Saturday, December 18, 2010

Be a driver or a passenger

Douglas Rushkoff's Digital Decalogue
by Richard Pachter

Program or Be Programmed 

Having read and reviewed Rushkoff’s previous books, Think Outside The Box, which was good, and Life Inc., which was nothing less than brilliant, I wondered what was next for the media maven. This new one is short and concise, but a highly worthy successor. His mission is to raise awareness of the human implications of our technologies — the context (if you will) of our actions.

The author’s Decalogue here is a set of rules of conduct. To wit: Do Not Be ‘Always On;’ Live in Person; You May Always Choose ‘None of the Above;’ You Are Never Completely Right; One Size Does Not Fit All; Be Yourself; Do Not Sell Your Friends; Tell the Truth; Share, Don’t Steal; and Program or Be Programmed.” Each of the command(ments) comprise a chapter.

On the surface they seem pretty obvious, but like their Biblical counterparts, they add up to a wise and ethical way to conducts oneself, in this case, mostly within the online and virtual worlds. After all, many of us blithely mouse over, click and agree to website terms we’re asked to give our assent to, with little thought to the implications or the consequences, and whatever rights and responsibilities we may shed as we do. Beyond that, there’s an insidious role reversal, says Rushkoff, whereby the supposed programmer becomes the programmed. Our tools define us, whether we like it or not. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Rushkoff is no Luddite. Far from it. He was and is an early adopter of all things digital, and rhapsodizes nostalgically for those thrilling early days of weak computers, inbred electronic bulletin boards and other relatively quaint and low-tech solutions that marked the dawn of the Internet Age. But as he’s grown with the times, so, too has his very healthy skepticism blossomed. Different technologies are biased in different ways, he declares, based upon the facility of each application to enable and elicit specific behaviors. We need to be aware of this effect and do what’s right for us, not the website owners or software developers.

Minor quibble: I had a little problem with his 10th command, the one employed as the title of this book. I don’t want to do any programming, thank you very much. I certainly don’t mind cooking a meal or (occasionally) fixing a toilet, but if I want to go to the store, I’d prefer to just drive my car, not design and build a car. Apparently, mine was a common concern among readers. In a recent interview with NPR, Rushkoff laughed, saying that one needn’t learn to build that car. The difference he’s seeking is being a driver and not just the passenger. Whew. I can live with that! Slide over. I’ll drive! But seriously, it’s an important distinction that he could have made clearer in this otherwise excellent book.

And Rushkoff is apparently driving, too, as he bypassed big publishers to accelerate the publication of this book, a pretty ballsy move, which he explains here. It’s not an isolated case, either. Seth Godin waved goodbye to his publisher, too.

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