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Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age

by Douglas Rushkoff
OR Books, New York, 2010
152 pp., illus. 11 b/w. Trade, $16.00; eBook, $10.00.
ISBN: 978-1-935928-15-7; ISBN: 978-1-935928-16-4.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


Douglas Rushkoff has, through his books, columns, and commentaries, established himself as a leading expert extolling the virtues of digital media and society. In Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, however, Rushkoff takes a different tack, wondering "if we adopted certain systems too rapidly and unthinkingly" (18).

We have, he says, embraced digital technologies and literacies "without learning how they work and work on us. And so, we remain one step behind the capability actually being offered us" (13). We tend to think less about how to "integrate new tools in our lives than about how simply to keep up. . . . As a result, instead of optimizing our machines for humanity . . . we are optimizing humans for machinery . . . replicating the very function of cognition through external, extra-human mechanisms . . . that have the ability to think and operate other components in the neural network—namely, us" (16).

We are, he writes, living in a time where many are aware of problems engendered by digital technologies, yet few of us have any understanding of what is happening and how to cope. The solution, says Rushkoff, is to understand how such "thinking" devices and systems are programmed, even to have some input into how it is done, and for what purposes (17). In short, learn to program our digital technology or be programmed by it.

Sustained thought and discussion about the problem, and its possible solutions needs to be started, says Rushkoff, and so, he endeavors to explain 10 of what he considers the most significant biases of digital media technologies. Each bias, he says, stems from the tendency of digital technology to promote one set of behaviors over others. A chapter is devoted to each bias, along with discussion of how to turn these liabilities into opportunities, suggesting how to balance each bias with the needs of real people using that technology to live and work in both physical and virtual spaces, sometimes simultaneously.

For example, Chapter 1, "Time," Rushkoff notes "because computer code is biased away from continuous time, so too are the programs built on it, and the human behaviors those programs encourage" (25). The command: " Do Not Be Always On." Engage with the digital network as a choice rather than an expectation. Where the computer lives by its internal clock, humans live in the spaces between the clock's ticking, where time actually passes. "Do not surrender time to a technology that knows and needs no such thing" (34).

In Chapter 2, "Place," Rushkoff says "digital media are biased away from the local, and toward dislocation" (37). The command: "Live in Person." Exploit technology's strength in delivering interactivity over distance, but preserve the ability to engage without its interference when we want to connect locally. Chose when we wish to live and work in real places, with one another, and, unique to humans, in person.

Chapter 3, "Choice," focuses on how "the digital realm is biased toward choice, because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discrete, yes-or-no, symbolic language. This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere" (49). The command: "You May Always Choose None of the Above."  Freedom to withhold choice, to resist categorization, or even to choose something not on the list, is always available. This freedom of choice distinguishes human life from its digital imitations.

The bias highlighted in Chapter 4, "Complexity," is that "digital technology—and those of us using it—is biased toward a reduction of complexity" (56). The command: "You Are Never Completely Right." Digital simulations are models, and models are necessarily reductive. They are limited by design, like maps. They can chart the territory, but never replace the experience of knowing and understanding that territory.

Chapter 5, "Scale," notes "on the net, everything is occurring on the same abstracted and universal level. Survival in a purely digital realm—particularly in business—means being able to scale, and winning means being able to move up one level of abstraction beyond everyone else" (68). The command: "One Size Does Not Fit All." Abstraction occurs at one level removed from reality, whether in the physical or virtual world. Abstraction can provide a way to undertake and succeed at various endeavors in either world. The danger is to live solely in the abstraction, the simulated. Instead, understand and use the technologies that promote abstraction to write the code from which such symbolic representations of reality are created.

Chapter 6, "Identity," argues "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—or even the worst natures of others. Because digital technology is biased toward depersonalization, we must make an effort not to operate anonymously, unless absolutely necessary. We must be ourselves" (83). The command: "Be Yourself." Maintain a strict sense of online identity. Realize that nothing online is off the record. Do not say anything you would not be proud to see quoted, shared, and linked to. Do not put words into the digital realm unless you are willing to own them (89).

Chapter 7, "Social," notes "our digital networks are biased toward social connections—toward contact. Any effort to redefine or hijack those connections for profit ends up compromising the integrity of the network itself and compromising the real promise of contact" (93-94). The command: "Do Not Sell Your Friends."  Digital interactive technologies promote networking on greater levels of organization. Each new communication technology affords new excuses/ways to connect and collaborate with one another. Your friends are not the content of your social network; rather, they are the connection that makes the network happen and should not be shared simply because the creators of social networking software want to harvest them for advertising or marketing purposes.

The bias highlighted in Chapter 8, "Fact," is "our interactions in digital media shifts back toward the nonfiction on which we all depend to make sense of our world, get the most done, and have the most fun. The more valuable, truthful, and real our messages, the more they will spread and better we will do" (106). The command: "Tell the Truth." A person's value in the digital realm is dependent on the strength of their facts and ideas, or the disinterest of others to ascertain either [my addition]. Those who communicate well in the digital realm are the ones who can quickly evaluate and pass along what matters to others. They are the authorities, the ones who discover and innovate, who find and do things worthy of attention, who create more value for everyone. The way to flourish is to tell the truth, and to have a truth to tell (111).

Chapter 9, "Openness," notes a bias in digital technology toward openness. "The architecture of shared resources, as well as the gift economy through which the net was developed, has engendered a bias toward openness. It's as if our digital activity wants to be shared with others. As a culture and economy inexperienced in this sort of collaboration, however, we have great trouble distinguishing between sharing and stealing" (114-115). The command: "Share, Don't Steal."  To function, the digital community must learn to abide by standards that will evolve from programmers developing software together and learning to capture some of the value they create. Innovations occur from someone building off another's innovations. Such participation, however, is dependent upon knowing both the programming skills necessary to improve a software program and the social code necessary to respect the contributions of others. A real understanding of both forms of code "makes stealing a nonstarter" (127).

Chapter 10, "Purpose," concludes the book noting that digital technology is programmed and is biased toward those with the capacity to write the code. Not understanding the coding, or at least that there is code behind any interface, puts one at the mercy of those who do the programming, those paying the programmers, even the technology itself. The bias, simply put, is "programming is the sweet spot, the high leverage point in a digital society. If we don't learn to program, we risk being programmed ourselves" (133). The command: "Program or Be Programmed" is also the bottom line through Rushkoff's self-described "poetics" (20). "[Digital technologies] are not just objects, but systems embedded with purpose. They act with intention. If we don't know how they work, we won't even know what they want. The less involved and aware we are of the way our technologies are programmed and program themselves, the more narrow our choices will become; the less we will be able to envision alternatives to the pathways described by our programs; and the more our lives and experiences will be dictated by their biases. On the other hand, the more humans become involved in their design, the more humanely inspired these tools will end up behaving" (142-143).

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