Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

9.13.2013

Behind the Curtain, Part I

As you'll see in my review below, I don't remember anymore why I took notice of Douglas Rushkoff.  Maybe it was an article he wrote or a video featuring him or even the buzz about Present Shock, but when it happened I found his website and was intrigued by both him and all of his books.  I decided I'd start with his shortest book and then see if I wanted to pursue more.  I recently finished it and definitely do.

About Rushkoff, from his website:
Winner of the Media Ecology Association's first Neil Postman award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity, Dr. Douglas Rushkoff is an author, teacher, and documentarian who focuses on the ways people, cultures, and institutions create, share, and influence each other's values. He is technology and media commentator for CNN, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com and has taught and lectured around the world about media, technology, culture and economics.
His book that I recently finished reading, followed by my review:

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age
Though a short, little book, this is dense with good information and ideas. The title might lead you to expect that information to be technical and only for those already conversant in computer code, but that's not the case at all. It's not really about programming so much as it is about an ethics of digital media use. It's about how to use our digital technology as tools that we control instead of letting it dictate the terms of use--and our habits, perceptions, and thoughts--to us. To do so, we have to understand just what the tools are and how they work, which means grasping at least the logic and structures of the underlying programming. So if you want to accomplish command six--Identity: Be Yourself--for instance, you will be more successful if you understand that digital technologies are biased toward depersonalization; you need to understand how the technology creates the dynamic if you want to reverse it to have more civil, engaging, humane, and ethical digital interactions. It's all about knowing how to be in charge of the technology instead of vice versa.

While not earth-shattering, I definitely found this book insightful. It's helped me articulate some feelings I only vaguely understood and opened my eyes to some new thoughts. He's able to communicate effectively and concisely without getting dry or technical. I can't remember what article or video or reference brought Rushkoff to my attention, but I thought all of his books sounded interesting and decided to start with the shortest one to verify that impression; after reading this, I'll be going to back to look into the others.
And, because I like what he has to say, here are some (fairly extensive) excerpts from to book to capture some of the essence.  Because I got carried away, this post has the preface, introduction, and first three commands, with the others to follow in subsequent posts.

Preface

The difference between a computer programmer and a user is much less like that between a mechanic and a driver than it is the difference between a driver and a passenger.  If you choose to be a passenger, then you must trust that your driver is taking you where you want to go.  Or that he's even telling you the truth about what's out there.  You're like Miss Daisy, getting driven from place to place.  Only the car has no windows and if the driver tells you there's only one supermarket in the county, you have to believe him.  The more you live like that, the more dependent on the driver you become, and the more tempting it is for the driver to exploit his advantage.

Introduction

A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values.

It doesn't have to turn out this way.  And it won't if we simply learn the biases of the technologies we are using and become conscious participants in the ways they are deployed. . . .

Like the participants of media revolutions before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us.  And so we, too, remain one step behind the capability actually being offered to us.  Only an elite--sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless--gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer.  The rest learn to be satisfied with gaining the ability offered by the last new medium.  The people hear while the rabbis read; the people read while those with access to the printing press write; today we write, while our techno-elite programs.  As a result, most of society remains one full dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind the few who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age. . . .

Only by understanding the biases of the media through which we engage with the world can we differentiate between what we intend, and what the machines we're using intend for us--whether they or their programmers even know it.

Time - Do Not Be Always On

Maybe that's why the net's first true "killer app" was email.  At first, email did not replace the letter so much as it replaced the phone call.  Instead of having to find an catch a real person at home (cell phones were not yet very common), email found a person when he or she wanted to be found.  Email was an activity one went and did, usually on a daily or twice-daily basis.  (Before and after work, in most cases!) . . .

As Internet connections grow faster, fatter, and freer, however, we are more likely to adopt an "always on" approach to media . . .

We scramble to keep up with the never-ending inflow of demands and commands, under the false premise that moving faster will allow us to get out from under the endless stream of pings for our attention.  For answering email and responding to texts or tweets only exacerbates the problem by leading to more responses to our responses, and so on. . . .

The results aren't pretty.  Instead of becoming empowered and aware, we become frazzled and exhausted.  We have no time to make considered responses, feeling instead obligated to reply to every incoming message on impulse.  We reduce the length and complexity of our responses from paragraphs to sentences to txts, making almost everything we transmit sound like orders barked over a walkie-talkie in a war zone.  Everything must happen right away or, better, now.  There is no later.  This works against the no-time bias of digital media, and so it works against us, even though it might work for the phone company programming the device and inducing our dependence and compliance. . . .

