Reading: Program or be Programmed


Douglas Rushkoff is an American media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist, and documentarian. He is best known for his association with the early cyberpunk culture, and his advocacy of open source solutions to social problems.

One of his most recent books is Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In its ten chapters Rushkoff provides cyberenthusiasts and technophobes alike with guidelines to deal with the digital world without being controlled by it.

Read the introduction. PDF here

And leave a thought in the comment section below. I want more than a summary or a personal reaction (I agree/I disagree). You can start from this question:

Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?

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  1. azighelb

    A little difficult, but I’ll bite… Aa computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affects our society… How about cars? I mean cars have a bias as a high-speed transportation method that requires little physical strain. This is great for long-distance traveling, and traveling in poor weather. A few negatives do exist though; in more heavily populated areas, driving a car requires mindfulness of both other cars and pedestrians. This, combined limited physical mobility within the car, can mentally wearying over long periods of time. If possible, it’s preferable to either take a walk, bike, or ride the bus through the veins of more heavily populated clusters of urban living, as both are methods of transportation that require less mental strain and (in the case of walking or riding a bike) more physical mobility.

    Definitely talking out of my ass here. I’ll type up another one later once I reread the article. Speaking of the article, it was pretty eye opening to read about the near-constant “small elite” that has existed since the printed word. I think it’s interesting how that idea extends to nearly everything: a painter versus his or her audience; an automobile mechanic versus his customer, the car driver. It’s interesting to think about how the latest incarnation of that elite comes in the form of technology itself. How most of us know only how to access the web, but not how to design websites or applications. There was a very “adapt or die” feel to the article. Grabbed my attention right away.

  2. christianmurphy

    Christian Murphy
    August 26, 2013
    EMS 2

    – Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?

    The part where Rushkoff talks about kids multi-tasking, eventually leading them to become inefficient at focusing at one thing, really resonated with me. As a kid I was introduced to video-games around second grade. I was interested in the technology as well as the entertainment value, as the market upgraded and evolved I evolved with it, enjoying more intricate and tantalizing games. My littlest brother had a different history with virtual reality. He was born into a family of brothers that were interested in gaming and he grew into it much more rapidly. Now as a 13 year old he will frequently play computer while watching television, listening to music, and having YouTube videos playing in the background. Sometimes he has 4 screens running simultaneously! When he is not receiving copious amounts of stimulation he becomes aggravated and irritable. A once all A’s student now gets B’s because he doesn’t delegate any more than the minimum effort to schoolwork! In this regard I think that the electronic entertainment industry “programs” the lives of the generation below me. The fact that middle school kids race home from school everyday to play over the Internet together as opposed to playing outside, proves how powerful these machines are. My youngest brother went from being a soccer player, and open-minded creative individual, to an overweight kid hell bent on being entertained by technology every moment of his youth. Not only does this expose him to the gunk of the internet (porn, gore videos, cyber-bullying etc.) he biggest problem I see with this is the lack of imagination in youth. When they search for entertainment they expect instant gratification. This is very concerning to someone who enjoyed playing with toy guns and swords outside, to see a young child violently decapitating enemies on-screen in mature realistic fashion. The only true way to change these patterns is to better enforce the rating system, and limit online time for younger kids. They can still enjoy the social and gaming aspect of the Internet, but in moderation. With more intricate games it’s very easy for youth to get sucked in and spend 100’s of hours online, by monitoring their time spent on the web they can still evolve as well rounded individuals in the REAL community.

