Program or Be Programmed
by Venessa Miemis
Thanks to digital technologies and networked activity, we’re living through a global transition that is redefining how culture and commerce operate. We’re presented with the opportunity to be active participants in this process, steering ourselves into new modes of civilization, verse being just passive spectators. But if we don’t understand the biases of the tools and mediums we’re using, we’ll risk being slaves instead of masters.
This is not the first time this has happened, but it may be the most significant one so far. Every media revolution has given the people a sneak peek of the control panel of civilization, and a chance to view the world through a new lens. When humans developed language, we were able to pass on knowledge and experiences, and allow for progress. We could both listen and speak.
When we developed alphabets and literacy, we were able to create laws and accountability, and a new kind of authority. Of course, it was the elites that knew how to read these symbols – the masses could just gather in the town square and listen.
With the invention of the printing press, a society of readers developed. But the elites still controlled the means of production, the access to the presses themselves. We’ve seen the same patterns with broadcast radio and television. We don’t create, we watch and consume.
Now with the digital revolution, we can finally be the writers, sharing our thoughts and opinions with each other through blogs, photos, and social networks. But we’re still a step behind from the “elites” – those that do the programming, write the software, design the interfaces, own the pipes, and understand that the way the tools are designed will influence and shape our real world thoughts and behaviors when using them.
And so here we are today, viewing the potential backwards: fetishizing the tools themselves and wondering how to advertise on and monetize from social networks, instead of putting humanity first, and focusing on how a connected society can open new possibilities for the way we work, create and exchange value, engage with one another, collaborate, and evolve socially and spiritually.
At least, this was the message I took away from Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, a new book by Douglas Rushkoff. He posits that all media and technologies have biases that promote certain sets of behaviors over others. If we’re not prepared to go so far as to learn how to actually program software ourselves, we should at least understand the biases involved so that we can protect against their potential pitfalls.
Below are the Ten Commands, and my interpretation of what each means:
1. Time: Do Not Be Always On
We’re all familiar with this one. The bias of digital technology is against continuous time – it can more accurately be thought of as asynchronous, with operations happening from decision to decision, command to command. As the web continues to feel increasingly “real-time,” we’re tricked into thinking we’re supposed to be able to somehow keep up – constantly checking in, updating, tweeting, and responding. Everything competes for our attention, and we forget what’s even important anymore. Online and offline continue to blur, and without consciously making a choice of how to engage in this medium, we end up with anxiety and fatigue instead of empowerment and efficiency.
I certainly can relate, having fallen into this trap myself. When I started this blog, I spent the majority of my time reading articles and perspectives, reflecting, forming my own opinion, and then writing. As time went by and I built relationships with people, I found that my green light was always on in gmail and skype, I compulsively checked and responded to emails, and started to transition from a place of reflection to a place of reaction. The depth, quality, and consistency of my posts went down, and I didn’t seem to have time to even THINK anymore.
I finally realized this was all illusion, and the more available you make yourself, the more that openness will be exploited. Eventually you realize that you are the one in control of setting boundaries. As I look around the blogosphere, I notice that others are putting their foot down too. I saw a post on January 1 on Om Malik’s blog (founder of GigaOm), saying he was taking a one month break from all things digital. I also noticed on Danah Boyd’s blog that she was taking a month long “email sabbatical.” The funny thing is, we seem to think our immediacy and availability is so necessary, but take a look at the comments section of either of those posts. Fans and supporters cheer them on and commend them for having the discipline to unplug.
The point is, we don’t need to be always on and always available all the time. It’s bad for us, our nervous systems, and ultimately, our relationships. Boundaries are healthy and help us make efficient use of our time.
2. Place: Live in Person
Again, I can totally relate to this. As someone who spends a lot of time engaged in identifying trends, constructing future scenarios, and strategic planning, my relationship to the present reality is already somewhat objective. Add in the ability to use the web as a channel to further mediate my experience, and I become more of a curator of what’s going on around me than one who is actually experiencing that thing.
For some things this is great – i.e. I’m glad I’ve been able to watch the events unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt because that experience is being broadcast. But when it comes to local production and community relationships, actually being present is what builds social capital and strengthens social fabric. To turn to a decentralized medium like the web to filter real interaction can be desensitizing and disembodying.
Not that being here isn’t real – we’re all real people engaging through this medium – but it is a simulated environment, without the spectrum and richness of actual real life. Marketers have certainly figured out how to make simulations feel like they’ll provide the same richness of the real thing.