While media critics and concerned educators lament the effects of short messaging on brain capacity, the real influence of our interaction with these programs in not on our neurons as much as our habits and outlook. . . .

The outsourcing of our memory to machines expands the amount of data to which we have access, but degrades our brain's own ability to remember things.  Yet this process of offloading our remembered information began with the invention of text, and met with similar critique even back then.  We have been consistently using our brains less as hard drives and more as processors--putting our mental resources into active RAM.  What's different now, however, is that it's not just lists, dates, and recipes that are being stored for us, but entire processes.  The processes we used to use for finding a doctor or a friend, mapping a route, or choosing a restaurant are being replaced by machines that may, in fact, do it better.  What we lose in the bargain, however, is not just the ability to remember certain facts, but to call upon certain skills. . . .

So instead of simply offloading our memory to external hard drives, we're beginning to offload our thinking as well.  And thinking is not like a book you can pick up when you want to, in your own time.  It is something that's always on.  Are we choosing to surrender the ability to do it without digital assistance?  If so, are we prepared to remain connected to our networks all the time?  What new ability, if any, are we making room for in the process?

Place - Live in Person

Digital media are biased away from the local, and toward dislocation.  Just as television is better at broadcasting a soccer game occurring on the other side of the world than it is at broadcasting the pillow talk of the person next to you in bed, the net is better at creating simulations and approximations of human interaction from a great distance than it is at fostering interactions between people in the same place. . . .

This misguided tendency to depend on long-distance technology to enhance up-close encounters is completely understandable and forgivable.  The more connected we feel in digital spaces, the less securely connected many of us feel in real ones. . . .

Similarly, after years of understanding our businesses as brands whose values can be communicated entirely in an ad, it's only natural for us to lose sight of what it means to run an enterprise in a particular place.  It's as if the whole notion of place has been surrendered to the digital realm's non-local reality. . . .

By recognizing digital media's bias for dislocation, we are enabled to exploit its strength delivering interactivity  over long distances, while preserving our ability to engage without its interference when we want to connect locally.  Many businesses--particularly the biggest ones--already exist in a non-local reality.  The entire history of industrial corporatism, from colonial empires to the railroad barons of the nineteenth century, depended on disconnecting people from their local strength and commanding them from afar.  For them, it is just as ridiculous to use the net to feign that they are local enterprises as it is for local enterprises to use it to act in the manner of national brands.  Powerful global companies become weak local ones, while promising local companies become weak local players.

The digital age offers us all the opportunity to recognize the dislocating bias of our interactive media.  With that knowledge, we may choose when we wish to live and work in real places, with one another and--unique to living humans--in person.

Choice - You May Always Choose None of the Above

The digital realm is biased toward choice, because everything must be expressed in the terms of a discrete, yes-or-no, symbolic language.  This, in turn, often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere.  We must come to recognize the increased number of choices in our lives as largely a side effect of the digital; we always have the choice of making no choice at all.

All this real and illusory choice--all these unnecessary decision points--may indeed be a dream come true for marketers desperate to convince us that our every consumer preference matters.  But it's not their fault.  They are merely exploiting digital technology's pre-existing bias for yes-or-no decisions. . . .

While our computers are busy making discrete choices about the rather indiscrete and subtle world in which we live, many of us are busy, too--accommodating our computers by living and defining ourselves in their terms.  We are making choices not because we want to, but because our programs demand them.

For instance, information online is stored in databases.  A database is really just a list--but the computer or program has to be able to be able to parse and use what's inside the list.  This means someone--the programmer--must choose what questions will be asked and what options the user will have in responding: Man or Woman?  Married or Single?  Gay or Straight?  It gets very easy to feel left out.  Or old: 0-12, 13-19, 20-34, 35-48, or 49-75?  The architecture of databases requires the programmer to pick the categories that matter, and at the granularity that matters to his or her employer's purpose. . . .

The more we learn to conform to the available choices, the more predictable and machinelike we become ourselves.  We train ourselves to stay between the lines, like an image dragged onto a "snap-to" grid. . . .

Likewise, through our series of choices about the news we read, feeds to which we subscribe, and websites we visit, we create a choice filter around ourselves.  Friends and feeds we may have chosen arbitrarily or because we were forced to in the past soon become the markers through which our programs and search engines choose what to show us next.  Our choices narrow our world, as the infinity of possibility is lost in the translation to binary code.

-----

Part II, with commands four through six

Part III, with commands seven through ten

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