  3. nivethakannan

    Rushkoff dabbles into a very interesting topics in the introduction to his book. Namely, his claim that with the new digital age, programming must be learned just as writing was learned when language and reading was discovered. He claims that those of us who live in this digital age must “program or be programmed.” This argument is valid. Smart phones are a great example of a item people are almost “programmed” to use. These phones make us dependent on them. I use my phone all the time for things like notes, games, texts, social media, etc. And I’m sure all of us have seen people getting lost into their phone for hour. I have a good friend that constantly texts- as she holds a conversation with you, she is typing away at her phone. The internet, as Rushkoff describes, is also a great example of something that has programmed us. Sites like WordPress, Livejournal, and Blogspot give a false feeling of security- it makes us think we know how to customize our pages and know how websites work. However, as Rushkoff points out, this is not programming and definitely does not tell you about what is really happening in the websites you visit.
    Rushkoff does bring out many good points but he seems to have some holes in his argument. Many of Rushkoff’s claims seems like he believes humans would simply follow whatever a machine does. He even claims that the “programmed” will give themselves to the whims of the actual machines. As I read this part, I kept thinking of Windows 8 and its terrible public reception. I feel like consumers make the decision of what they want. If a platform like windows 8 is difficult to use, then consumers are not going to buy them and are not going to use them. Instead, the claim that programmers program the users makes more sense. Rushkoff is also very extreme when he talks about the wide spreading a like mindedness of the internet. He seems to disregard the fact that only around 38% of the world’s population have internet access (let alone internet in their house) and around 80% of these people are from developed countries. even within countries only the privileged have internet access so it is no wonder that many users of the internet are like minded- they are all of around the same social standing and background.
    Rushkoff, overall makes a great deal of sense. It is definitely better to learn at least the basics of programming today when digital technology is all around us. Some of his viewpoints are extreme but his final conclusion is sound.

  4. lindsay cavallo

    Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?

    Cell phones are the obvious and cliche answer to this question, however, they are so intensely ingrained in out society that it’s hard not to talk about them. Cell phones make it possible to be reached at all times. They immediately make the world much more connected, and much smaller. Combine that with social media, and suddenly it’s possible to know what everyone is doing at every possible second. Of course it has its problems, which are also biased. Younger generations are criticized for constantly using cell phones, and yet employers prefer to be in contact with their employees at all times. There is both the stereotype of the teenager constantly on their cell phone, and the stereotype of the business man constantly in touch with his coworkers. There are also clashes between the older and younger generations because of this. Adults will use their cell phones for networking and monetary gain, while teenagers will use their cell phones for social and emotional gain. I would say that the problem is not necessarily with the technology itself, but the different social stigmas that surround the people who use it.

  5. chentsch

    I do not think this float or sink mentality is beneficial for everyone, and I do not think it needs to be this way. The “programs” accessible today are so vastly different than those of even 10 years ago, and the fast rate at which technology is evolving has created large generational gaps in our society. Specifically, the idea of the phone has transformed over the last years into a totally different concept. Upcoming generations have been raised with certain programs embedded into their daily lives, ( ex. apps and social media..) leaving younger generations very familiar with certain technologies, while older generations must adapt and learn the new programs.

    As Rushkoff points out, technology has infiltrated every facet of our daily lives, and has therefore heightened the necessity to master the programs. A problem emerges when these generations, with very different technological upbringings, need to communicate or operate on the same program, or world. It can be illustrated with phones. There is a linguistic understanding that comes from growing up texting, for example, that does not necessarily translate to someone who learned the “language” of texting later on in life. Our language has been condensed, and therefore things like tone and emotion are expressed very subtly through texting amongst the millennium generation. If I text someone a question and they respond “No.” I feel like I can automatically assume they are angry with me. If my mother or grandmother were to text me the same answer, I would not think twice about it, because I know they are not aware of how the addition of a period can dramatically warp the tone of a text message. I hardly check my voice mail, but an adult who grew up leaving voice mails, may feel as though a voice mail is the most direct way to get in contact with someone.

