Notes on Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff

Direct quotations from the book and John Kendall's reading notes

You can order this book at Douglas Rushkoff's web page

In the Introduction, Rushkoff constructs a number of useful epigrams, like "We don't make TV; we watch TV," which offer a useful pattern.  on Page 13 he continues: "We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software.  This means they have access to the capabilities given to them by others, but not the power to determine the value-creating capabilities of these technologies for themselves."

On page 17, he makes another distinction between previous generations and the current: "Back in the earliest days of personal computing, we may not have understood how our calculators worked, but we understood exactly what they were doing for us: adding one number to another, finding a square root, and so on.  With computers and networks, unlike our calculators, we don't even know what we are asking our machines to do, much less how they are going to go about doing it . . . Every Google search is—at least for most of us—a Hail Mary pass into the datasphere, requesting something from an opaque black box. . .  As our own obsolescence looms, we continue to accept new technologies into our lives with little or no understanding of how these devices work and work on us."

On the next page (18) he elaborates on the title of his book: "we do not know how to program our computers, nor do we care.  We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another instead.  And this is potentially a grave mistake."

Command I. TIME: Do Not Be "Always On" (p. 22)

         p. 22: "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." (on page 20 he distinguishes how he is using bias, as "a leaning—a tendency to promote one set of behaviors over another")

         p. 25:  "Because computer code is biased away from continuous time, so too are the programs built on it, and the human behaviors those programs encourage."

         p. 30  a little scary, when he reports "Cell phone users now complain of 'phantom vibration syndrome,' the sensation of a cell phone vibrating on your thigh, even though there's not phone in your pocket."

         p. 33: 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."  (e.g. since speed dial, do you remember how to actually dial as many phone numbers as you used to?)

Command II. PLACE: Live in Person (p. 35)

         By using a dislocating technology for local connection, we lose our sense of place, as well as our home field advantage."

         p. 37: The network is still controlled centrally by an authority, but it functions in a de-centralized way.  As a result, digital media are biased away form the local, and toward dislocation."

         p. 44 nice discussion about the advantages of "full-spectrum communication that occurs between human beings in real spaces with one another," vs. virtual learning or distance learning

Command III. CHOICE: You May Always Choose "None of the Above" (p. 46)

         p. 46:  "In the digital realm, everything is made into a choice.  The medium is biased toward the discrete.  This often leaves out things we have not chosen to notice or record, and forces choices when none need to be made."

         He discusses the differences between the analog version of something, such as a 45 or an LP record for music, and a digital mp3 version of it.  One is a "physical artifact," while the digital version is a "symbolic representation." (p. 47)

         p. 49: "The digital realm is biased toward choice, because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discrete, yes-or-no, symbolic language.  This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere."

         on p. 53, Rushkoff examines web sites like Amazon, who can increasingly make suggestions of what you might like to buy, based on their database of what you have already purchased.  " . . . choice is less about giving people what they want than getting them to take what the choice-giver has to sell."

Command IV. COMPLEXITY:  You Are Never Completely Right (p. 55)

         "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 . . . 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."

         He talks about "cherry-picking" information as a metaphor for using the web to selectively find bits and pieces of information, without experiencing the whole work.  This encourages us to over-simplify, or to perceive the world in a yes-no, right-wrong lens.  "In a digital culture that values data points over context, everyone comes to believe they have the real answer and that the other side is crazy or evil." (59)

         The last one-third of page 61 could springboard a whole discussion on the Moodle Professional Development page:  "By recognizing that our engagements through and with the digital world tend to reduce the complexity of our real world, we lessen the risk of equating these oversimplified impressions with real knowledge and experience.  The digital information gatherer [many among our current crop of students?] tends to have the opposite approach to knowledge as his text-based ancestors, who saw research as an excuse to sit and read old books.  Instead, net research is more about engaging with data in order to dismiss it and move on—like a magazine one flips through not to read, but to make sure there's nothing that has to be read.  Reading becomes a process of elimination rather than deep engagement.  Life becomes about knowing how not to know what one doesn't have to know." (61-62)

         p. 65: I like that Rushkoff does not take an extreme position.  His last paragraph for this chapter acknowledges many legitimate values of finding data on the web.  "Models are necessarily reductive.  They are limited by design.  This does not negate their usefulness; it merely qualifies it.  Digital reduction yields maps.  These maps are great for charting a course, but they are not capable of providing the journey.  No matter how detailed or interactive the map gets, it cannot replace the territory."

