[reading] Program or be Programmed

I saw a video presentation by Douglass Rushkoff at Google recently. The main these of his talk was the fact that digital technology is different from other technologies as it can be programmed. Since it is one of the arguments that I have been making recently about digital technology, it picked my interest. (The other key attribute of digital technology is the homogeneity of information as represented by bits and that is about the other reading project, “the Information” written by J. Gleick, that I am currently doing now). I really like his argument about computer being “anything machine”. It reminded me my first first experience with Apple II. Of course, I got it along with few programs. But by and large, it was an empty machine that was waiting to be programmed. I started to learn how to program in BASIC and soon Pascal and FORTRAN on CP/M, doing silly things that every body else had already done many times. It was exhilarating experience anyway, as I was building something of my own. I was hooked.

In the book, Rushkoff makes an argument that in the digital era, there are two modes of being — to program or to be programmed. He then takes the premise as a basic analytical framework to analyze how digital technology affects our basic experiences in time, space, choice, identity, social, etc. in 10 chapters. I have finished only the first chapter which is about our temporal experience. While I like his approach to the subject much more than I did with the writing of Nicholas Carr who wrote “Shallow”, I flet that Rushkoff fell into a similar trap of romanticizing the past unwarrantedly. If Carr romanticized the traditional society where we were still reading books and newspapers printed on paper, Rushkoff did the same with the early era of the Internet before we were connected to “always on” machines that vibrates each time someone sends us an email or post a message on our Facebook wall. He describes that the communication back then was much more reflective and thoughtful. He argues that because back then, we could “pause” and think more before we replied through asynchronous media such as bulletin board, our messages were more meaningful. Yet, it was precisely then when the idea of “flaming” was introduced by early scholars like Sarah Kiesler and Lee Sproull who studied the same asynchronous media that Rushkoff mentions. Of course, there are more thoughtless messages being sent around as people around the globe are constantly updating their status in 140 words. But at the same, one might find that the number of thoughtful messages and comments has increased just as well. Who knows? Of course, I send more messages with typos with the help of my IPhone. But I am not sure if I became more thoughtless in general. Perhaps. My wife can tell me that. But then, she always finds many of my actions thoughtless anyway. So, it is hard for me to believe that iPhone or Blackberry (which I had before I got an iPhone) is at fault here.

Well, I only read one chapter and the book is interesting. I am sure I will find more to agree with him as I go along. I just wanted to share my thoughts as quickly as possible. Oops. Rushkoff was right. I should have paused before I post this.

Professor | Writer | Teacher Digital Innovation, Design, Organizational Genetics Case Western Reserve University

3 thoughts on “[reading] Program or be Programmed

  1. Thanks for the sharing.
    Anthony Giddens discussed how the modern societies changed the meaning of time. And it’s interesting to know Rushkoff talked about technology’s influence one the temporal dimension. After reading your post, I think I will read Rushkoff’s book.
    And I agree with you that “Nicholas Carr who wrote “Shallow””. He mainly used general, descriptive writings, and did not really touch the fundamental influence. Yet as one of the pioneering books on that topic, his book has its value. I probably won’t read it a second time.

  2. Hi, Youngjin,
    I happened across an old post of yours via Google* and started looking around your blog.
    I noticed your About links in the sidebar don’t work. In general, the domain yoo.temple.edu seems not to be responding. Perhaps this is just temporary, but in case not, I thought you might like to know.
    * I was looking to see who originally said, “General Motors is not in the business of making cars. It is in the business of making money.”

  3. Thanks for your comment. I think the school had to take down the yoo.temple.edu site. I will have to move contents from the site to this domain. Also, I think the comment was made by more than one CEOs at GM.

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