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An Interview With Douglas Rushkoff, Author of Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age

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When it comes to writing and talking about the internet Douglas Rushkoff has been around the block (or driven his share of miles on the Information Superhighway if you prefer that metaphor). He was an early proponent of the internet, both in books and on television. In preparing for this interview I watched the wonderful documentary Digital Nation, which serves as a good reminder of how frequently he was on media outlets talking about the internet.

Rushkoff coined the term media virus and going “viral,” which he talked about in my last interview with him, for the book and documentary Life Inc.

It has been interesting in recent years to watch early internet proponents and authors like Douglas – and, fellow author and technology visionary Sherry Turkle – change tack, to encourage readers to exercise much more caution about their attitude and relationship with the internet.

Scott: What was your goal with this book? What kind of conversations were you trying to start?

Douglas: I wanted to change the course of the existing conversation about technology, which puts human beings in such a powerless place. People keep asking “what is technology doing to us?” I want people to ask instead, “what are we doing to ourselves and one another through technology?” I want people to realize that technology is not some part of nature, but a creation of people. These things are made by people, and they have purposes. And sometimes those purposes are not the same ones that we have using them. 

Most importantly, I wanted to revive some of the spirit of possibility that accompanied the emergence of these technologies in the 80s and 90s. People who saw the computer as a blank slate realized that software could be written to do anything. Today, people learn software as if it is somehow permanent and untouchable. They don’t realize that the computer is less like a magazine with articles and ads, and more like a pad of paper on which you can write anything at all. We just happen to buy ones that are already filled up. If people only understood that computers were “anything machines,” they might start to look at the possibilities for the other seemingly fixed systems in the world around them. 

You say in the introduction the book consists of “ten simple commands that might help us forge a path through the digital realm. Each command is based on one of the tendencies or “biases” of digital media, and suggests how to balance that bias with the needs of real people living and working in both physical and virtual spaces – sometimes at the very same.” Was it hard to limit these to ten? Were there others you wanted to include but you had to cut – or mesh with others? If so what were they?

It was hard to limit to ten, but better than limiting to seven, which the book industry and some psychologist determined were the maximum number that people could hold in their heads. The real reason I did ten – more than the ten commandments – was that humans have ten digits. This is the numeric bias, so to speak, of humans. It’s why we do math in “base ten.” Digits are digital, in the truest sense. 

I had a bunch I meshed – like scale and abstraction, which were originally two different ones. Or anonymity and self. “Social” ended up absorbing a bias about markets and communication. But I ended up happy with the ten I got. People are asking for commands about education, religion, and so on – but those are really more about commandments for particular situations. They want instructions. Media can’t really be biased for or against religion, so much as “belief.” Biases don’t have particular places so much as leanings. That made it easier to limit them. 

I asked Howard Rheingold if he had any questions he suggested I ask you and he said I should ask “What connections do you see, Doug, between Life, Inc., and your current work?”

In a sense they are the same book. In Life Inc, I look at the biases of centralized currency and the corporation. I treat them less as particular things, and more as systemic forces that have leanings. They are not neutral players. I wanted people to see through particular corporate players and instead look at the bias of our corporatist system. See the operating system of corporatism as just one way of running the world – not a pre-existing condition. 

This insight, for me, came from working with computers. I thought everyone working with this medium would get its open source nature, and then start to see through other supposedly closed systems. But I realized that people – particularly younger ones – tend to accept the software and websites they use at face value, and as givens. As pre-existing conditions. I wrote this new book to go back a step, and apply the insights I got from using new media tools to new media themselves. 

I first met you in an online community with Howard Rheingold and I was struck reading your last book, Life Inc., where you seemed to be singing a different tune about the internet (one more mixed). So this part jumped out at me:

“As one who once extolled the virtues of the digital to the uninitiated, I can’t help but look back and wonder if we adopted certain systems too rapidly and unthinkingly. Or even irreversibly. But those of us cheering for humanity also get  unsettled a bit too easily, ourselves. We are drawn into obsessing over the disconcerting possibilities of technology, serving as little more than an equal and opposite force to those techno-libertarians cheering the Darwinian wisdom of hive economics. Both extremes of thought and prediction are a symptom of thinking too little rather than too much about all this. They are artifacts of thinking machines that force digital, yes or no, true or false reconciliation of ideas and paradoxes that could formally be sustained in a less deterministic fashion. Contemplation itself is devalued.”

Does this mean you regret your earlier support of the Internet or just that we should be more cautious about how the Internet is affecting us?

No. It means that the extremism – the back and forth that many of us feel about the promise and peril of digital technologies – it itself a symptom of digital technologies’ bias toward polarity and extremism. In the paragraph, I try to share my own polarized experience of this stuff in order to convey that sensibility. 