    Although these differences seem trivial, I think they need to be addressed in a way that is universally assessable. It does not surprise me that many adults reject the technological age, and view the rapidly evolving world of tech as an example of how the youth of today is losing its humanity. Or that the younger generations feel like if people can’t get on board they are going to be left behind. I constantly hear older generations confidently admitting that they “don’t even have a cell phone, because they see no use for it.” I believe that this animosity can be eased if upcoming generations were to take a moment and address how technology has become more than learning a program, or this idea of “kids these days needing stimulation”; it is a concrete change in culture. A “get with it or die mentality” will not further technology, because there are large parts of our population who can not necessarily “get with it” the same way a younger generation can. And who is to say that the current tech generation will be able to “get with it” years from now when things have advanced even further? The youth of today will be the first to have had programs play a huge role their whole lives and is therefore able to set a precedent for including other generations in the tech world. It is their (our?) job look at something like the iphone’s impact on culture and society seriously and critically, and then share that impact with the rest of society. No one in this moment knows the technology better than the kids who have been using it the longest. By documenting the changes in language and habits and culture, perhaps a complete understanding of a technology like the phone will not be in indicator of age, but rather an indicator of a dramatic shift in our world’s culture. The rest of the world just needs to be formally notified of this perceived change the younger generations are experiencing. That way we can insure that we are co-existing with the same understanding of our societies norms.

  6. jamieearnest

    Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?

    An example of something that is presently, and will always be ‘programing’ our life is the internet. Since its start, it hasn’t always been so popular. As the social media age boomed, and my generation becoming part of the ‘technological generation’, the internet started to expand.
    Yes, the internet is extremely helpful. I use it every day for work, school, as well as entertainment and leisure. I must say, if it weren’t for the internet, my life would be much more difficult in the sense that time would be much more precious to me. (i.e. time spent on a research paper using internet vs. time spent on same paper using enciclopedias).

    The internet makes things convenient; it makes our lives easier. But the internet isn’t all positive. The internet is so much a part of our every day society that it can be dangerous. I couldn’t begin to list all of the negative connotations that emerge from internet usage in our society. Identity theft, hacked software, illegally downloading patent material, just to name a few.
    The internet is such a large and controlling aspect of our society that there really isn’t any way to keep negative results from emerging from it. Yes, there will always be the positive results, but stopping what and who the internet can reach is impossible.
    I cannot image a better alternative for the internet for several reasons. One, anyone can have access to the internet. Two, individuals can learn to code and hack into other systems through learning software and skills made available to them in print or online. Three, there is no way to control human intention.
    Overall, the internet is the most luxurious invention, I may be bias being a college student with my own laptop, but it is convenient nonetheless. It is something that runs our society today.

  7. cindyxu

    I think one of the biggest ways technology, and specifically the internet, has changed us is that it has given us another way to document ourselves. We’ve been leaving traces of ourselves through art, writing, architecture, traditions, etc. since the prehistoric times. The invention of written language, letters, typewriters, and the like have all proven to be big leaps forward in our ability to generate content. But we can argue that with the invention of the internet comes the biggest jump of all. Never has data been so abundant, and never has it ever been quite this accessible. Nowadays we can type in some search terms and pull up relevant information in a matter of seconds – something that would have been mind-boggling just half a century ago. We can write an article and, instead of delivering it via mail one by one, we can instantaneously share it with the world. Thanks to the internet, we are currently making our deepest mark in the history of mankind.
    But of course there are problems with becoming overreliant on technology as a means of documentation. It’s something we really take for granted in this day and age – we don’t know or don’t really think about the fact that our data is being stored as a bunch of tiny electrical currents somewhere in our computer, or more frequently not in our computer at all. If we lost power all over the world tomorrow, just how much information would we lose? Or even on a smaller scale, what if your computer refused to turn on tomorrow? And it’s not always losing data that we need to worry about. We know the internet is a cruel and unpredictable place, filled with trolls, hackers, and bad news sources. It is painfully easy to generate bad content because there are little to no barriers to doing so. And because the internet is so readily accessible, that makes the effect all the more devastating.
    I don’t agree with Rushkoff’s implication that we must understand how our technology works to appreciate it. In fact, technology evolved exactly to fill this gap. Programming languages were invented so that we would no longer have to program in 0s and 1s. UIs and interfaces were created so that we could perform a task without reading the code. Technology is a tool we have used to make life simpler for us. I think the real danger behind technology is human intent. Technology is not an autonomous being (as long as we are still waiting for the singularity). It is created by humans and dictated by humans. It is a tool for us to act out our desires, for the good or evil, and that is a risk that can happen with any tool we choose to use.

