By Haley Moore, March 22nd, 2010

The thesis: Our society is running on obsolete code.  In order to keep the world working, we need social programmers.  Douglas Rushkoff’s warning, and his call to action:

“If you are not a programmer, then you are one of the programmed.”

Rushkoff described Programming as a sort of daoist constant.  He said the same type of action can be applied to the programming of computers, the construction of language and literature, the way people think about God, and the development of culture.

Player, Cheater, Author, Programmer

Programmers, according to Rushkoff, arise naturally from a society’s population through a series of gradual steps.

Rushkoff applies the analogy of a game player.  At first, a person merely plays the game experimentally, seeing what can be done with it.  At some point, they may hit a roadblock, and so the game player becomes a cheater – by looking things up on the cosmic GameFAQs, as it were.  Once they glean all there is to be had from cheating at a game, this cheater may become an author, using the game’s engine to express their own ideas.  Eventually, the author realizes that the game engine he uses is too rigid to express his ideas, and he becomes a programmer – they write their own game.

As a group, programmers also comprise a certain section of society, on the cusp of each wave of societal change.  Rushkoff warned that the programmed are always one step behind the programmers.

To do any kind of programming, Rushkoff said, we have to learn to work through and around the biases of our tools.  In recent years, he said, the culture of literature as delivered through books provided those biases.  But now, the biases of digital media are supplanting them.

“We write in the box that Google gives us,” Rushkoff said, and to that end, he prescribed ten social commands (yes, instead of commandments) as antidotes to those biases.

Rushkoff’s Prescriptions

1. Thou shalt not be always on.

Although digital media is extremely adept at allowing us to have asynchronous, centralized conversations through its most basic forms – message boards and email – internet culture has become increasingly synchronized and time-sensitive in the past few years.  The Twitters, Facebooks, and Instant Messengers of the digital world deliver realtime remote communication to our fingertips.  They are always available to us, but we neither can nor should be always available to them.

2. Thou shalt not do from a distance what can be better done in person.

The internet is biased toward long-distance communication, but careless use leads to people texting across a room.

3. Exalt the particular.

The internet also has a bias of scale, but not everything CAN scale.

Specifically, production on the level of the individual can’t be scaled.  Trying to do so creates a system of aggregation, not production – or as Rushkoff said, “businesses are becoming more bank-like.”

4. You may always choose None of the Above.

“Digital is symbolic as text is,” Rushkoff said.  Since our interactions with programs, and with others through programs, are processed digitally, they do not reflect the analog nature of the real world. This leads to what Rushkoff calls discreteness, “a digital landscape of forced choice.”

Rushkoff cites the options on Facebook for “relationship status” as the ultimate example of a discrete choice mapped to analog reality – one which will likely never fully fit the options available.  Rushkoff said that withholding choice from available options does not denote failure, and described that withholding as “life, not death.”

5. Thou shalt never be completely right.

As a parallel to the discreteness bias, Rushkoff says the net is biased toward simplicity.  He cites a study showing young people who grew up listening to compressed MP3 audio can’t perceive certain nuances of sound.  “Our perceptual apparati are declining,” he said, and went on to say that if Second Life is indistinguishable from reality in the near future, it will be because we have lost the ability to percieve the difference.

6. Thou shalt not be anonymous

The inherent anonymity of an internet user, Rushkoff says, is good for political refugees and software pirates, but it is bad for our sense of community in a number of ways.  When we are anonymous, we become parts of polarized mobs.  Rushkoff said in spite of the assumption that anonymity can negate prejudice, it is often used merely to sidestep the issue.  He pointed to the figure that 80% of human communication is nonverbal.

Rushkoff said he exists under his own name online and that the experience is “liberating.”

7. Remember the humans

This speaks to the bias of anonymizing the source of the things that exist online.  “We don’t have to deliver everything unto the hive for free,” he said.  Rushkoff distinguished between making content available to a community and making it available to Google.

8. As above, so not below

The net has a bias toward abstraction, and abstraction is not reality.  Rushkoff used hedge funds as an example.

9. Thou shalt not steal -or- Nothing is free

The digital space is the stage for a million kinds of content aggregation, but creation requires real work that can’t be discounted.  When everyone is an aggregator, there are no producers, and no content to share.

Rushkoff said that being “open” to a large content aggregator like Google is equivalent to being “open” to a large wealth aggregator like the World Bank.

10. Program or be programmed

The internet has a bias toward serving end users.  Rushkoff encouraged listeners to see not what a tool such as the internet can do for the user, but what the user can make it do.  He said that end user culture surrounding the automobile has led to a transportation and energy crisis.

We are always one step behind our programmers, so, Rushkoff said if we stay there, we will be not the users, but the used.


Note: Rushkoff is the author of many books on the intersection of technology and society, including his latest, Life, Inc. In his SXSW keynote, “Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age,” he noted that its contents were originally a book idea, but were now intended to be part of a  post-publishing age transmedia narrative event.  For better or worse, I am throwing my own words on the pile here.

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Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.

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