Or an easier way to say would be: sometimes I love digital technology a whole lot. Sometimes I am very upset about it. Many theorists are either much too exuberant and utopian about it, or too pessimistic and fearful. There are very few who hold a balanced view. This is because digital technology tends to invite and propel these extremes. 

As for me personally, I still love technology. Like I say all over the book: I am not writing about what technology is doing to us. That’s the wrong question. I am writing about what we are doing to one another through technology.

My opinion of technology has not changed. My opinion of people may have changed, however. I am surprised most people would rather remain powerless and unaware of how the world works. I had thought this was the result of oppression. Now I fear this is just the way a majority of people choose to live. So instead of fighting power, I am now more dedicated to making people less afraid of thought. Thinking doesn’t hurt. Not that much, anyway. And it’s better to see what is happening than to die unaware. 

On a related note, one of the biggest ways I’ve seen the internet affect people including me – and I gather you since you include it here – is this matter of “always being on.” Or as you put it in the chapter titled “Do not be always on”:

“The human nervous system exists in the present tense. We live in a continuous ‘now’ and time is always passing for us. Digital technologies do not exist in time, at all. By marrying our time-based bodies and minds to technologies that are biased against time altogether, we end up divorcing ourselves from the rhythms, cycles and continuity on which we depend for coherence.” 

Do you think this a common problem people have? Do you have advice on how people deal with this? Should they sometimes leave all electronic devices off for a day or something?

I wouldn’t tell people to take any particular electronic sabbath or anything. It’s a nice idea, of course, and people are welcome to try it. But such a suggestion or prescription wouldn’t be in keeping with what I’m trying to do, which is liberate people from the false notion that they are living in reaction to technology. Or that tech is doing something to them that they have to mitigate.

The point of this command – do not be always on – and the chapter itself is to show people that digital technology is biased toward asychronous activity. It exists outside time. This means we get to do digital things in our own time. This was the advantage of email over the telephone. You lose the conversation and the inflection, but you get to answer when you want to. 

I look at the problem of information overload and distraction and attention not as problems of technology but problems of the way we use it. If we attempt to live in the same temporal reality as our digital devices, we get really screwed up. And we don’t have to. 

The simple advice is not to be always on – don’t connect yourself to your technologies in some permanent, tethered way. Use them consciously when you want to. It’s pretty simple. I get as much email as almost anyone. Upwards of a thousand emails a day. And I do not let them vibrate on arrival. They’re over on a server somewhere waiting for me. That’s the main trick. 

 
Also you mention in that part I quoted above talk of predictions. While reading this I came across this piece, where you seem to be making predictions about facebook. How does that fit with your comments above? By the way I love your comment about how your first book about the Internet was cancelled by the publisher in 1992  because at that point the Internet was seen as just a passing fad. Doh! While internet social media companies may come and go do you think the internet will be a permanent presence?

I don’t think anything is permanent. But I do believe that networking technologies will be around for a very long time. I think they will live about as long as printing has. 

I don’t like Facebook, and I really don’t like Goldman. So when they are working together to do something as universally celebrated as the AOL/TimeWarner deal was in its day, I feel obligated to offer an alternative scenario. 

You recently wrote in Why WikiLeaks hackers are a glitch, not a cyberwar: “What the internet lacks today indicates the possibilities for what can only be understood as a new operating system: a 21st century, decentralized way of conducting political, commercial and human affairs. 

Could you say more about the new OS, how turbulent the transition will be, and how long you think it will take? 

It may be so turbulent that it’s not allowed to happen. When I talk of a new OS, I really just mean a new way of doing things. 

For the past 600 years, we’ve been living under a scheme of forced centralization. Kings and Lords got threatened by the emergence of real peer-to-peer economic activity in the late middle ages, and so they made direct commerce illegal. That’s why we have corporations and central currency: they were developed by hired financiers of the 11th and 12th centuries to disrupt the rise of the middle class, what they called the bourgeoisie. 

Although they had to fight a few wars to keep this going, they managed to maintain control over our economic and social activity – even after the Enlightenment and its revolutions. So it’s a pretty well entrenched way of doing things, where people get “jobs” in order to work and spend central currency that they earn in order to get stuff. 

Now, we have a peer-to-peer medium that would let people transact directly again, even exchange ideas and methods for doing stuff. We don’t have to do everything through Amazon or Murdoch or Wal-Mart or even our government. We can engage directly. 

That is, until Comcast or whoever decides they don’t want us using our conduit that way, or net neutrality is no longer maintained. 

Both of the sites I write for have regular discussions about a topic you discuss at length in the book, namely the debate about whether people should be able to post without revealing their real or full names. Can you summarize your thinking on this?