For instance, we may not get our oats from a local farm anymore, but the Quaker Oats imagery gives us that same cozy feeling. We may not go to a local CSA or farmer’s market for fresh vegetables, but the Green Giant Fresh label would like us to believe that it’s approximately the same thing.
These give us a feeling of locality and community, but they don’t actually provide it at all. (I can’t help but think of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism.)
I love the connections that are possible because of networked technologies, but I see now that it is not that difficult for this environment to become a replacement for, instead of a faciliatator of, the kinds of changes we want to see in the actual world. The web should be an interface, not a final destination.
3. Choice: You May Always Choose None of the Above
The digital sphere is biased towards choice. Everything can be reduced down to digits, 1’s and 0’s, yes or no, on or off. We input information in order to create better representations of the world and ourselves, but something is always lost in translation. As Korzybski famously put it, “The map is not the territory.”
Sometimes we forget that despite how granular the inputs are, defining ourselves and the things we care about as ‘either this or that’ is rarely so simple. It’s nice that we have choices for those inputs, that’s good, but forced choices – not so good. If we agree to categorize ourselves based on the choices available, we become more predictable, our potential for exposure to novelty narrows, and we conveniently transform into statistics for consumer research and targeted advertising.
In some instances, all this tagging and categorization based on preferences is valued for the personalization it gives us and assistance in decision making. But, we should be aware that there is a point where a trade-off is being made, and we begin to voluntarily limit our perspectives and ability for growth.
4. Complexity: You Are Never Completely Right
Digital technology is biased toward the reduction of complexity. Meaning, these tools create models and simulations, and regardless of how complete they may seem, they are still oversimplifications of the complexity and nuances of reality.
In real life, things are complex, paradoxical, contradictory, and often irrational – particularly when we’re talking about human emotions. The simplification the web provides makes some things more convenient, but creates complications elsewhere. Just think of the many problems people have had in using a service like Facebook, and trying to organize their pages so that the “friend” that is their coworker or mechanic doesn’t have the same access to information as their grandmother or spouse.
Sure, some kinds of information can be reduced to a data point, but we need to stay conscious of what is lost without the context surrounding it. I’ve developed a lot of new ideas (at least, they are new to me) and connected the dots between various pieces of information thanks to the access to knowledge availability on the web – but I also realize that many of these ideas are just that – untested models that function very well in my head, but don’t have a real-world equivalent for me to test against. No amount of reading or theorizing can replace prototyping, testing, and experiential learning and knowledge building.
Digital simulations are extraordinarily useful, but also necessarily reductive. Though these tools can generate detailed and interactive maps of our world, reality is never quite so black and white.
5. Scale: One Size Does Not Fit All
“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.”
In a sense, our ability to abstract has been a driving force of civilization. We fill our world with signs, symbols, and representations in order to have higher level interactions and complexity. For instance, we agree upon a highly abstract concept like money in order to create a standardized instrument for economic activity. But as we’ve seen, abstraction leads to more abstraction – those in banking created hedge funds and derivative instruments that allow money to be made from money, without actually having to create any real value. In fact, it seems the closer you are to the actual creation of value, the further you get from the money.
In the digital realm, we also get caught into the trap of putting more emphasis on the representation of value than on the value itself. For instance, building a website that talks about how to accomplish social change, or “liking” a cause or subscribing to a mailing list to ‘join a movement,’ and confusing that online behavior with activism that has an impact in the physical world. In essence, we’re all marketing to each other instead of just doing the thing we’re advocating.
So just because we’re able to “scale” our message to lots of fans and followers, that abstraction may become untethered from any association to reality. Just as it could be said that bankers have become entranced with the abstractions of currency without regard to creating actual value, we must also be careful not to mistake our online assertions as a substitute for taking action in the world and actually doing something.
6. Identity: Be Yourself
“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.”
In autocratic regimes where challenging authority can get you killed, anonymity is a safety measure. But in situations where we are capable of building trust with strangers and engaging in civil discourse, being identifiable means believing in authenticity and standing behind what we say. It’s how we build our online reputations and open opportunities to collaborate and create value with others.
In some cases there are repercussions, especially for those not thinking about the permanence and staying power of anything that’s posted on the web, and how that information might be perceived by, say, a future employer. But by approaching the digital experience with the understanding that nothing is really off the record, we can shape our online identities by being willing to own the words we say.
