Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Program or Be Programmed began life as a talk, and the slim volume’s combination of grave pronouncements and breezy justification for them belie those origins. The book, according to the publisher’s description, “provides cyberenthusiasts and technophobes alike with the guidelines to navigate this new universe.” Each of the ten commands in this guide purports to elucidate some fundamental bias in technology and then suggest a way that we can turn those biases to our advantage as a society that’s quickly becoming enmeshed in technology at every turn.
It’s a noble goal, but it’s success or failure all depends on whether or not the author is right about those biases and then also right about the solutions. I found, more often than not, that he fails to make his case.
Rushkoff does make many bold and unequivocal statements about the nature of technology and our digital age. Most of them run counter to my own and my friends’ experiences with whatever aspect of technology he’s discussing, although many of them do conform to the clichés and conventional wisdom we often see thrown about as criticism. For example, Rushkoff states that computers and networks “discourage our more complex processes—our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning that should be the reward for ‘outsourcing’ our arithmetic to silicon chips in the first place.” That is the exact opposite of my own experience with technology, which routinely lets me explore topics and contemplate issues much more deeply than I could or would without it. Maybe my experience is atypical, and maybe Rushkoff is right, but he offers no evidence for this broad, sweeping assessment. He just writes it as received wisdom. I’m not sure exactly how one would prove Rushkoff’s statement to be true, but without some strong evidence, it’s a pretty bold claim to make. The book overflows with these kinds of opinions stated as facts.
When there are citations to support his points, they often don’t come close to proof. In one case, he cites a study in which some students shown an experience with whales using a virtual reality set-up wherein they believed, a few weeks later, that they’d actually had the experience. I read the study, which is interesting, but Rushkoff glosses over so many of the details that I think his citation comes close to being misleading. Memory studies are fascinating, and memory is very susceptible to influence. The study showed that both talking to the kids about the whales and showing them the VR simulation created reports of false memories. Among pre-school students, both memory manipulation methods worked equally. First graders had a higher susceptibility to the VR method. That’s pretty neat, but it’s not good evidence for Rushkoff’s statement that “the latest research into virtual worlds suggests that the lines between the two may be blurring.” Again, maybe they are, but that study barely indicates that. What it actually says is that you can get pre-schoolers and first graders to report remembering things that didn’t happen.
Even when my personal sympathies are almost perfectly in line with Rushkoff’s, I find this book frustrating in the way it takes complicated issues and makes them seem like simple matters. He makes a good case against anonymity on the internet, and as a personal choice I think he’s totally right. I hope more people follow his advice and take responsibility for every word they write online. However, for many people this isn’t desirable or even the best decision. Look up Blizzard Entertainment’s recent announcement that they would require real IDs on the World of Warcraft forums. Many women felt obligated to opt out of the forum community, knowing the kind of sexism and misogyny that can breed with ease online. Rushkoff does admit that in extreme cases like corporate whistle-blowers, anonymity is useful, but never addresses any of the more nuanced examples, and his argument suffers for it.
In some of his previous books, like Coercion, Rushkoff has taken on the advertising industry and done a lot of compelling work. He’s clearly no fan of ads, and his disdain is apparent throughout this book. Sometimes it seems entirely warranted, but sometimes it seems egregious or even ridiculous. While dodging the deeper issues of how hard it can be for creators to get paid fairly for their digital content (which is most content these days), he writes, “we are pushing them toward something much closer to the broadcast television model, where ads fund everything. We already know what that does for the quality of news and entertainment.”
He sees this as a slam, and it’s his main point in dismissing ad-based models of compensation. However, any honest assessment would show that there is a ton of great content that’s supported by advertising. You’re reading some of it now of course, and I could list quality content from the great newspapers to the best magazines and television dramas that all depend on ad revenue in order to meet their expenses. It’s a proven model that Rushkoff doesn’t consider, because he has written off the entire advertising system as poisonous. Instead, he offers up a dream that creators should consider opting out of the international currency system (which he hates for other reasons and justifies with a super-simplified view of economic history) and go with private, peer-to-peer currencies, which he writes “have already regained widespread acceptance following the banking crisis of 2008.” I’ll let you check out the link he offers as proof for this statement at LETsystems.com. Current troubles or not, I don’t see the Dollar or Euro going anywhere soon, and I don’t see any evidence that such radical new models have achieved “wide acceptance”.
Program or Be Programmed culminates in a call for virtually all people to learn to program so that we understand how our technology works. I think that’s a fine idea in theory, although my own experience trying to teach myself a software language tells me that his statement that learning to program is “something any high school student can do with a decent paperback on the subject and a couple of weeks effort” is very optimistic. I think he’s right that it would be great if we all knew more about how our computer and internet technology works, but even in this instance he can’t resist supporting a good point with weak or inappropriate evidence. He likens the public’s lack of programming knowledge to its lack of car repair know-how, and goes off on a wild tangent about the problems caused by, in America’s case, our auto-loving culture, including a conspiracy-minded slap at Robert McNamara. His points aren’t necessarily wrong, so much as not an apt or convincing comparison. Just how many die-hard gear heads do you know who oppose driving and highways? If we could all fix our own cars, would we own fewer of them? Rushkoff imagines that if we all understood our cars we’d be better situated to see their long-term impact on society. I don’t see how one follows the other.
The book is full of these kinds of fanciful leaps of logic, many more than I’ve detailed here. I found frustrations and poor arguments in every chapter. Rushkoff knows a lot about the world he’s writing about, but that doesn’t mean he’s earned the right to have readers just take his word for things, especially when me makes the kinds of claims he does throughout Program or Be Programmed. This is a book that even those who largely agree with him probably won’t find convincing. Those whose minds he’s hoping to change are likely to come away unswayed and unimpressed. I would suggest Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, which covers some of the same territory in a much more thoughtful and interesting book.