I love reading, watching and listening to Douglas Rushkoff. I think he is one of the great minds of the last twenty years and he has amazing insight into popular culture and the way western society operates in general. I would describe him as a form of anthropologist as he studies human behaviour and in his latest book contrasts that against the impact that technology has had on the modern world. I bought his book “Program Or Br Programmed” a few months ago but it has only been the holiday break that has given me the time to get through its 150 pages. Check out the YouTube clip below for a synopsis of the book:
The main thrust of the book is around the fact that as digital technology becomes increasingly embedded into our way of life, it is crucial that we have an understanding of how that technology is programmed, and how its “bias” is designed to push human interaction in a certain pre-determined direction. He doesn’t necessarily state that actually having programming skills are essential, but having an advanced understanding of what goes on behind the scenes is essential (in other words, digital literacy is a must). Reading his book is very thought provoking and had me viewing a lot of things through a very critical lense – especially at the recent CEGSA2012 conference. An example of a technology with a certain bias would be an iPad where how it all operates is very deeply hidden from the user – this device is very hard to hack or manipulate in a subversive way because the designers have it in their best interests to have users that use their devices in a certain way. Interestingly, who has complained the loudest about the iOS system being closed, the App Store having restrictive guidelines and the device lacking external storage or accessible batteries? The most highly skilled geeks and computing buffs – the programmers. Schools can feel it in the way that Apple pitches the iPad as a “personal” device – so they have to work hard around the programming bias to utilise it as a “shared” learning device.
Facebook is another technology with inbuilt bias. It allows sharing – but only within the confines of its digital walls and same-same profile decor. It wants its captive audience to be in the one place so that the people who really pay the bills, the advertisers, can have full rein. But as Rushkoff points out, the internet itself as a structure has a bias towards sharing and openness, so he believes that in time, technologies that try to constrain or control this will have to adapt or become irrelevant. In fact, he makes a real effort to avoid naming specific technologies because he believes that the advice offered in the book will have an infinitely greater lifespan than many of the at-the-moment dominant technologies ruling the web.
Rushkoff spends quite a bit of time pointing out the limits of the digital world, which at time seems unlimited to people like me. Choices are always presented in neat packages predetermined by an algorithm or program. An example that springs to mind is blog themes – you might have a choice of a hundred themes but unless you know how to hack or program some aspects of those themes, you are limited to those themes. It explains why unique and really beautiful websites are nearly always created by people with a programming and design background. Mere users like myself are limited to what we are shown by others with the programming skills.
So, a really thought provoking book. Grab yourself a copy – at 150 smallish pages, it is not a big read – but it will force you to grapple with some things about the web and digital technology that you may have considered too much before in the past. And those of us who think we are savvy in the digital realm need to have our preconceptions challenged every now and then.