“Program or Be Programmed” {book review}

Douglas Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commandments for a Digital Age” {amazon} is a book I was pre-disposed to enjoy and agree with. Rushkoff’s main premise is that by using applications programmed by other people—people and technologies that have inherent biases—we’re: a) missing out on the full potential of technology, and b) being influenced by their biases and limitations without even knowing it.

By bias, Rushkoff is talking about the web as a medium, limited by technical parameters and influenced by the powers who make it happen. For instance, Rushkoff iterates that the web is biased toward choice, since the underlying code is based on only two options: on or off; a “1” or a “0”. This may mean that the web is biased against the gray area between two issues, and in favor of choosing sides when it isn’t necessary.

It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. It’s a convincing argument. I’m not sure if it’s possible to spoil the ending of a non-fiction work, but if so—spoiler alert!

Rushkoff ends the book with a plea for American society to begin to value programming, to teach it in school, or risk falling behind nations who do value it. If we don’t start taking it seriously, we surrender the power of this new medium to an elite class/nation who does know how to program.

Finally, we have the tools to program. Yet we are content to seize only the capability of the last great media renaissance, that of writing. We feel proud to build a web page or finish our profile on a social networking site, as if this means we are now full-fledged participants in the cyber era. We remain unaware of the biases of the programs in which we are participating, as well as the ways they circumscribe our newfound authorship within their predetermined agendas…

Our enthusiasm for digital technology about which we have little understanding and over which we have little control leads us not toward greater agency, but toward less… We become dependent on search engines and smart phones developed by companies we can only hope value our productivity over their bottom lines. We learn to socialize and make friends through interfaces and networks that may be more dedicated to finding a valid advertising model than helping us find one another.

Pick up the book if you’re interested in this argument, and check out his sxsw 2010 talk about the book {youtube}.