For over two decades, Douglas Rushkoff has been dragging us all out near the horizon, trying to show us glimpses of our own future. Though he’s written books on everything from counterculture and video games to advertising and Judaism, he’s always maintained a media theorist’s bent: one part Marshall McLuhan, one part Neil Postman, and one part a mix of many significant others. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (OR Books, 2010) finds him back at the core of what he does. Simply put, this little book (it runs just shy of 150 pages) is the missing manual for our wild, wired world.
“Whoever controls the metaphor governs the mind.” — Hakim Bey
Rushkoff agrees with many media thinkers that we are going through a major shift in the way we conceive, connect, and communicate with each other. His concern is that we’re conceding control of this shift to forces that may not have our best interests in mind. “We teach kids how to use software to write,” he writes, “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” (p. 13). We’re conceiving our worlds using metaphors invented by others. This is an important insight and one that helps make up the core of his critique. This book is more Innis’ biases of media than it is McLhaun’s laws of media, and it left me astounded — especially after reading several books on the subject that were the textual equivalent of fly-over states. Program or Be Programmed is a welcome stop along the way.
I first interviewed Doug Rushkoff in 1999. We’ve stayed in touch since and discussed many ideas over the intervening decade, but we haven’t recorded any of these exchanges. I used this book as an opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Roy Christopher: Program or Be Programmed seems to distill quite a lot of your thinking about our online world from the past twenty-odd years. What prompted you to directly address these issues now?
Douglas Rushkoff: I guess it’s because the first generation of true “screenagers” or digital natives have finally come of age and, to my surprise, seem less digitally literate than their digital immigrant counterparts. I’ve written a number of books applying the insights of digital culture — of its do-it-yourself, hacker ethos — to other areas, such as government, religion, and the economy. But I realize that we don’t even relate to digital culture from the perspective of cultural programmers. We tend to accept the programs we use as given circumstances, rather than as the creations of people with intentions.
So I wanted to go back and write something of a “poetics” of digital media, sharing the main biases of digital technologies so that people can approach them as real users, makers, and programmers, rather than just as passive consumers.
If anything in particular prompted me, it was watching the way smart writers and thinkers were arguing back and forth in books and documentaries about whether digital technology is good for us or bad for us. I think it’s less a question of what the technology is doing to us than what we are choosing to do to one another with these technologies. If we’re even choosing anything at all.
RC: You mention in the book that anyone who seems a bit too critical of digital media is labeled a Luddite and a party-pooper, yet you were able to be critical, serious, and hopeful all at the same time. What’s the difference between your approach and that of other critics of all-things-digital?
DR: I think the main difference is that I’m more concerned with human intention and how it is either supported or repressed in the digital realm. Empathy is repressed, the ability to connect over long distanced is enhanced. I go down to the very structure and functioning of these tools and interfaces to reveal how they are intrinsically biased toward certain kinds of outcomes.
So I’m less concerned with how a technology effects us, than how our application or misapplication of a technology works for or against our intentions. And, perhaps more importantly, how the intentions of our programmers remain embedded in the technologies we use. I’m not judging a technology one way or the other; rather, I am calling for people to make some effort to understand what the technologies they are using were made for, and whether that makes it the right tool for the job they’re using it for.
RC: You evoke Harold Innis throughout this book. Do you think there’s something that he covers more thoroughly or usefully than other media theorists since?
DR: I think he was better at looking at media shaping the nature and tenor of the social activity occurring on it, or around it. He’s the guy who would have seen how cell phones change the nature of our social contract on the street, turning a once-public space into lots of separate little private spaces. As far as media-ecology goes, he was probably the purest theorist.
RC: The last programming class I took was a Visual Basic class in which even the programming was obscured by a graphical interface: there was little in the way of real code. For those of us interested, what’s the first step in becoming a programmer now?
DR: I guess it depends on your interests. There are many different places to start. You could go back and learn Basic, one of the simplest computer languages, in order to see the way lines of code in a program flow. Or you could even just get a program like Director, and sequence some events. Hypercard was a great little tool that gave people a sense of running a script.
If I were starting, I’d just grab a big fat book that starts from the beginning, like Dan Shiffman’s book Learning Processing (Morgan Kaufman, 2008). You can sit down with a book like that and, with no knowledge at all, end up with a fairly good sense of programming in a couple of weeks.
I’m not asking everyone be a programmer at this point. Not this generation, anyway. That’s a bit like asking illiterate adults to learn how to read when they can just listen the radio or books on tape. I get that. But for those who will be living in increasingly digital spaces, programming will amount to the new literacy.
RC: Though you never stray too far, you seem to have come back to your core work in this book. What’s next?
DR: I have no idea, really. Having come “home” to a book on pure media theory applied to our real experience, I feel like I’ve returned to my core competence. I feel like I should stick here a while and talk about these issues for a year or so until they really sink in.
I’ve got a graphic novel coming out next year, finally, called ADD. It’s about kids who are raised from birth (actually, earlier) to be video game testers. I’d love to see that story get developed for other media, and then get to play around in television or film. There are also rumblings about doing another Frontline documentary. Something following up on “Digital Nation,” which I’d like to do in order to get more of my own ideas out there to the non-reading public.
I guess we’ll see.
Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna (the filmmakers behind the film Zizek!) put this short video together to help illustrate the ideas in Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed [runtime: 2:18]: