Editor’s Note: Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age is now available so I’m reprinting my review that was originally published here on September 12. I’ve also embedded a new video of Rushkoff discussing the themes of the book.
Some authors are right there just when you need them.
When I first encountered media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and his work I was in the wake of a religious crisis. My adolescence had been dominated by years of an intense evangelical Christianity which eventually fell apart. In college I sought to piece together some kind of spiritual understanding beyond the poles of fundamentalist belief and the militant Harris/Hitchens/Dawkins atheism that was fashionable at the time. Enter Rushkoff’s nonfiction book Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism and his comic book series Testament. Both were useful guides for how to consider spiritual texts. It’s not that the Bible necessarily happened as written so much as it’s always happening. The myths contain deep spiritual truths that are continually applicable to our lives.
During my college years I had the pleasure of meeting Rushkoff when he came to give a talk at my alma mater Ball State. At the time I made it my business to defend him when he was brutally attacked by an up-and-coming conservative streetfighter, my classmate and then-ideological rival Amanda Carpenter. She tried to make the case that Rushkoff was some kind of anti-American, Ward Churchill type and that Ball State bringing him to campus was another example of indoctrination. Yeah, a bit off the mark there. Oh well, we all do and say stupid things in college — I certainly did. Rushkoff and I stayed in touch after that, with me checking in every six months or so.
After graduating I embarked on a two-and-a-half year expedition into the jungles of corporate America. (Also known as “getting a real job, trying to jumpstart a writing career, and doing everything possible to avoid ending up in the parents’ basement.”) Near the tail end of it Rushkoff published a book which more or less explained perfectly everything I had been experiencing. Life, Inc.: How the World Became A Corporation and How To Take It Back documented how corporations emerged and why they behaved in the often mysterious ways they did.
Why, oh, why did it have to come out in the spring of 2009 instead of the fall of 2006? (See my review for FrontPage here, the last article I wrote as a freelance contributor before making the jump to an editor in August of ’09.)
And here Rushkoff is again, now delivering a book on a silver platter that might as well be written for me personally. Managing NewsReal Blog and trying to build it into the “powerhouse blog” that David Horowitz has charged me with creating means I swim in the digital sea 7-10 hours a day (it varies depending on how effective my wife April is at peeling me off.) So as he previously provided penetrating explanations of my two former full-time obsessions (religion and corporatism) now he offers a roadmap for this blogosphere, twitterverse, facebookistan, youtubian chaos.
This is familiar territory for Rushkoff. In the ’90s he first made his name as something of an internet evangelist, preaching the virtues of online life. Now he’s starting to have some Second Thoughts, more attuned to the pitfalls that have emerged since the web’s toddler days. Almost two decades have started to show some problem areas. Refreshingly, as with his previous books, Rushkoff’s solutions are practical. As I’ve argued before, Rushkoff isn’t a leftist — he a counterculturalist. And his books are about providing analyses which the individual can then use to enhance their own lives and communities.
Not to give away all of Rushkoff’s candy, I’m going to focus on five of his ten commands and discuss them as they would relate to the news and politico junkies who read NRB as well as the political issues we care about most.
1. Do Not Be “Always On”
The human nervous system exists in the present tense. Even if our brains don’t register what’s happening in the world around us until a few milliseconds after it’s occurred, our experience of time is continuous. We live in a “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.
Does anyone still remember how the internet was 13 years ago in the late ’90s? When to get online you had to sit at your computer and “log on”? And doing so would tie up your phone line so no one could call you? As Rushkoff observes in this first chapter it used to be that getting online was “an intentional act.” It’s not anymore, though. Now we are always online whether we realize it or not. The internet is in our pockets on our phones. It’s coming at us via text messages. When we’re on our computers we’re online by default – with news, emails, and instant messages always streaming in.
And it can a bit overwhelming sometimes. The mass of information out there is greater than any of us can comprehend — the internet reminds us of that every day.
I get emails like this from our readers all the time. “Shannon” had sent me a link to the 3 Things About Islam video — a great one that we’d run weeks ago. I responded thanking her and letting her know we were aware of it and had already featured it. She replied:
Sorry I missed it. So hard to follow everything. So much is going on right now, I can’t keep up
Don’t worry. I can’t keep up either — and I spend 60 hours a week trying! No one can.
