Teacher, media theorist, and the author of 14 books, Douglas Rushkoff has relentlessly defined – and redefined – the role of technology in our lives. His first two books, Cyberia and Media Virus!, heralded the Internet revolution as early as 1994, and he’s responsible for introducing the terms “viral media” and “social currency” into our vocabulary. Rushkoff is an award-winning writer for a wide range of publications including The New York Times and Discover Magazine, has served as a correspondent for the 2010 PBS Frontline documentary “Digital Nation,” and has taught media studies at New York University and The New School. His latest book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for A Digital Age, urges the reader to once again reevaluate their relationship to technology through such “commands” as “Do Not Sell Your Friends” and “Share, Don’t Steal.”
What does “responsibility” mean in the context of the Internet?
It means taking responsibility for how digital technology works. What are you doing with technology, to whom, and why? We don’t have to take all of these systems for granted. We can reboot them; we can reprogram them. With awareness, people can use technology actively and consciously.
The first command in Program or Be Programmed is “Do Not Always Be On.” Do you literally mean we should turn off our computers and cell phones?
The beauty of computing is that you can do it in your own time. You can answer your email when you’re good and ready; you can engage in a conversation on a bulletin board right away, or you can think about it overnight. But when we turn this asynchronous medium into an “always on” medium by attaching it to our bodies and having it vibrate every time some Tweet comes through, we stress our nervous systems; some people get symptoms like phantom vibration syndrome, where they think their cell phone is vibrating on their thigh even when it’s not there. We also deny ourselves the great advantage of computers over real-time communications technologies like telephones – namely, the freedom to pause. We deny ourselves contemplation; we deny ourselves thought. “Always on” is not a pleasant or productive state; it means being at the mercy of technology.
Your title command, “Program or Be Programmed,” urges teaching computer programming to children. Is that possible?
Once you’ve learned long division – in about the 4th grade – you’ve basically learned your first algorithm. Once you’ve learned an algorithm, you’re capable of programming computers.
To teach kids media literacy, you put them on an editing console and say, “Here, cut this news broadcast for yourself.” They have to see what is involved in putting together a piece of media before they can intelligently and critically consume a piece of media. Likewise, if kids are going to be interacting with computer programs, they need to be able to critically understand what the biases are, the tendencies of the environments and the programs they’re using. What is this thing really for? We use Facebook, and we’re told it’s a way to make friends, but we’re not the customers of Facebook; we’re the product in Facebook. The customers are marketers, who use the application to learn about computer users. We should be aware of that.
For those who can’t program, what’s the next best thing?
At least learn the basic biases of the medium, so that you can use them consciously.
You were a champion of the Internet at the beginning. Has your message changed?
In the late 80s early 90s, I said, “There’s this thing called the Net that’s going to come, and it’s a great opportunity to participate actively in our world.” Everybody said there’s no such thing as the Net; it’s just CB radio. Then it came and everybody said, “Oh, this is business, and we’re all going to make a lot of money!” And I said, “The dot-com boom is going to crash and bring the economy down with it.” Well, it did. Now I’m saying that people in this country are limiting themselves to being Internet consumers rather than Internet creators. Our public schools don’t teach programming, so our kids accept computer programs at face value. Meanwhile, the kids in Iran and China and South Korea don’t just learn to use the software on computers, they learn how to make software on computers. We won’t have an economic or military advantage within a generation if we don’t step up and teach how computers actually work.
In your classes about the Internet, what’s the most important thing you want your students to learn?
The students I have today were born into a world with Google and Facebook and the rest, so they tend to accept them without question. I want them to realize that these systems are human inventions and they can be changed. If we limit our understanding and use of the Internet to Facebook, we won’t realize the full potential of the medium: to promote peer-to-peer exchange; to allow for decentralized businesses, and to create communication across formerly closed boundaries.
How do you cope with technology in your life?
I follow the commands in the book, but not as hard and fast rules. For me it has to do with trying to be in the present. I’ve learned to “single task” – to have discipline when I’m working on an article and not have my email open behind the writing window. I’m averaging 1,100 incoming emails a day; being pinged all the time is like trying to write in a football stadium. I’m not always on. But I have not yet come up with an excellent system to process my email.
Carolyn Jacobs is a television producer and writer. She has created narrative and documentary programming for AMC, PBS, vh1, Showtime, and other networks.