  8. paulpeng

    A particular point that struck me about how we are being manipulated by digital technology is how this manipulation is simply the most recent iteration of the pattern of the general public always being just behind the latest innovation in media: being illiterate with the advent of the alphabet, being unable to write and distribute in the age of the printing press, and now, being unable to program in the age of computers. The reason that I bring this up is because it implies, from a very early time in human history, we were being programmed before the concept of what constitutes a program today even existed.
    In the text, Rushkoff states that, since the public is unable to create or even understand the programs they use, the public is left to be manipulated by these programs and their biases. I would argue that this manipulation extends back before the advent of computers, back as far as whenever the first media revolution took place, leaving the general public in the dust of the lucky few who saw or even blindly stumbled upon its value. Even though the previous media revolutions did not incorporate programming in the pure state that today’s one does, the effects are still the same. Not only is the public left to only hear while the others read, or only read while the others write, the public is programmed, in a sense, by the new media of their time. To be more specific, they are programmed by their biases.
    Rushkoff discusses the biases of a number of technologies and how these biases promote an altered way of thinking and doing that ends up affecting the way those who use it go about their way of life. While he mainly used it to describe how the biases of software and other computer programs lead to the public’s being programmed, he does not go as much into how previous innovations in media and technology affected the public with their biases. In fact, I would argue that the biases of these previous innovations have just as much power as those of a piece of software today when it comes to programming an individual caught unawares. Just as humans are being programmed to serve their software today, humans were programmed to serve the printing press hundreds of years ago, and hundreds of years before that humans were programmed to serve orators sporting literacy and their scrolls of religious text. While this programming occurs in a much more literal sense today, its essential feature, this ability to turn the public into a vehicle of service for itself, has existed for quite some time.
    If you would ask me, a simple way of overcoming this programming of the public is to simply be aware of the biases these new technologies come with and to make sure to not fall under their sway. Whether this requires a knowledge of programming or not, I have not thought about much.

  9. lisapark

    As people living in developed countries, highly absorbed in technology it is quite rare to come across someone in our age group who have no social networking profile. For a wide array of reasons, people own a internet profile, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.. Although for the many of us, we may see more good out of social networking programs, to many others, especially those of older generations, a particular bias on these programs may be held.
    There is no doubt that programs such as Facebook, highly influence our lives, whether it be for good or bad, social networks have become commonplace in our society these days. In fact, so much so that have websites such as Facebook become considered ‘the norm’, are young people without an account are suddenly considered unusually unsocial, strange or distant. As Douglass Rushkoff mentions in his article ‘Program or be Programmed’ because new media programs run major parts of our lives, we dont even stop to consider the question ‘do I really need or want that? or am I getting that because “everyone” these days have that?’ Rushkoff mentions that this is evident in areas where newspaper go ‘online’ and ‘elementary school boards adopt “laptop” curriculums less
    because they believe that they’ll teach better, but because they fear their students will miss out on something if they don’t’. Social networking programs introduce us with the same problem, many people these days may unknowingly feel the need to own social networking accounts to be accepted within our society.
    Apart from the fact that to the many of us, we often see social media networks as a form of entertainment, social networking programs can provide many actual benefits. Whether it be, to find a long lost childhood friend, a once thought of as impossible mission, becomes easily achievable with the search of a name. Also an alternative form/wide range of communication is made readily available though social media, which becomes especially useful for those who have friends or family living in different cities or countries.
    However the problems social media can bring are also endless. Unlike the benefits, these problems can be detrimental. Some problems social networking programs like Facebook involve; loss of privacy which can lead to behaviors like stalking, loss of ‘physical meeting’ culture, identity theft, and many more.
    With moderate use I think social media programs can be useful, however in today’s society when the internet is so readily available to us, many people unknowingly may become addicted or controlled by these programs. I would think the best alternative method to prevent this, would be to use in moderation, and continue to practice existing traditional cultures.

