I recently had a conversation with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Antony Funnell about Program or Be Programed. The resulting package is a nice summation of the book’s key points.
You can listen to the 15 minute interview at ABC’s Website, or read the transcript below:
Antony Funnell: Hello, Antony Funnell here, welcome to the program.
Today, a conversation with influential media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, who’s newly-released book is called Program, or be Programmed.
Douglas Rushkoff: The basic premise of it is that if people understood how to use the technologies on offer, they would get a lot more out of them and be much less likely to be used by them. Technologies that we’re using are embedded with purposes, you know, those are called programs, and if you’re not aware of that programming and capable of programming yourself, then you’re not really participating in this media. There are people who are participating in this media. A lot of them don’t really have your best interests at heart.
Antony Funnell: Douglas Rushkoff, our first guest on today’s Future Tense. Also, amid the predictions of a rise in natural disasters, Ian Townsend questions whether the safeguards we’re putting in place will actually make us more vulnerable in times to come. And Professor David Karoly on crowd-sourcing the weather.
David Karoly: What has been done with the climateprediction.net project so far is to run more than 100,000 different climate model simulations for more than 160 years each. So it’s really harnessing background time on volunteers who want to participate in this citizen science project.
Antony Funnell: David Karoly, from the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne, coming up later.
Now, Douglas Rushkoff – we had him on the program last in 2009 and to be quite frank we were looking for an excuse to have him back. The release of his new book has given us that opportunity.
Mr Rushkoff is a leading media theorist, as I said earlier. He’s also a documentary maker and he teaches media studies at New York University and the New School University. In his latest offering he argues that many of us have become too unquestioning in the way we use and view technology. And he now says that it’s time for some re-education – a new approach to the way our children interact with modern media.
Douglas Rushkoff: I’m advocating that we raise people with some knowledge of programming, the same way we think of it as important for kids to know basic math and long division and those sorts of things. I think kids should also understand the very basics of programming, so that when they operate a computer, they don’t think of it like a TV set, they don’t think of the computer in terms of what it’s come packaged with, but they think of the computer also as a blank slate. It’s just like introducing kids to reading and writing, you know, you show them books, but you also give them blank pieces of paper where they can write their own words. Now I feel like those few schools that do teach computers, teach kids not really computers, they teach them Microsoft Office, which is great for creating the office worker of the 1990s, but not for creating the people who are going to build the 21st century.
Antony Funnell: Now you make the point in your writing that, Well that’s not happening in countries like the United States or Britain or Australia, it is happening in some countries isn’t it, India and China for instance?
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes, that’s happening in India and China and even better, in South Korea. I mean I’m not here to say their education systems are better than ours, but they are teaching programming in these places and not in most Western countries. And the US military is very concerned at this point that within a generation, we’ll lose a cyber technological superiority, you know, that we won’t have enough programmers to do the kinds of crypto protection required in a world where everyone is learning programming.
And I mean, with any case when a technology becomes inaccessible to the user, you have to ask Well is it becoming inaccessible because it makes it better somehow? And maybe you can argue that having computers in cars that you can’t really fix yourself, makes them better on some level. And that’s an argument that people should have, who understand about cars and how they work and whether it’s good or bad for us as consumers. But people don’t generally have the kind of awareness even with computers, and our computers have gotten much more – well they’ve gotten much easier to use on a certain level, but much harder to program, much harder to get back there and actually use the computer to its fullest. In other words, to alter it. You know, if you look at the difference between a Dos machine and an iPad, you know a DOS machine was a machine that basically you had to program to use, and you were in there with the program. And an iPad basically is Steve telling you how this device should be utilised, and if you try to change it or use it in a way that he wasn’t thinking, you’re going to hit up against a wall that he’s put there.
Antony Funnell: So is some of it a sleight-of-hand by those who control our technology? I mean do they give us enough to do by ourselves that we feel like we’re in more control than we actually are?
