What CURTIS Digital is Reading: August 2013

20 August 2013




The Internet and I grew up together, and perhaps because of this, I never thought that it was something I would need explicit behavioral guidelines for using. ARPANET passed into the great beyond in the year that I was born, and ISPs crept across America one home at a time. When the World Wide Web made its grand appearance in my house, I was a toddler and too young to use it. Contrast this with today’s children, many of whom are already accustomed to playing games on their parents’ tablets or Farmville on their own Facebook accounts. Twenty years ago, the Internet existed only in the background as a series of dial tones. It beeped and buzzed as my father logged on to AOL, the technological equivalent of the Oldowon tool industry (I majored in Anthropology), to check his e-mail. He helped me sign up for my first e-mail address ([email protected]–I wish I was kidding) when I was in the fifth grade. I remember having no idea what I was supposed to do with it. Classmates would e-mail each other just because they could, but those e-mails would remain unopened for days at a time. Just about anything was more exciting than sitting in front of a massive computer, waiting for it to slowly connect to the vast series of collective servers known as the Internet.

A long-dormant inbox seems unthinkable now. Our society does not allow for it, and technology has adapted to prevent itself from going unused. The web and the computers that house it are no longer clunky, awkward machines chained to a phone line. They lost their baby fat and became sexy, sleek devices that accompany us everywhere we go, throughout all parts of our day. My iPhone is my alarm clock, my navigation system, my personal assistant. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check for any texts, tweets, Facebook posts, and e-mails that I might have missed in the six-hour window during which I was sleeping. It goes without saying that I rely heavily on digital technology, and I am not an anomaly. Almost all of us have stories about feeling phantom vibrations from phones that aren’t in our pockets or hearing pings on our computers when no one is chatting with us. The thought of forgetting my phone at home is enough to make me visibly agitated. Our new digital age leaves us anxious and emotionally crippled when we are not constantly connected to our friends, our co-workers, our family, and our thousands of followers. This is the vein that Douglas Rushkoff explores in Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age, a book that is, at its core, a manual for how to retain your humanity in a world overrun with technology.

Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School in Manhattan, describes ten essential “commands” to follow to negate any inherent biases that come along with the use of technology. At the beginning of Program or Be Programmed, I had a hard time grasping the idea that digital technology could be biased at all; our current culture depicts it as a great equalizer. Anyone can be anything on the web. Race, religion, orientation, and gender are not always immediately apparent, relieving us from some of the biases we perpetuate in our everyday lives. People have proven throughout the centuries that we are capable of segregating ourselves arbitrarily based on various qualifiers. But how can a machine impose bias? Although computers don’t have long histories that predispose them to biases, the way that computers work sets them up for very inherent ones-they make yes/no decisions and are programmed in a series of zeros and ones. There is little room for in-betweens and outliers in a string of binary. Humanity, however, is defined by its gradients. We are never simply one thing or the other, and summarizing our existence in a series of check-boxes stored on a database can be extremely reductive.

All of this new technology results in a series of questions that humans never had to face before: how do we navigate our relationships with other humans on the web? How do we keep ourselves from turning into a mob? How do we keep our minds open and explore various viewpoints? Rushkoff’s essential argument is that in order to prevent ourselves from being programmed by machines, we have to learn how to program them ourselves. He warns us that “The more we learn to conform to the available choices, the more predictable and machine-like we become ourselves.” The only way to combat this trend is to program machines to be more human, and to do that, we must first know how to program. The idea sounds extravagant–after all, isn’t programming hard to learn? According to Rushkoff, the answer is startlingly simple: no. Countries like China and Iran have already taken steps to ensure that their children know how to code, and if the threat of being surpassed on the global stage isn’t enough to convince you of the importance of programming, Rushkoff breaks it down even further. To him, we can’t effectively communicate with each other if we don’t know how the platforms we are communicating on work:

If we don’t know how they work, we have no way of knowing what is really out there. We cannot truly communicate, because we have no idea how the media we are using bias the messages we are sending and receiving. Our senses and our thoughts are already clouded by our own misperceptions, prejudices, and confusion. Our digital tools add yet another layer of bias on top of that. But if we don’t know what their intended biases are, we don’t stand a chance of becoming coherent participants in the digital age.

The way that Rushkoff structured his argument was very effective. Allowing each technological bias its own chapter left ample room for detailed descriptions and examples, which, as someone who is less technologically inclined, I found extremely helpful. Formatting them as “commands” was also clever. At first glance, I thought the subtitle of the book read “10 Commandments for a Digital Age.” This would have been just as fitting, as the book is essentially a covenant that Rushkoff is asking us to agree to when we use the Internet–Thou Shall Share and Not Steal, Thou Shall Be Yourself, Thou Shall Tell the Truth, amongst others. However, computers don’t execute commandments. They execute commands. The words are just similar enough to draw the parallel subliminally; without reading a word of his writing, the reader already knows that Rushkoff’s book is a set of rules that humanity should follow on the web.

The only critique I have is a small one: I’m not sure how necessary it is for everyone to learn how to program. I completely agree that we should all be aware of the biases that come with using technology, and we should all have a high level of understanding about how they work. However, taking the time to actually learn to code seems mildly excessive, even if Rushkoff says it’s not.

If you don’t think that Rushkoff’s book is essential, think about this: stories of internet misuse are shockingly common. Nearly every time I scan the headlines, it seems like there is another example of online bullying or music piracy or a major corporation getting hacked. Despite this, the idea that there should be some sort of guide about how to use the Internet doesn’t seem to occur to most people. After reading Program or Be Programmed, it’s clear that this is a manual that we desperately need. As I move forward as a user of the Internet, I will keep Rushkoff’s words in mind. You should as well–the book is only 150 pages, and you can purchase it for $14.95. It’s worth the read. After all, as Rushkoff says, “If living in a digital age teaches us anything, it is that we are all in this together. Perhaps more so than ever.”

Article by Shannon Burnette, Project Assistant