  10. emilymiller

    First, I’d like to say that I enjoyed reading this particular introduction because it’s structure was so incredibly simple for such a complex and misunderstood topic. I think people (myself included) fear the supposed complexities and capabilities that programming possesses to change our future. It’s daunting, especially since it feels so new. But reading this was somehow calming.
    I connected with several points. The argument was made that we are cultivating a new generation of humans to fit the machine rather than the reverse case. This perhaps is the culprit for the disconnect between humans and the power of programming. Instead of taking the time to truly lean to operate these systems and amend them for the better, we sit back and amend ourselves to follow the computer’s functions. It’s almost like the general public is being controlled, through use of computers, but the select “techno-elite” few who possess the capability to create the actual software that the computers run on. This reminds me of my high school drawing teacher, who always told us that we are all “puppets to the corporations” and that the only way we could use our cell phone in class is if we invented a new one.
    I find the influence of programming and technology upon human relationships to be disturbing and I think this article reiterated that fear. Due to social networking, our way of thinking and interacting with one another has completely changed and I’m not sure if this is a good thing, a bad thing, or just something to accept and explore for the future. I am trying to keep an open mind and learn as much as I possibly can, including how to program, before I formulate that opinion.
    Looking at the broad, obvious example of social networking as a computational system that has drastically altered the functioning of our society, I’m not sure if I can come up with an alternative. The ancient one seems to be more human-to-human interaction and less human to computer interaction. Is this a negative advancement? Perhaps we can program software that takes the best characteristics of both real and virtual worlds and combines them.

  11. rachelpark

    There is no doubt that technology is taking a huge part of human life these days. Whether you like technology or not, in other word, whether you agree or disagree that technology is affecting the society positively, it is undebatable that our daily life is based on technology. People starts their day with reading internet news that reports what is happening on the other side of the world on their iPhone. For just this process to happen, someone with a recording device documents what is happening, using the internet he or she sends that information to the news station, the news station post that information on their website, and finally you get to read it on your phone. It can be intimidating that everything happens in one “Click”, yet I think that’s what is so fascinating about a technology.

    Honestly, the reading was kind of difficult. Maybe because my brain is not adjusted to carnegie mellon yet.

  12. josephjung

    Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?
    My favorite part of the introduction was the correlation between technological elitism between the educated and ignorant classes of each invention’s time period and how well it could potentially correlate now to us, especially seeing how computer-centric a school like CMU actually is as well.
    I think that the biggest computational/infrastructural/computer-related-jargon influence in our lives this generation is networking. Some form of networking in an electronic device is now something generally taken for granted, and it is almost laughable to see some sort of entertainment device be released without some way of accessing said networks. Networking has now expanded from just landline telephones, computers, smartphones/dumb phones, radio, etc. to include devices such as videogame consoles, calculators, and internet-enabled TVs.
    With this new wave of products readily accessible to consumers, social media has also exploded. The fact that I could potentially post a status to Facebook or Twitter from a computer, phone, game console, or something like a smartwatch is simply overwhelming. After reading, I went one step further to think about how any of this stuff could’ve worked; it pushed me to my current stance that using products like these without even remotely understanding would eventually never let me choose whether or not I needed them. While using the internet and social media greatly increases our access to news and instant communication, some faults would be an overdependence towards these tools instead of traditional physical/face-to-face methods of communication and interaction. I don’t believe that is healthy for people socially and psychologically farther down their lifetimes even if they appear to be normal for now.

