Program or Be Programmed

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for the Digital Age, challenges us to not just go with the flow to wherever technology takes us — but to be as smart, educated and actively engaged in the process of guiding and co-evolving with our technologies as we can possibly be.

Rushkoff has been watching and critiquing trends in new media and technoculture for two decades and always spins novel insights with each new book release.  He has also written and hosted three award-winning Frontline documentaries — The Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation.

I interviewed him via email.

H+: Doug, you mentioned in an email that there was a lot in this book that was relevant to H+.  Why don’t I start out simply by asking you how you see that?

Douglas Rushkoff: To cut to the chase, I believe that our digital technologies allow us to participate consciously in the evolution of our species.  This is the moment we have been waiting for.  The singularity isn’t something that happens to technology, it’s something that happens to us — by us.  For the first time, we create our evolutionary future actively instead of by reacting passively or genetically to environmental or competitive circumstances.

At the same time, we are using tools that, unlike a rake or even an automobile, are embedded with code.  They make decisions and change their functioning based on their success.  Between robotics, nano, genetics, and digital technologies, we are launching self-perpetuating technologies — ones that tend toward self-preservation and replication.  Just like life.

What I’m arguing, however, is that almost none of us actually know how our technologies work, or what most of them are even for.  We do not understand programming, and I believe this is a grave error.  The tools through which we express ourselves and perceive reality are being implemented through programs about which we know almost nothing.

Unlike us old folks, kids raised in a digital universe accept these technologies at face value as given circumstances.  They do not tend to question or even wonder, say, what Facebook is for.  They think Facebook is there to help them make friends.  They don’t recognize that the entire program — the social networking landscape — is tilted toward a very specific set of commercial interests.  It is biased toward people seeing themselves in terms of their consumer preferences, their likes and dislikes, their predetermined binary choices, instead of their true complexity or in terms of their own agency.  The people end up becoming less complex, while the technologies simply learn more about people, and get more complex in the process.

When human beings acquired language, we did not learn simply how to hear, but how to speak.  When we got text, we learned not just how to read but how to write.  Now that we have digital technology, we learn how to use software but not how to program it.  And those who do program are in the thrall of elites running much older and quite oppressive social programs.

So instead of seizing the opportunity to reprogram our reality, we surrender this opportunity and leave the programming to those who want to entrench us even further in this artificially fixed form of capitalism.  And since that elite isn’t really learning to program, either, the systems themselves — and the machines — become the most intelligent operators.  And that’s why we could still get the less interesting singularity that people are fearing — the one where machines just become smarter than people.

It will not be because they have more processing.  It will be because we chose not to participate in hacking reality.  Because we were too afraid… or simply too distracted.

H+: When you say programming, do you mean actual coding, which seems like it might remain a specialized skill that’s out of the reach of some people… or do you simply mean somehow democratizing discourse about the inbuilt biases of the code?  And is the solution simply to advocate for open source to the nth degree?

DR: I mean both.  For the people who actually want to participate in laying the groundwork for the digital age, it means learning real code.  To most of us, it sounds as insanely difficult as I’m sure learning the 22-letter alphabet sounded to people perfectly content with speaking.  They left the job of actually reading and writing to the rabbis, who became the new — usually benevolent — elite.

For most of us, it is probably sufficient that we come to understand the syntax, or the grammar, of the digital spaces we inhabit.  We have to be able to read these spaces with at least the intelligence that we can read TV — knowing the difference between a real news report and Glenn Beck.  Many of us can’t even do that.  I think the reason so many people and institutions get such unpredictable results online is that they haven’t learned to recognize the inherent biases of the tools they are using.  I’ve seen college classes where the students all gather in a room, log onto computers, and then enact a Second Life version of their class — a model United Nations.  It’s as if the teacher doesn’t understand that the tool is to help bring people together who are in different real-world places.  Once students are actually in the same room, they can engage in a higher bandwidth interaction without computers.  Or people getting addicted to Powerpoint, and using it by rote — not aware of how the tool influences what they are going to present, and how.

