Book Review: Program or Be Programmed By Douglas Rushkoff

While browsing for a good read the other day that would both make me think and empower me in my line(s) of work, I came across this book by Douglas Rushkoff. It’s called Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age and is published by OR Books. The title caught my eye since I have finally been teaching myself some computer programming this year, but what made me want to order it is that the author,  Douglas Rushkoff, is an extremely forward-thinking intellectual and I trust him to tell the truth about where the world is headed as far as technology and mass media.

The book is definitely for the thinker, or somebody who likes to be challenged to think while reading. I had to re-read several sentences more than a few times and it’s not because I have a hard time reading, it’s because Rushkoff writes a book with only sentences that have meaning. The book is on the small side, but it is full of substance. There is no “filler” material or misplaced wording. There are plenty of “shockers”, pieces of knowledge that were interesting to me, information I was unaware of and stunned to learn. At the time I wished he would have expanded on them, but looking back now I realize then that  the book would have careened off track and lost its focus. The book is clear and concise. Rushkoff makes his point and if hungry for more, you can peruse the “Essential Reading” list at the end of the book, wondering which on the list you should read first like I did.

The book is structured into 10 chapters. Each chapter offers a piece of advice— a rule to live by while living in this digital age. The book does not take a side and say, “Oh all this technology is bad for our kids” or “Oh all this technology at our fingertips is making us superhuman”. Instead, he has given us a guidebook, more like a “how to live” with all this technology and then offers ideas regarding where to go in the future. This “guidebook” should be read by parents and teachers but more importantly by the users of technology today. We all know we have access to the technology, but most of us have never really learned how to use it past building a farm or sending a text. Rushkoff explains to us why it’s important to do more.  The introduction breaks down his simple thesis, “When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.” And he goes on to explain why, “In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple: Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

Based on this, I imagined the entire book was going to be about teaching our kids and ourselves how to program. But I was wrong. The book encourages us to think about how much time we spend using technology. Are we “always on”? How many times do we see people paying for something at the grocery store, ignoring the cashier as they busily check their text messages or email on their phone. And then there is the texting and driving. We need to understand why we feel the need to  “always be on” or if not ourselves, our students and children. This book helps us understand.

I was also able to interview Rushkoff— a huge honor. I’m a major fan of his Frontline work on PBS. I asked him some questions regarding teen/young adult behavior online. I am constantly trying to better understand my students, but also the at-risk teens I work with in a group home setting— many of which whom use media to isolate. I asked Rushkoff if people who relate to others mostly through online social networks feel more lonely than those who relate with people face-to-face. I asked him this because in his book, he talks about a socialite who travels from party to party. At each party she texts and updates various statuses but never really interacts with anybody on a face-to-face basis. I wanted to know how this makes a person feel. Rushkoff’s response is surprising: “They have to [feel more lonely], because the human being evolved to receive cues in the real world. Our mirror neurons only fire when we see people nodding, or see their irises widen. Without these cues, we don’t experience connection or reinforcement – at least not in the same way.”

To me, this information is astounding.  Basically it means that one can have 500 “online” friends, but if they never actually get to interact with them face-to-face, they might actually still feel lonely. So in dealing with the depression of at-risk youths I can point out that just because they are social online, this doesn’t necessarily count. They need to actually be social with peers in a real-life setting not just in cyberspace. It’s not just at-risk youth either, there are plenty of adults who are unemployed, depressed and find comfort in online gaming, etc.– only, is this the kind of social interaction they really need in order to feel better? Sometimes what we think is helping us can really be hurting us.

I also asked Rushkoff about the tendency teens have nowadays to be involved in exhibitionist behavior online. His response is another indication of the struggles teens face and their desire to “be heard”. Rushkoff says:

I think it’s an almost counter-phobic or compensatory reaction to disconnection. You can feel it when you do stuff like that. At  least a little.  The more obvious reason, of course, is simply that it gets a reaction. When you’re trained to judge your success, and your very existence, by the number of people who have clicked on you, you will do whatever it takes to get the click. Nothing improves hit count like exhibitionism. That, and cruelty.

Of course it makes sense that their actions might be based on disconnection. If one feels disconnected from their family or peers, it makes sense that there would be a “cry for help”. We see it in girls who cut or refuse to eat. And although certainly not ALL of these teens who behave this way online are “crying for help” much like a cutter does, there is definitely something else going on underneath everything that is saying, “Hey. Look at me.”

The book discusses how our children are affected but it also discusses how adults are affected, businesses, and the economy as well. Chapter 4 covers the idea of complexity. Rushkoff points out that everything programmed is binary. Everything is either yes or no. On page 54 he writes, “. . . At the end of the day, digital technologies are saying either yes or no. This makes digital technology– and those of us using it— biased toward a reduction of complexity.” This is proven by the popularity in the use of search engines. Of course everyone appreciates the time-saving advantages that using a search engine provides, but how many of us, after entering a term and unhappy with the results, actually take a new approach at finding the information we are looking for? I’d bet not many.

In fact, I’d reckon many people use search engines for things they aren’t even intended to be used for. How many people, knowing that it’s easier to click their mouse in the upper right-hand corner of their screen and enter a word– “eBay” for example, do this rather than click in the URL address bar and type out the address they have memorized. Maybe it’s easier to type it in as a search and just click it. It’s less complex yet it doesn’t always give us the information we need which then results in the “dumbing down” of our culture. Typing “eBay” in my search bar right now gives me a link to a news story about Meg Whitman within the top 10 results. Did I want to read up on California politics or buy a new cake pan? Learn how to use the technology— program or be programmed.

“Dumbing down” can happen and will happen if we don’t learn how technology works and take control of it. According to Rushkoff, “. . . the less we know about how it works, the more likely we are to accept its simplified models as reality”. So my phone wants to give me directions using a GPS application. In my mind I’m thinking it might be wrong because the route it is giving me is filled with bright orange detour signs, but I go with it. It’s a smartphone after all! My thermometer says it’s 40 degrees outside right now but my homepage on my computer says it is 35. My computer must be right, it’s a machine after all! Some people will trust technology over science and maybe that shouldn’t be the case unless we understand how the technology works. Again, program or be programmed.

While reading this book, you will be surprised by Rushkoff’s facts about fantasy baseball players hired in managerial roles for real, major league baseball teams, scare the crap out of you with his personal story of what it’s like to be attacked by a hacker (although he makes it sound like it was no big deal), and explain to you why, from an evolutionary standpoint, we feel so strongly about increasing our number of friends on various social networks. Then, if you are not totally convinced why it is important to program or be programmed, he lets us know how our nation’s programming skills stack up against countries like Iran and China.

The book is small, but it’s filled with big ideas and very useful information. I especially recommend it to teachers, parents, those that work with at-risk youth and anyone who uses a computer and social media on a daily basis. You will find the information scary, compelling and ironic, but mostly I think you will find it helpful as we all get used to using this technology or sharing our space with people who use this technology.

Oh, and in case you were wondering at what age Rushkoff thinks we should be teaching our children programming like I was, here is how Rushkoff responded to that question during my interview, “I’d think around 4th grade. Right after long division. Long division is a really good teaching tool, because it’s the first algorithm most of us learn. Once you understand how to do something using the algorithmic shortcut, you have a better understanding of how to develop logical processes to accomplish tasks.”

And so, I know what I am buying my kid for his next birthday: Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners Seriously, after reading this, I’m ready to start him young!

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age