  13. jingxiao

    Having taken the Posthumanism section of Interp just two years ago, there are certainly many elements of Rushkoff’s argument that ring bells: the hive mind, the singularity (though he didn’t mention it by name), the general warning of losing our humanity as a result of this technological shift. I distinctly remember discussions on how technology is rewiring our neural circuits, how the web is literally reprogramming our minds.

    And certainly, the Internet, the largest and most influential system in our current generation, is fundamentally shaping our habits and thinking. Given how ubiquitous the web has become in our daily lives and how dependent on it for work, play, news, and reference we have become, it is no surprise that our way of thinking is at the mercy of the web’s bias. The nature of the web–the speed, the ease of access, the magnitude of information that it holds–necessarily promotes a way of thinking that mirrors and complements its own qualities.

    The web is teaching us to expect immediate answers, to thirst for a fast-paced style of learning and absorption, to browse rather than read, and to be impatient. The web is also polluted. It is perhaps the largest repository in the world of useful information, but in that vein, also the largest repository of junk. And as passive users, we learn that we need only exert minimal effort to experience in full the stream of information, entertainment, and even junk that the web has to offer. More significantly, we are internalizing and bringing our altered online habits and our weakened capacity to concentrate and contemplate into our lives away from the screen.

    In general, we are dumbing ourselves down to technology by becoming reliant on the automation and convenience that it provides us with. Meanwhile, the small group with the power to do so are programming the technology to become smarter and more powerful in controlling our actions and behaviors. This is a dangerous situation to be in, and as such, Rushkoff warns his readers that we must make efforts to understand the programs and bias underlying the technologies and media inundating us in our current cultural experience lest they outwit us. This is fair advice we should all heed, though understanding is only the very first step.

    And the thing is, programming is not exclusive; learning how to program is free and accessible. There is no need to be a passive user! The growing hacking culture that is taking shape in our younger generation of web users is a promising reflection of how we can counter this passivity. I think there’s hope yet.

  14. maggynavin

    Rushkoff’s approach to an admittedly complex issue was both straightforward and accessible. His argument, however, isn’t so simple. From the start he stresses that the digital revolution we are experiencing is changing our society in greater ways than most people fathom. In his words, we are creating a blueprint for the future. He argues that we must learn how to program or we will consequently be programmed. Essentially, the change is happening and it’s happening fast whether we jump on the bandwagon or not. By accepting what has already been made (or programmed in this case), we are operating in the past. So awareness of the potential of technology today is largely obscured because common people aren’t working on the forefront of what’s possible. In a larger context, I think that he’s asking for a raise in consciousness about how technology is present and shaping our not only our daily lives but shared societal values. It’s more about being technologically literate; it’s about realizing and participating in the cultural revolution of today’s age.

  15. christinbongiorni

    Can you think of an example of a computational system or artifact that “programs” our lives or deeply affect our society? What are its bias and problems (if any)? Can you envision a better alternative?

    While it may not be as obvious as things like the internet or cell phones, I believe that a huge example of a system that has been “programmed” into our lives is the touch screen. The simple interaction of “scrolling” across a screen that doesn’t move at all has become such a huge part of our lives that it has even been programmed into the minds of small children. While it may seem cute, the fact that if you give a baby a magazine and they don’t understand why it doesn’t “scroll” in the same way that an iPad does just goes to show you how powerful the Apple company has become in controlling the way we think and interact in life. ( )
    Rushkoff asks of us to realize that we are constantly being “programmed”, and he tells us that, if we don’t learn how to program ourselves, we will constantly be programmed by the higher powers of technology and society. While I don’t think that being programmed is necessarily a bad thing so far, the fact that a simple touch screen has changed the way infants interact with objects that aren’t digital just goes to show how much we actually are being programmed to live. The power that the “programmers” do have is incredible, and we must live more consciously and with more awareness so we too can take part in shaping our lives and the technology around us.

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