It comes down to the old debate between educator Thomas Dewey and propagandist Walter Lippmann.  Dewey believed that education was a prerequisite to true democracy.  He thought that if people were going to vote, that they should be educated enough — and smart enough — to make intelligent, informed decisions.  He believed that people, the masses, had enough basic brainpower to contend with real issues, and to elect leaders capable of wrestling with those problems in a full-time way.  That’s quite idealistic of course… he thought human beings were capable of enacting democracy.

Lippmann didn’t think that was possible.  He thought the vast majority of people are just too stupid and just incapable of being educated to the point where they could use logic and facts to make a distinction between candidates or to have a meaningful opinion on any public issue.  So instead, he believed, a benevolent elite should make all the decisions and then use public relations to generate the consent of the people.  By keeping the people ill-informed and somewhat intimidated, they can be more easily convinced to vote one way or another, or believe one thing over another.

I see Lippmann’s point, and it’s possible we — as a species — are not intelligent enough to evolve into any kind of networked intelligence.  Or maybe just a few smart people will network intelligently, and the rest can be manipulated as they pass the time on Facebook — all the while believing that their selection of “friends” and “likes” constitutes the creation of a new and better reality.

But I can’t live with myself if I don’t at least try to relate to all human beings the same way, as potential collaborators in the human project.  Seeing as how humans will be spending a great deal of time in digital spaces, I think they will be able to exercise greater agency the more they can relate to these tools as real authors, rather than simply as users.

H+: One of your “Ten Commands” is “Do Not Be Always On.”  Here is one place where your ideas run into conflict with many — or most — transhumanists.  On the whole, the tendency — certainly within singularitarianism — is to integrate human and technological intelligence completely, to the presumed enhancement of humans.

I’m a “don’t be always on” sort of person myself, but I wonder if that isn’t generational.  If it feels natural (to someone younger) to live in a web of always on connections, then it is natural… maybe.  Or from another perspective, the thing with any evolutionary mutation is that it always involves some loss.  The creatures that climbed out of the water and became something else couldn’t go back (except maybe for a swim).

I used to use that water analogy myself.  And it’s possible that we will eventually develop the capacity to be enhanced with nano probes or cerebral chips or whatever.  But that union with technology does not presume merging permanently and incessantly with the asynchronous demands of everyone and everything for our attention.  If you accept the Apple chip, does this mean you must be always available to Steven Jobs’ ads? Or the pings from every other node on the network that wants to ping you?

Certainly at this stage of our evolution, there is a trade off.  Our nervous systems have not adapted, yet, to cell phone vibration.  Psychologically, we treat our Blackberry’s the way a compulsive gambler succumbs to the slot machine.  We get little bits of reward for every ten bad emails, and that’s what classically conditions us to come back for more, again and again.  We are not using these things as tools, but surrendering to them out of neurosis and cognitive maladjustment.

This doesn’t mean we can’t use these things.  But you don’t teach a fish to walk by dragging it out of the water and watching it die.  It’s a slow process.  And if we decide that what we really want is to be able to answer more emails each day, more pings per second, then we should train ourselves deliberately.  We should determine which kinds of pings develop our awareness, and which ones dull our senses and thinking.

No one is doing that thinking.  We’re just doing what the devices tell us.  That’s not co-evolution with technology.  I simply want us to keep up our part of the bargain.  Our technologies need us.  They will fail to carry out DNA’s or the universe’s agenda for higher organization if we don’t play the role of the conscious participant.  Our awareness is the best thing we can offer our technologies, even if they are to succeed us.

That’s all I’m asking for.  Not that we slow down or stop or anything.  Just that we stay aware.  And one thing I’m aware of — one terrific advantage of early-era internet BBS’s — was the asynchronous nature of the conversations.  It was a place where we could have longer, more deliberate, and more contemplative conversations than in real life.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a person — whether implanted or not — maintaining his or her right to silence.  Or to have sex for, say, six minutes without responding to email during the coitus.  Just to see what it might be like.  There’s something to be said for maintaining coherence, especially over the century during which we merge with this stuff.

H+: When I saw a Chapter titled “Be Yourself” I thought it would be either a sort of existential exploration or some sort of exhortation… and my reflexive pomo regarding identity kicked in.  But it’s actually an exploration of anonymity (and, I believe, the group “Anonymous”).  We have several writers for H+ who have lives on the net under their adopted Second Life personas and write for us as those personas.  Can you share your ideas around this?