People should be allowed to do whatever they want. That includes making sites that don’t permit comments from people who haven’t registered. Conversations work better when people own their own words. In a few cases, such as dissidents speaking out against dictators, identities are better kept secret. That’s what Amnesty International and Wikileaks are for. 

But the comments section on a blog? Moderate the fuck out of it. There’s a whole lot of anonymous losers out there who don’t want to promote good conversation. They want to feel their impact. And the easy way to feel one’s impact is to be an asshole. 

You must decide what is the purpose of your conversation space, and then run it accordingly. If it’s to help people vent their frustration by making cruel remarks to people, then give them that space. If it’s to promote a meaningful dialogue, then keep them out. 

People will tend to be less intentionally harmful if they have some identity at stake when they are posting. Even a pseudonym in which they have invested their time can be as important to them as their real name. 

I just watched the PBS program you helped make, Digital Nation. Would you encourage parents to watch that, in addition to reading your books, so they know what their kids are up to? What other advice do you have for parents of kids growing up online?

I guess that show is a good way in for parents and educators. It’s put together from the PBS perspective, which is one of a lot of concern. It’s a good show, and I’m in it, but it’s not really my story or my own perspective. It has a lot more to do with worrying about what all this tech is doing to our kids than looking critically at the structure and function of these technologies. 

So sure, it’s a great introduction, and it meets parents where they are right now. My books are less about sharing that sensibility than my making constructive advice about how to contend with these challenges. I’m much more present and forward in Program or Be Programmed. It is not reportage, like the documentary. It is an argument. 

What was it like being part of Psychic TV?

Totally fantastic. I would have kept doing it, I think, if I didn’t have a family. At least on some level. But it’s hard to do a road trip in Eastern Europe for three months while you have a two-month-old at home. It just seemed self-indulgent to play music for no money when I went and started a family. 

As for the experience itself, it’s hard to describe. It’s a bit like psychedelics, I suppose. The vibe of PTV was pure joy – even in the dark stuff we sometimes played. So it was a matter of connecting with the other people in the band while we played. Channeling something together and then passing it through to the crowd. Then taking what they brought – whatever it was – and channeling it back through each other. 

There’s a whole lot of darkness in the world these days, and playing in the band felt a bit like doing energetic cleansing. 

But the actual doing was so much fun. Six little happy faces sharing the joy of playing music together. It’s like the music becomes your collective body. All you can do is nod at each other as it happens. 

Conceptually, it’s all about cut-and-paste. Except instead of doing it literally with samples, we played in certain modalities that imitated different sounds and styles from various psychedelic genres. And then tried to make it sound like rock and roll again. 

I like your observations about social media companies and others not getting that, as you put it, “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.”

I also like this statement “The anger people feel over a social networking sites ever changing policies really has less to do with any invasion of their privacy than the monetization of their friendships.
What would you say if one of those companies tried to hire you as a consultant?

Who, like Facebook? If Facebook hired me, I’d tell them they might consider making the Facebook user the real customer. Currently, the user isn’t the customer; the user is the product. Facebook users are being sold to the advertisers and market research firms, who are the real customers. 

This is short-sighted even business-wise. The economy is going down. People aren’t buying stuff. Advertising can’t support the entire universe because there’s got to be *something* being advertised. When you start seeing advertisements about advertising, that’s how you know we’ve really reached the very end of the cycle. 

So I’d advise Facebook (if they paid me a ton of money, mind you) to put the users first, and think of services they could sell to people. This whole thing of giving away social services to people in return for their identity is just not good. It means the social services will all be geared toward making us fit for the slaughter by the company’s real customers.  

 I love your last point – that too many Americans are not interested in being programmers so much as just using programs. What do you think should or could be done to change this?  A return to computer classes that focus directly on programming 

Yeah. It’d be great for them to be exposed to computers, even for just a few weeks. Most kids won’t have to learn full-on programming. But it would be such a powerful experience for them to know what a program is, and that people actually make choices about what computers do. I think kids in about fourth grade should be shown computers. It’s really easy and fun. Just around when they learn their first algorithm – long division – they should be introduced to programming. 

Then later, when they take a class in “computers” in high school, they won’t just learn Microsoft Word and Excel. They could still take secretarial courses if they’re interested, of course, and learn those programs the way people learned shorthand and typing a long time ago. But they should be able to take classes in high school where they learn computer languages. Kids should be able to find classes that help them understand that computers aren’t just born, like carrots. 

And even if schools don’t follow my advice voluntarily, they’ll be sure to try to implement some classes in coding once a bunch of Chinese hackers take down Chase. Only then it might be too late. 

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.