Command V. SCALE: One Size Does Not Fit All (p. 66)

         p. 66: "On the net, everything scales—or at least it's supposed to.  Digital technologies are biased toward abstraction, bringing everything up and out to the same universal level.  People, ideas, and businesses that don't function on that level are disadvantaged, while those committed to increasing levels of abstraction tend to dominate.  By remembering that one size does not fit all, we can preserve local and particular activities in the face of demands to scale up."

         Rushkoff describes the owner of a local music shop, "Tom," who decides expand his business to advertise on the net.  But he then points out how he loses his local customers, but can't compete with the larger retail stores on the net.  p. 68: "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."

         I was chilled by the implication of his warning on page 71: "Without the search engine, we are lost . .  Far from liberating people and their ideas from hierarchies, the digital realm enforces central control on an entirely new level."  I kept looking around for telescreens and a glimpse of Big Brother . . .


Command VI. IDENTITY: Be Yourself (p. 79)

                  p. 79: "Our digital experiences are out-of-body.  This biases us toward 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."

         This chapter seems especially appropriate for teachers considering the ethical position of encouraging our students to the "high ground" of behavior on-line.  On page 83 Rushkoff reiterates: "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."

         He continues to distinguish between "certain instances where anonymity should be maintained," such as dissidents in Iran. 

         Rushkoff extends the metaphor of "out of the body experiences" with our behavior and identity online.  "This can promote an illusion that we may act without personal consequence." (p. 84)

         He cites Sherry Turkle, a noted MIT psychologist/technology author, whose research discovered that teenagers on line "rarely if ever apologize to one another.  When they are caught having wronged someone, they confess—but they never say they're sorry." (p. 87)

         His last sentence in the chapter might be useful for the "Internet Use" policy we sign in the Upper School each year: "We don't put words into the digital realm unless we are willing to own them." (p. 89)

Command VII. SOCIAL: Do Not Sell Your Friends (p. 90)

                  p. 90: "We must remember that the bias of digital media is toward contact with other people, not with their content or, worse, their cash.  If we don't, we risk robbing ourselves of the main gift digital technology has to offer us in return for our having created it."

         This chapter examines how businesses have attempted to use the web, and how social media does not have to be a bad thing, but we need to be aware of the possibilities.  Page 93-94: "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."

Command VIII. FACT: Tell the Truth (p. 100)

                  p. 100: "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."

         Of Rushkoff's 10 "commands," this was the one I was the most dubious about.  I'd love for it to be true, but I'm not sure I agree.

         He contrasts traditional advertising (buying cereal because it has a picture of a Quaker on it . . .) with digital media's "interactivity."  He feels we are "transitioning from a mass media that makes its stories sacred, to an interactive media that makes communication mutable and alive." (p. 104-105)

         He likens us to being in a virtual "bazaar," where things are more out in the open and less hidden than a generation ago.  "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." (p. 106)


Command IX. OPENNESS:  Share, Don't Steal (p. 112)

                  p. 112: "Digital networks were built for the purpose of sharing computing resources by people who were themselves sharing resources, technologies, and credit in order to create it.  This is why digital technology is biased in favor of openness and sharing.  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."

         This was definitely relevant for schools and how we need to alter our attitude towards research.  On p. 114-115: "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.  As a culture and economy inexperienced in this sort of collaboration, however, we have great trouble distinguishing between sharing and stealing."

         The role of the teacher needs to be more of a guide or coach—"a partner in learning who helps the students evaluate and synthesize the data they find." (p. 115)

         Rushkoff also employs many of the verbs of the recent generation on page 116, when he refers to the record "scratching" of a deejay, or the cut and paste functions of word processing.  It was a good example of seeing modern media the way many students may see it, more than Baby Boomers like me might.  He spends five or six pages talking about copyright privileges, respecting the rights of others, and examining how modern media has changed our conceptions of what we "own."  Loved his take on the golden rule at the top of p. 126: "we are best governed not by what we can get away with, but how we want to be treated by others."

Command X. PURPOSE:  Program or Be Programmed (p. 128)

                  His introduction to the final chapter (p. 128) speaks to the heart of the 7th grade Information Literacy Cycle class: "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 that 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."  In Paula and my cycle class, we know that most of the 7th graders will not go on to be computer science majors or the next Bill Gates.  But by scripting a simple HTML web page, programming a LEGO robot, and writing some code on an object-oriented multimedia program like MIT's Scratch, to make a simple animation, they are less likely to be a passive pawn, and more likely to have an active understanding of the world they will become adults in.

         As Rushkoff states on p. 133: "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."

         The author also provides several pages of bibliography, documentaries, and free software to help the reader become more actively involved in this process.

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