DR: Well, for me the identity chapter is about both phenomena.  One comes out of the other.  It’s easy to become disconnected from one’s sense of identity online.  And this can be both liberating and schizophrenic, depending on one’s coherence and intention.  McLuhan thought electronic media would foster a kind of schizophrenia, and I never saw it as a bad thing so much as a new thing.

But in experience, I find that the further disconnected one’s sense of identity online is from the world of stakes and personhood, the more likely (not inevitably) they will behave in an insensitive fashion, or succumb to mob behaviors.  When there’s no sense of consequence, angry people tend to act out in less constructive ways.

There’s a tremendous power in anonymity online, which is why I think it’s important we remember there are often human beings on the other side of the screen.  Writing from a pseudonym or as one’s Second Life character gets better the more invested the writer is in that persona.  If you’ve spent five years developing an online persona or Warcraft character, one tends to take care that this extension of himself doesn’t do anything that wrecks all that goodwill or reputation he may have created.  It’s essentially a person, the same way you don’t want to burn your relationships with everyone at a particular club where everyone has gotten to know your transsexual alter ego.

Anonymous… or, better, fictional personas online are terrific ways of experimenting with behaviors and ideas that one might be uncomfortable associating with in the light of day.  It can free the imagination.  But again, it has to be done consciously, with some awareness of the imbalance in safety this affords the anonymous party.

Where I get concerned is when one’s identity online becomes the liability, and where anonymity is the strength.  The way anonymous mobs attack online is by posting your personal details.  And this makes one feel quite vulnerable for being “out there.”

Of course if one’s safety is dependent on maintaining anonymity, then so be it — people in Iran or Pakistan can’t speak freely, much less post freely.  But the more of us who can exercise truth in identity online, the more boldly we can all act.

H+: Jaron Lanier wrote a rather famous… or infamous… book recently that basically criticized contemporary digital culture as encouraging copying over creativity, and he has long defined transhumanists as “the totalists.”  I actually resonated with many of his specific complaints about contemporary culture but felt that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.  Do you agree with Jaron that originality and creativity is being sacrificed to perhaps too much open sourceness and other aspects of digital culture?

DR: Well, we have to applaud Jaron for stating this case so clearly, and for “coming out” as a questioner of all things digital.  He is making a strong defense of humanism, and forcing a lot of us to think twice about our unabashed embrace of everything digital and new.

I agree with his individual assertions, just like I agree with Clay Shirky’s individual assertions.  But I believe that it’s the biases of these technologies we have to become aware of.  We can’t predict or judge them wholesale; we can reckon with the way they lean one way or the other and try to compensate for some of their effects.

Again, though, I don’t think creativity or originality have to be sacrificed to open sourceness.  I just think we have to work intentionally.  We want open source and we want people to make strong individual contributions.  We want a free and open blogosphere, but we also want professional journalists who are paid to do in-depth investigations and deconstructions of the representations made by a multibillion dollar public relations industry.  These two aims can be destructive to one another, but they can also support one another if we see the value and weakness in each.

It’s not a matter of whether these technologies are good or bad for us; they can be both.  I’m less concerned with what our technologies are doing to us than what we are doing to one another through technology.

H+: I liked your story about the woman going to nightclubs following texts about where the cool scene is and then texting her friends and then following texts to find out where the next cool scene is.  And eventually, she arrives somewhere cool enough to take a few pictures and send them to her friends before leaving.  And she never stops to actually enjoy being present at the scene.  In a way, it reduces what a lot of social scene making has always been about to its bare essentials.

DR: Indeed.  It makes us wonder whether tech is changing anything, or simply purifying and exacerbating choices we have already made.  And if it’s the latter, then it should be forcing a reevaluation of our intentions.  It’s the last of the biases I discuss in the book: purpose.

H+: If you could imagine a specific result from people reading your book, what would it be?

DR: Gosh, so many.  Programming taught in public school would be a great start.  Not necessarily C or anything hardcore.  Just basic programming literacy.  I think once a kid can do even the most rudimentary programming, once he has seen the way you can write a process into existence, he will look at the whole world and the whole biological and cultural program as up for discussion as well.  Program or Be Programmed is just another way of saying “get in the game”.

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