To those of us who engage in the political project to defend freedom this access to seemingly limitless streams of information serves to draw us in more and more. There’s always another blog post to read, another video to watch, a breaking news story you need to know about now. The amount of information out there — both the basic knowledge building blocks and the new current events — is staggering. And it’s coming at us 24/7 from a phone buzzing like a bee in our pockets, ready to sting us if we ignore it.
Technology changes us physically and mentally. Rushkoff writes,
There’s a misplaced anxiety here. Our brains adapt to different situations. Technologies have always changed us. Fire gave us a way to cook meat, essentially pre-digesting food and altering the evolution of both our teeth and digestive tract. Wearing fur allowed us to shed our own. Likewise, text changed the way we process and remember information, and television changed the way our brains relate to three-dimensional space.
Digital media now extends some of these trajectories, while adding a few of its own. The outsourcing of our memory to machines expands the amount of data to which we have access, but degrades our brain’s own ability to remember things. Yet this process of offloading our remembered information began with the invention of text, and met with similar critique even back then. We have been consistently using our brains less as hard drives, and more as processors – putting our mental resources into active RAM. What’s different now, however, is that it’s not just lists, dates, and recipes that are being stored for us, but entire processes. The processes we used to use for finding a doctor or a friend, mapping a route or choosing a restaurant are being replaced by machines that may, in fact, do it better. What we lose in the bargain, however, is not just the ability to remember certain facts, but to call upon certain skills.
My Rushkoff-ism #1 to NRB‘s readers is the one I have the hardest time following myself: sometimes you need to disengage from the digital life and the continuous political culture. Do not try and keep up with everything. Just focus on a few key issues where you might be able to make a difference. Turn the phone off.
Understand command 4 up next and you’ll see why this is important…
You are never completely right.
Although they allowed us to work with certain kinds of complexity in the first place, our digital tools often oversimplify nuanced problems. Biased against contradiction and compromise, our digital media tend to polarize us into opposing camps, incapable of recognizing shared values or dealing with paradox. On the net, we cast out for answers through simple search terms rather than diving into an inquiry and following extended lines of logic. We lose sight of the fact that our digital tools are modeling reality, not substituting for it, and mistake its over-simplified contours for the way things should be. By acknowledging the bias of the digital towards 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.
The power of the google search and the wikipedia entry to rewire our brains is not something we think about all that much. The process we use for finding information will shape our conclusions. If two people set out to investigate Islam and one has a laptop with an internet connection and the other a library card then that fact alone will dramatically shape their conclusions. It’s the difference between driving across the country to reach one’s destination versus teleporting over “Star Trek”-style. Which person is going to have a better understanding of the territory?
One of the areas that I see an element of Rushkoff’s insight here most clearly is in some of the sentiments I’ve seen about Islam.
I’ll give John Gwardeano his due: yes, there are anti-Muslim bigots on the Right. But they’re not those of us — Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Walid Shoebat, Brigitte Gabriel, Wafa Sultan, Andy McCarthy, Jamie Glazov, Bosch Fawstin, Nonie Darwish, Howard Bloom, etc. — who take a hardline stance against Islam itself, describing the religious ideology and its “prophet” accurately. (As I’ve said previously: Wage war on Islam if you care about Muslims.) I’ve come across plenty of genuinely anti-Muslim types in the bowels of the twitterverse and comment sections.
A week ago I got this message from our contact form from a woman I’ll call “Maryanne”:
My gut feeling with all that I have read and videos I have seen that there is NO such thing as a Moderate Muslim.
Tell me if I am wrong.
God bless Sir and keep up the great writings.
*Sigh.* I responded:
You’re wrong. As Geert Wilders says, “There are moderate Muslims, but there is no moderate Islam.” Just as with all religions there are many, many people who identify with the religion but don’t take it seriously and don’t practice it. Think of all the Christians and Jews who call themselves such but don’t actually do as their religions say. Islam is the same. Probably a majority of so-called Muslims are marginal, cultural Muslims who are not malicious.
How does this emerge? There are many reasons but one of them is the nature of our digital culture as Rushkoff has diagnosed it. If the internet is one’s primary means of looking at the world then it’s hard to get that deep. And chances are you’ll only find the conclusions you want to find.
