Monday, 22 December 2014

Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age - Book Review

Over the past twenty years most of us have spent a significant part of our working and leisure hours struggling (with varying degrees of success) to keep up with the pace of technological change. We have had little time to step back to reflect on the impact that it is all having on our lives. In Program or be Programmed Douglas Rushkoff presses the pause button to outline 'Ten Commands for a Digital Age' - suggestions for how we can regain control and make digital technologies once again work for us. Each of the 'commands' are based on tendencies or 'biases' of digital media.
  1. Time: Do not be always on. Digital technologies are biased away from time, and toward asynchronicity. Computers fundamentally operate outside time: a computer will wait forever for the next command. It is our use of computers that has made everything immediate. In order to regain control we need to disengage and "not be always on". The text/email/FB update will wait. 
  2. Place: Live in person. Digital media are biased away from the local, and toward distance/dislocation. Last week, I was in the open air restaurant of a five-star resort looking out over one of the most beautiful bays in Vietnam, a family of six (2 grandparents, 2 parents and 2 children) were totally disconnected. They sat around the dinner table playing on their phones. We see this all the time. We need to live in person and not in a virtual world. 
  3. Choice: You may always choose none of the above. The digital realm is biased towards choice, because everything ultimately must be expressed in terms of discrete, yes-no, symbolic language. In moving from the real world to the digital something gets lost in translation because inevitably digital representations are compromises. Too often we are forced into making choices that have been predetermined by the programmer. We need to recognise that we don't always have to play the programmer's game and choose not to make a choice. 
  4. Complexity: You are never completely right. Digital technology is biased toward simplicity and to reducing complexity. We must take care not to mistake digital models with reality. There is evidence that young people are increasingly finding it difficult to distinguish between experiences that they have had in real and virtual environments. 
  5. Scale: One size does not fit all. Digital technologies are biased toward abstraction i.e. to the separation of the individual from what is real (This is the most complex and subtle argument in the book). All media are biased towards abstraction: the written word separates the speaker from his words; the printing press disconnects the author from the page itself; digital hypertext disconnects the reader not only from the author but also from the original context, as well as enabling the reader to exit from a document at any point. The most obvious manifestation of the propensity of the digital towards abstraction is our daily encounter of 'people wearing headphones, staring into smart phones, ensconced in their private digital bubbles as they walk down what were once public streets'. 
  6. Identity: Be yourself. Digital technology is biased toward depersonalisation. The less we take responsibility for what we say and do online, the more likely we are to behave in ways that reflect our worst natures. We must make an effort not to operate anonymously. We must be ourselves. 
  7. Social: Do not sell your friends. Our digital networks are biased towards social connections - toward contact. Any effort to redefine or hijack those connections for profit end up compromising the integrity of the network, and compromising the real promise of contact. 'Friendships, both digital and incarnate, do create value. But this doesn't mean that the people in our lives can be understood as commodities to be collected and counted.' 
  8. Fact: Tell the Truth. Digital Technology is biased against fiction and towards facts, against story and toward reality. In the Internet age "the truth will out" - eventually - so tell the truth. There are significant implications here for the world of advertising. 'Those who succeed in the new bazaar [= communication age] will be the ones who can quickly evaluate what they're hearing and learn to pass on the stuff that matters.' 
  9. Openness: Share don't steal. Digital technology is biased in favour of openness and sharing. The Internet was built on a "gift economy" based more on sharing than profit, however we have great difficulty distinguishing between sharing and stealing. At present 'we are operating a C21 digital economy on a C13 printing-press-based operating system' - We need a system upgrade that rewards creators in a digital age with zero duplication costs. 
  10. Purpose: Program or be Programmed. Digital technology is programmed and therefore is biased towards those who write the code. If we don't learn to program, we risk being programmed ourselves. 'Each media revolution offers people a new perspective through which to relate to their world .... With the advent of each new medium the status quo is revised and rewritten by those who have gained access to the tools of its creation .... Access is usually limited to a small elite.' 'The invention of the printing press led not to society of writers but one of readers; we don't make radio and TV we listen and watch it .... Computers and networks do offer us the ability to write, but the underlying capability of the computer era is actually programming - which almost no one knows how to do. We simply use the programs that have been made for us. Only an elite gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer.' 
This is an outstanding thought-provoking book which reflects on how we can regain our humanity in face of rapid technological change. Rushmore is no Luddite - he is an insider who, in the spirit of the age, has shared his insights. Program or be Programmed is a short book which will take a couple of hours to read - time well spent as it will change the way you think about our Brave New World.

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