are losing the ability to focus on any one thing...Young people who saw in social networks a way to redefine themselves and their allegiances across formerly sacrosanct boundaries are now conforming to the logic of social networking profiles and finding themselves the victims of marketers and character assassination. Bankers who believed that digital entrepreneurship would revive a sagging industrial age economy are instead finding it impossible to generate new value through capital investment. A news media that saw in information networks new opportunities for citizen journalism and responsive, twenty-four-hour news gathering has grown sensationalist, unprofitable, and devoid of useful facts.Educated laypeople who saw in the net a new opportunity for amateur participation in previously cordoned-off sectors of media and society instead see the indiscriminate mashing and mixing up of pretty much everything, in an environment where the loud and lewd drown out anything that takes more than a few moments to understand. Social and community organizers who saw in social media a new, safe way for people to gather, voice their opinions, and effect bottom-up change are often recoiling at the way networked anonymity breeds mob behavior, merciless attack, and thoughtless responses. A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values. Faced with a networked future that seems to favor the distracted over the focused, the automatic over the considered, and the contrary over the compassionate, it’s time to press the pause button and ask what all this means to the future of our work, our lives, and even our species.”
We know technology is here to stay and we don’t want to keep perpetuating the negative aspects of digital living, so Rushkoff suggests to affect significant control over technology, we first have to understand that THINKING is different: “thinking itself is no longer—at least no longer exclusively—a personal activity. It’s something happening in a new, networked fashion...while computers are free to network and think in more advanced ways than we ever will.”
We must engage differently both individually and collectively: “Interior life, such as it is, began in the Axial Age and was then only truly recognized as late as the Renaissance. It is a construction that has served its role in getting us this far, but must be loosened to include entirely new forms of collective and extra-human activity.” Rushkoff emphatically states he does not see humans as a hive species, but cautions resisting, ignoring, or opting out of this networked, digital future is to lose out.
Humans have experience with ground-shifting transformations (we are talking about change that allows humans a completely different perspective that results with a transformative way of relating to and interacting with the world) numerous times in the past. “Language led to shared learning, cumulative experience, and the possibility for progress. The alphabet led to accountability...and contractual law. The printing press and private reading led to a new experience of individuality, a personal relationship to God, the Protestant Reformation, human rights, and the Enlightenment. With the advent of a new medium, the status quo not only comes under scrutiny; it is revised and rewritten by those who have gained new access to the tools of its creation.”
Each time our ability to capitalize on the situation has fallen short and limited benefits only to a small elite: “The Axial Age invention of the twenty-two-letter alphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers, but a society of hearers, who would gather in the town square to listen to the Torah scroll read to them by a rabbi. Yes, it was better than being ignorant slaves, but it was a result far short of the medium’s real potential. Likewise, the invention of the printing press in the Renaissance led not to a society of writers but one of readers; except for a few cases, access to the presses was reserved, by force, for the use of those already in power. Broadcast radio and television were really just extensions of the printing press: expensive, one-to-many media that promote the mass distribution of the stories and ideas of a small elite at the center. We don’t make TV; we watch it. Computers and networks finally offer us the ability to write. And we do write with them on our websites, blogs, and social networks.”
What we are missing and not capitalizing on currently with technology is just as limiting: “The underlying capability of the computer era is actually programming—which almost none of us knows how to do. We simply use the programs that have been made for us, and enter our text in the appropriate box on the screen. We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software. This means they have access to the capabilities given to them by others, but not the power to determine the value-creating capabilities of these technologies for themselves. Like the participants of media revolutions before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us.”
Rushkoff concludes we are woefully lacking control of our own destiny: “And so we, too, remain one step behind the capability actually being offered us. Only an elite—sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless—gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer. The rest learn to be satisfied with gaining the ability offered by the last new medium. The people hear while the rabbis read; the people read while those with access to the printing press write; today we write, while our techno-elite programs. As a result, most of society remains one full dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind the few who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age.”
We lack self awareness about what the opportunities are and instead focus on the wrong things: “We don’t celebrate the human stars of this medium, the way we marveled at the stars of radio, film, or television; we are mesmerized instead by the screens and touchpads themselves...Instead of pursuing new abilities, we fetishize new toys...Meanwhile, we tend to think less about how to integrate new tools into our lives than about how simply to keep up...Newspapers go online less because they want to than because they think they have to—and with largely disastrous results. Likewise, elementary school boards adopt “laptop” curriculums less because they believe that they’ll teach better than because they fear their students will miss out on something if they don’t. We feel proud that we’re willing to do or spend whatever it takes to use this stuff—with little regard to how it actually impacts our lives.”
