Thoughts on 'Program or Be Programmed'

Friday October 22, 2010

Program or Be Programmed
Douglas Rushkoff

I found this book after following a long trail from Bit Literacy, which I originally had found and read because it was free and featured on the Apple bookstore. Program or Be Programmed was also an opportunity to try using a PDF ebook from an independent publisher in iBooks. Kind of a cool factor there.

I thought this book would be about programming in the television sense of content - "don't just read, write; don't just watch, do," that sort of thing. And it sort of is - but he really means program in the "write computer programs" sense.

Despite the high-tech imperative, Rushkoff advocates more for limiting abuse of technology in ways that decrease quality of life. He is like Bit Literacy's author in emphasizing that people should be conscious of and control how they use technology. He can almost seem anti-technology. His personal example is that he does not use any sort of projected display when he does talks, because he wants to focus on the quality of his real in-person presence. You can watch PowerPoint slides without a person there, after all.

Rushkoff's central programming argument is not ever really all that compelling, but it is kind of interesting. He says that as technology has advanced, the masses have been one level behind the state of the art. So even when writing was invented, most people only listened to things read to them by priests or whatever. When printing was invented, people started to read but not write (or, publish). Now with computers and the Internet, everybody's writing, but still only specialists are programming. Rushkoff thinks programming is important and thinks ordinary people should be doing it too, or at least learning enough to understand it. There's a little bit of a "programming will create the future hive-mind of Homo sapiens neo" thing going on too, but just a touch.

Rushkoff also explains this sort of historic progression with a lot of references to the Jewish people, so that when writing is invented it is with a 22-letter alphabet, etc. Another interesting thing he does is try to connect the nature of monotheism (an "abstract god") to the nature of writing. Laws and so on become really possible with writing. Sort of an interesting observation.

I mostly agree with a lot of what Rushkoff has to say, as far as using technology intelligently, being honest and fair in our dealings with people online and off, etc. I also like that his organization is fairly clear. Even if the whole book is just a list of good recommendations, that much is clear from the table of contents. Here is that table of contents with a few quotes I thought were interesting stuck in the appropriate chapters:

1) Time: Do not be always on
2) Place: Live in person
3) Choice: You may always choose none of the above
4) Complexity: You are never completely right

"We lose sight of the fact that our digital tools are modeling reality, not substituting for it, and mistake its oversimplified contours for the way things should be. By acknowledging the bias of the digital toward a reduction of complexity, we regain the ability to treat its simulations as models occurring in a vacuum rather than accurate depictions of our world."

I think this is not an exclusively digital phenomenon but a pitfall of the scientific worldview generally. Something I think about quite a bit. People tend to think that the model is reality.

5) Scale: One size does not fit all

"Language is an abstraction of the real world, where sounds represent things and actions. It requires a tremendous amount of agreement, so that the same words mean the same thing to different people."

Language is another big problem. People tend to think that words are ideas. Words are just sounds. Like I said, I agree with a lot of this Rushkoff guy's stuff.

It's also in this chapter that Rushkoff mentions Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher who wrote a well-known essay on art and photography. I was interested so I found it and read it and was a little disappointed that it didn't totally live up to the expectations I had based on Rushkoff's interpretation. I wrote some thoughts on it.

6) Identity: Be yourself
7) Social: Do not sell your friends

"It turned out, content is not king - contact is. And so what we now call 'social media' was born."

I remember that "content is king" thing, from when people wanted their web sites to be popular even though there was nothing on the site. "Content is king" explained why nobody went to those sites - there was nothing to see. But I agree with Rushkoff that the real draw of the Internet, most of the time, is socialization, communication with friends, "connection." People really go for that stuff.

8) Fact: Tell the truth
9) Openness: Share, don't steal
10) Purpose: Program or be programmed

Honestly the weakest part of the whole book is it's titular assertion about programming. I'm all for computer literacy, not being an idiot, etc., but I don't see a compelling argument behind this one, and exactly what he means isn't all that clear either. Is it enough just to understand how computers are programmed an be a wary consumer? Do I have to write every line of code on all my machines? I've done more programming than the average bloke, but I don't do it now and I don't use anything I ever coded myself. Am I okay, by Rushkoff's rules? I'm not sure. I think I'm okay, regardless. It's a book with a lot of advice I agree with, and it dovetails nicely with Bit Literacy, for a technology life stance that seems reasonable to me. Good stuff. Still not sure about the meaning of life though.


The book was based on a talk, which is interesting to me in terms of how the book originated. Also, the talk has the main kernel of the book really, at least the part related to the title, so if you watch this five-minute video you get the main stuff. I watched the video after reading the book and writing all that mess above. (embedded youtube there)

The book is available (exclusively) online here:

And this book isn't bad either; much more practical. Also free.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.