My Rushkoff-ism #2: Read books. Do not just read blog posts and articles. One of the first things I’ll often do before stumbling into a debate with someone is ask, “So what books most inform your views on this subject?” If they admit to not being well-read — and they usually do — then you win the debate by default.
This particular problem is fueled all the more by another aspect of internet culture we all know too well…
Our digital experiences are out of body. This biases us towards depersonalized behavior in an environment where one’s identity can be a liability. But the more anonymously we engage with others, the less we experience the human repercussions of what we say and do. By resisting the temptation to engage from the apparent safety of anonymity, we remain accountable and present – and much more likely to bring our humanity with us into the digital realm.
There’s a reason why the comments section at blogs inevitably trend toward the gutter. There’s a reason why FreeRepublic has such a bad reputation for nastiness. An internet based on anonymity has all the freedom of free speech but none of the responsibility that comes with it.
When I was in college I actually did a study with my friend, music critic/journalist Jonathan Sanders, in my linguistics class. We analyzed the responses to all the opinion columns in the Ball State Daily News.
Of course our hypothesis was more than confirmed: posting anonymously increased the chance that the comment left was going to be rude. Surely there’s an argument in here about the conservative understanding of human nature? We’re such flawed, pathetic, broken creatures that we can’t even handle being able to leave an anonymous comment?
My Rushkoff-ism #3: If you really care about these political issues then comment, tweet, and blog under your real name. Put up your real picture. I understand everyone can’t do that. If openly proclaiming your political views online might get you fired or something then by all means use a pseudonym.
Tell the Truth
The network is like a truth serum: put something false online and it will eventually be revealed as a lie. Digital technology is biased against fiction and toward facts, against story and toward reality. This means the only option for those communicating in these spaces is to tell the truth and then do as they say.
This is the great, revolutionary virtue of the internet. And the flipside of Rushkoff’s fourth command. Just as the precise nature of internet searching makes it so we zero in on singular pieces of facts often at the expense of others which would yield more context, it also allows us a tremendous advantage in verifying truth claims.
My Rushkoff-ism #4: Participate in the Great Truth-Seeking Project. The internet at its very best is about people coming together to try and figure out what’s true. You check my facts, I check your facts, and everyone gets held accountable for what they present. If one of my bloggers or me say something that’s factually wrong then you need to contact me so I can correct it. If someone at another publication is lying then you need to contact me so I can get one of our bloggers to write a post correcting it.
But we have to go deeper to really get to the root of what makes up this digital culture…
Program or Be Programmed
Digital technology is programmed. This makes it biased toward those with the capacity to write the code. In a digital age, we must learn how to make the software, or risk becoming the software. It is not too difficult or too late to learn the code behind the things we use – or at least to understand there is code behind their interfaces. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of those who do the programming, the people paying them, or even the technology itself.
It’s here where we encounter the elephant in the room. Remember: everything that we use online and on our computers was created by someone. None of this stuff is “natural” in the sense that a tree in the forest or a stalactite in a cave is natural. It’s all planned out — and in that planning, those of us who spend our lives in this digital world can end up being little more than products on a conveyor belt, generating marketing research data for Mark Zuckerberg to sell.
This point is perhaps Rushkoff’s most intimidating. The very idea of cracking open a book about computer programming is frightening. But it’s really something that we need to do.
At the very least — since I know there are plenty of parents that read us here at NRB — encourage your children to learn how to program.
Right now we’re in a global struggle to maintain our position at the top of the pecking order of nations. We’re being squeezed by both Islam and China. As the world goes more and more digital the electronic contests between civilizations will grow even more important than they are already. This is but one more front in the war. And we cannot get complacent about fighting it.
My Rushkoff-ism #5: Learn how the internet works. Learn how to program. Encourage your children to be programmers. Don’t just use programs – create new ones.
So after hacking apart religious myth, corporatism, the media, and now digital culture what man-made system needs the Rushkoff treatment next? My answer should be obvious. If anyone could be able to take apart Islam and figure out a way to guide the Muslim world in the process of reassembling it in a “moderate” fashion then Rushkoff is the man for the job. How ’bout it, Doug?
Order Program or Be Programmed here.
Important note: Program or Be Programmed is published by an independent publisher and is only available through the above link. You won’t find it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.