We are headed to a world where we extend human agency through external tools that can think independent of us: “The strategies we have developed to cope with new mediating technologies in the past will no longer serve us—however similar in shape the computing revolution may appear to previous reckonings with future shock. For instance, the unease pondering what it might mean to have some of our thinking done out of body by an external device is arguably just a computer-era version of the challenges to self-image or “proprioception” posed by industrial machinery. The industrial age challenged us to rethink the limits of the human body: Where does my body end and the tool begin? The digital age challenges us to rethink the limits of the human mind: What are the boundaries of my cognition? And while machines once replaced and usurped the value of human labor, computers and networks do more than usurp the value of human thought. They not only copy our intellectual processes—our repeatable programs—but they also discourage our more complex processes—our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning making that should be the reward of “outsourcing” our arithmetic to silicon chips in the first place.”
How to get on top of situation is to have a solid understanding and say in how these devices are designed or programmed. Hence the need to program or be programmed: “Back in the earliest days of personal computing, we may not have understood how our calculators worked, but we understood exactly what they were doing for us: adding one number to another, finding a square root, and so on. With computers and networks, unlike our calculators, we don’t even know what we are asking our machines to do, much less how they are going to go about doing it. Every Google search is—at least for most of us—a Hail Mary pass into the datasphere, requesting something from an opaque black box. How does it know what is relevant? How is it making its decisions? Why can’t the corporation in charge tell us? And we have too little time to consider the consequences of not knowing everything we might like to about our machines. As our own obsolescence looms, we continue to accept new technologies into our lives with little or no understanding of how these devices work and work on us. We do not know how to program our computers, nor do we care. We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another instead. And this is potentially a grave mistake.”
We are hurtled forward on this technological tsunami and in danger of losing meaning if we don’t stop and develop a new template to guide us: “No matter the breadth of its capabilities, the net will not bestow upon humans the fuel or space we need to wrestle with its implications and their meaning. We are aware of the many problems engendered by the digital era. What is called for now is a human response to the evolution of these technologies all around us. We are living in a different world than the one we grew up in—one even more profoundly different than the world of the alphabet was from the oral society that existed for millennia before it. That changing society codified what was happening to it through the Torah and eventually the Talmud, preparing people to live in a textual age. Like they did, we need to codify the changes we are undergoing, and develop a new ethical, behavioral, and business template through which to guide us. Only this time it must actually work. We are living through a real shift—one that has already crashed our economy twice, changed the way we educate and entertain ourselves, and altered the very fabric of human relationships. Yet, so far, we have very little understanding of what is happening to us and how to cope. Most of the smart folks who could help us are too busy consulting to corporations—teaching them how to maintain their faltering monopolies in the face of the digital tsunami. Who has time to consider much else, and who is going to pay for it?”
There are many biases (tendencies to think or lean a certain way) and in the digital age those biases must be deliberately reviewed and consciously adopted, modified, or rejected: “It may be true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; but guns are a technology more biased to killing than, say, clock radios. Televisions are biased toward people sitting still in couches and watching. Automobiles are biased toward motion, individuality, and living in the suburbs. Oral culture is biased toward communicating in person, while written culture is biased toward communication that doesn’t happen between people in the same time and place. Film photography and its expensive processes were biased toward scarcity, while digital photography is biased toward immediate and widespread distribution. Some cameras even upload photos to websites automatically, turning the click of the shutter into an act of global publishing. To most of us, though, that “click” still feels the same, even though the results are very different. We can’t quite feel the biases shifting as we move from technology to technology, or task to task. Writing an email is not the same as writing a letter, and sending a message through a social networking service is not the same as writing an email. Each of the acts not only yields different results, but demands different mind-sets and approaches from us. Just as we think and behave differently in different settings, we think and behave differently when operating different technology. Only by understanding the biases of the media through which we engage with the world can we differentiate between what we intend, and what the machines we’re using intend for us—whether they or their programmers even know it.”
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
February 16, 2015 – Shelved
February 16, 2015 – Shelved as: non-fiction

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Denise Very interesting introduction. Wish I had the Cliff notes for his ten ideas! Might actually have to read the book...

message 2: by Pam (new) - rated it 3 stars

Pam Book is short. Plus you can skim!

Denise Pam wrote: "Book is short. Plus you can skim!"

I just ordered it! Plus I think the boys might like it, too.

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