7. Social: Do Not Sell Your Friends
“Our digital networks are biased toward social connections – toward contact. Any effort to redefine or hijack those connections for profit end up compromising the integrity of the network itself, and compromising the real promise of contact.”
The premise here is that the whole notion of “social media” is a bit of a misnomer. The net isn’t ‘becoming’ a social platform, it is in fact the essence of what it has always been. When the first computer networks were designed, it was for the purpose of scientists to exchange research and share findings with one another, after all.
As Rushkoff put it, “The history of the Internet can probably best be understood as a social medium repeatedly shaking off attempts to turn it into something else.”
Human evolution can be thought of increasingly complex arrangements of interaction and communication, with the web being the most recent technological creation to facilitate it. There is a potential here for new levels of connectedness, collaboration, culture, and commerce – if we choose it.
The risk is that we concede the web as a space best suited for commercialization, throw net neutrality out the window, and turn our networks into commodities that we attempt to quantify and then monetize.
We’re nearing the point where if we don’t make the choice of how we’d like to see this play out, it will be made for us.
8. Fact: Tell the Truth
“The bias of 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. We must learn to tell the truth.”
The web is like a bazaar for memes.
We post our thoughts and ideas and see which ones spread. Useful ones get paired up with other useful ones, and then we have innovation.
The most valued authorities in the digital space will prove to be the ones that create more signal than noise and convey information that actually matters, that’s socially relevant, and significant to others. If you want to ‘go viral’ – try doing something that has the honest purpose of being useful in the lives of others, and then spread the word about it. It’s easier than just marketing marketing.
9. Openness: Share, Don’t Steal
“Digital technology’s architecture of shared resources, as well as the gift economy through which the net was developed, have engendered a bias toward openness. It’s as if our digital activity wants to be shared with others. Because we are not used to operating in a realm with these biases, however, we often exploit the openness of others or end up exploited ourselves. By learning the difference between sharing and stealing, we can promote openness without succumbing to selfishness.”
In a system that encourages sharing and openness, there is a different guiding ethos that celebrates collaboration, intrinsic motivation, fun, and creativity. At the same time, artists, programmers, developers, writers, designers, makers, and creatives of all kinds deserve to be fairly compensated for their contributions to culture and the open web.
The best way to go about doing this is still yet to be determined. Just as the digital world has allowed for new kinds of value creation, it may also be the place to allow for new methods of transacting.
Again from Rushkoff:
“Peer-to-peer currencies are based in the abundance of production, rather than the scarcity of lending. This makes them biased, as is the net, toward transaction and exchange rather than hoarding for interest.”
We’ve seen the success of virtual currencies in game worlds. It may be only a matter of time until we make them for the real world, too.
10. Purpose: Program or Be Programmed
“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.”
In the climax of the book, Rushkoff puts programmers in the seat of the puppetmasters of society. I understand the sentiment, and have felt the frustration before of not knowing how to create the tools I imagine in my head. There’s a difference between starting a Ning group or a Facebook page, and actually building the app that could directly facilitate the kind of behavior I’d like to encourage.
At the same time, I don’t see myself becoming a programmer. But teaming up with programmers and understanding some of the basics of how it works is definitely something I’m working on. I think the bigger picture, and it’s echoed in the book, is that we should understand the biases of the digital technology that we’re surrounded by, and realize that in every sense of the word, we are being programmed.
This has been the case since the beginning of civilization. Those that make the rules of the game control it. If we understand the rules, we can be more effective players. If we can break the rules, circumvent them, or create new rules altogether, we create new games.
Like Buckminster Fuller said:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
My takeaway was that in order to participate fully in a digital age, we need to raise our awareness and consciousness of what is going on around us. If we just mindlessly use the tools in front of us, and accept the version of “how things work” that these tools imply, then we miss a big opportunity.
If we are not willing or able to learn how to program the digital tools that we use, we should at least understand the biases that are embedded within them. If we don’t, we subordinate ourselves to digital technologies, while they serve the intentions of their designers.
This book was a great read and really resonated with me on a lot of levels. You can get your copy here on OR Books, where 10% of proceeds will go to the WikiMedia Foundation and Archive.org.
And here’s Rushkoff’s SXSW talk of the same name:
Venessa Miemis is a Media Studies graduate student at the New School in NYC, exploring what happens at the intersection of technology, culture, and communication. Connect with her at www.emergentbydesign.com and on Twitter @venessamiemis.