Douglas Rushkoff: Well they give us control over certain kinds of things. I mean you get many, many choices with these technologies, but very often those choices are limited in ways that you don’t quite realise at first. It’s like walking down the supermarket aisle and they’ve got 100 different detergents for you to use on your laundry, you know, all made by 30 companies and all containing the same phosphates and other ingredients. There’s one strategy there with 100 different bottles on it, you know. And I think the same thing when I watch people put the radio buttons on Facebook to say you know, what gender they are and what movies they write, as if these are the real colours that we could use to depict ourselves to the world around us.
Antony Funnell: So what would the world be like if people heeded your message?
Douglas Rushkoff: The world would be absolute utopia.
Antony Funnell: I thought you might say that!
Douglas Rushkoff: I known that since I was two, if we just all did as I said it would be fine. A world in which people understood programming and looked at the world through the lens of people who understand programming. You know, right now we’re Industrial Age people, we understand cause and effect and this plus this equals that. But we don’t really understand the world as a set of programs. We don’t think critically about government and traffic and health care and all these things, as formula, as paradigms, as programs that have been implemented by people with certain agendas at certain moments of history, and then they may not really work for us now, that they need to go back and fix them and re-work them, and reprogram them.
And I feel like a society of people who knew about programming, not just as a technological skill, I mean not everyone’s an engineer, but even just as a liberal art, you know, as the landscape on which human activity is taking place, which it is, that human society is happening on an operating system. And if we don’t understand the basic operating principles of that landscape, and I feel like we’re really incapable of orienting ourselves our directing our flight. But I think we could. I think if we knew this, we would have a society of people who experience a heck of a lot more agency than people have maybe forever.
Antony Funnell: Media theorist, Douglas Rushkoff, speaking to us today via Skype.
Now the subtitle of Mr Rushkoff’s book, Program or be Programmed is Ten Commands for a Digital Age, so let’s find out about those.
Douglas Rushkoff: There are t
en commands, not commandments. In other words that these are supposed to be things that you do, that you use, not just orders from God to the population. I mean it’s meant to serve a similar purpose to the Ten Commandments, which I see as society with a new medium, with text now, negotiating a path to a very different world. I mean these commands are meant to help people negotiate a path through this next world, through this digital world.
Antony Funnell: And take more ownership, more individual ownership?
Douglas Rushkoff: Right. More individual, more personal ownership and to be able to strike balances between the sort of the biological organism and this new networked being that we’re forging together. So one of them is just ‘Do not be always on’. I looked at the basic bias of digital technology towards an asynchronous approach to time. It’s embedded in the way software works, it doesn’t really live in time, like people, it lives as a sequence, a line of code will wait until the input comes and it’ll wait for a minute, it’ll wait a day, it’ll wait a year, until you give it the next piece, it doesn’t really care.
The strength of early computing and early networking was when people went kind of with that bias, the great early bulletin board conversations on the internet, were kind of like chess by mail. You know, you’d look at the conversation with a 2400 bit modem. You would download it to your computer and read it, then you would decide over it a day or two how you were going to respond, and then you’d type a paragraph and then upload to the server and then wait and see what the other person said.
So on the net, you’ve ended up with more time to do things, and the ability to do things like email in your own time, rather than like with a telephone call or some light conversation where you had to be witty in a moment.
But then we take this great asynchronous technology and we attach it to our bodies in such a way that it vibrates with every tweet that comes in, as if now there’s this thing that’s supposedly happening in real time, that we have to catch up with. And it fries people’s nervous systems, I mean people get something called Phantom Vibration Syndrome, where they think their cell phone’s vibrating in their thigh, even though it’s not even on their person. You know, that’s not the symptom of an appropriate adaptation to technology, it’s a maladaptation.
Antony Funnell: Another one of the commands that you detail (and we’ll put the list up on our website) but another one that interested me was the idea of ‘Do not sell your friends’. Explain that to us.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes well I was thinking a lot about Facebook, and how there’s a line kind of between the social world and this commercial world that is getting harder and harder for people to draw. I mean ‘do not sell your friends’ really comes from the idea that the net is a social medium, it’s always been a social medium, and that’s been the way that it’s thrown off everything that’s come its way, you know, originally it was supposed to be a kind of a Defence Department thing for scientists to talk to each other, and they used it to talk to each other about Star Trek and recipes, so the Defence Department said ‘We don’t even want this thing.’ They gave it to AT&T who didn’t want it either, so it became this kind of public utility.
And finally business comes in, they’re going to make it about this big .com boom and that comes for a while, and then no-one wants to buy that stuff, and that whole thing goes away too because the net is a social medium. And now we get this stuff called social media which is supposedly of the marketers understand it’s a social medium, and what are they doing? They’re trying to basically get us to sell our friendships, to sell our network identity, to sell the map of our relationships.
Now it goes so far as on Facebook now. They’re watching comments so that if you say something about ..Starbuck’s today, it becomes a sponsored story, you know, they advertised using your post as the content of the ad. You know, what does that do to your behaviour when you’re thinking, ‘Well if I say something good here?’ you know, what are you doing? In the end, what you’re doing is selling your social graph, you’re selling your relationships, whether you’re using one of those Zynga games that goes through your address book to get everybody else to play, or whether you’re even a company taking all the people that have signed the for its Twitter feed and using them as a mailing list. That’s selling on you friendship, that’s not socialising, that’s marketing.
Antony Funnell: Now as I say, we’ll put the list of the Ten Commands on our site, or the link to those commands. Just a final question before I let you go, I mean as somebody who’s been looking and thinking about the way our world has changed and the impact of online and digital technology on our world, for quite some time, for decades, are you surprised that we have turned out the way we have? That we have these problems that you identify?
Douglas Rushkoff: I’m surprised by the fact that just going online and using computers for the first time didn’t change people on a fundamental level. You know, for me it was a lightning experience, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a read-write universe.’ And it changed the way I looked at everything. You know, I started to see my world as an open source proposition, and I see people go online and I guess because they’re so embedded inside within certain programs, ‘Oh I use this for eBay’ or ‘I use this for this’, they don’t quite see it, they don’t quite see the possibility for nothing short of a leap in human evolution. The thing that surprised me is with computers becoming as pervasive as I imagine in my wildest dreams, I’m amazed that we’re not even 1% towards where I thought that many viewer computers would have taken us.
Antony Funnell: And yet I mean a couple of years ago that idea of digital natives, that idea that the coming generation would somehow instinctively know the potential of the internet, of digital technology. I mean, as I say, that hasn’t worked that way, has it? I mean yes, they know to use it, but they don’t know how to achieve its potential, how to use it to achieve its potential.
Douglas Rushkoff: Yes it was funny. I mean I was the first I guess, but many other more sort of optimistic media theorists and cyber theorists really thought that kids as digital natives, would understand these technologies better than we do, because we’re just digital immigrants. Now you look at the experience of any immigrant family and it’s the kids who learn the language, and really move around like natives and the adults are kind of stuck behind not knowing what to do and really easy to fall.
And if you look at all the research, it turns out that kids are much worse at distinguishing between a valid and an invalid source of information online. They fall for scams, they understand the interfaces less, they understand the biases of these website a lot less than adults do. And it seems I guess that because they were raised in a world with computers as just a given circumstance, that these things were just here. They tend to look at the things on computers as pre-existing conditions. You know, the way things are. Rather than as creations of people and businesses with agendas.
Antony Funnell: Well Douglas Rushkoff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Douglas Rushkoff: Thank you, thanks for having me.
Antony Funnell: And the book is called Program or be Programmed. And what about that term, ‘Phantom Vibration Syndrome’? Never heard that one before. That’s going straight to the Future Tense online glossary.