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 III

More from Douglas Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.  Commands four through six, to be precise.  See an introduction and the first three commands in Behind the Curtain, Part I and commands four through six in Behind the Curtain, Part II.

Social - Do Not Sell Your Friends

The history of the Internet can probably best be understood as a social medium repeatedly shaking off attempts to turn it into something else.  And it will keep doing so.  Our digital networks are biased toward social connections--toward contact.  Any effort to redefine or hijack those connections for profit end up compromising the integrity of the network itself, and compromising the real promise of contact. . . .

This essential bias is consistently misunderstood and mischaracterized as fear or selfishness on the part of net users.  The anger people feel over a social networking site's ever-changing policies really has less to do with any invasion of their privacy than the monetization of their friendships.  The information gleaned from their activity is being used for other than social purposes--and this feels creepy.  Friends are not bought and sold. . . .

The real way to "go social," if they wanted to, would not be to accumulate more page friends or message followers, but rather to get their friends and followers to befriend and follow one another.  That's how to create a culture in a peer-to-peer, networked medium.  Instead of looking to monetize or otherwise intercede between existing social connections, those promoting networks should be looking to foster connections between people who are as yet unknown to each other yet potentially in need of each other.  And then let them go about their business--or their socializing.

The danger, of course, is that today's "penny for your friends" social networks will survive long enough--at least one after the other--for their comprised social standards to become accepted or even internalized by users.  Kids growing up as members of networks devised to exploit their social lives are not nearly as scandalized by all this as those of us who still hold on to the ideal of genuine, agenda-free connections between people.  If the social urge online comes to be understood as something necessarily comingled with commercial exploitation, then this will become the new normative human behavior as well. . . .

Fact - Tell the Truth

The network is like a truth serum: Put something false online and it will eventually be revealed as a lie.  Digital technology is biased against fiction and toward facts, against story and toward reality.  This means the only option for those communicating in these spaces is to tell the truth. . . .

So the peer-to-peer bazaar that almost brought down feudalism was dismantled, and feudalism evolved into what we now think of as corporate capitalism.  Sadly, along with the peer-to-peer economy went peer-to-peer communication.  Companies tried to replace what had been relationships between people with relationships to brands.  Instead of buying your beer from Bob the brewer, you'd buy it from the officially sanctioned monopoly.  The seal on the bottle was to substitute for whatever human relationship existed before.  To make this transition work, brands turned to the sorts of mythologies still in use today.  The Quaker on a package of oats has nothing to do with the grain in the box; he is a story.

As the Industrial Age gathered steam, more products--even more disconnected from their producers--needed to be sold.  Ad agencies developed powerful brands to camouflage the factory-based origins of most of what people consumed.  Industrial agriculture became the valley of a green giant, and factory-made cookies became the work of little elves working in a hollow tree.  Mass media arose to disseminate all of these new myths, utterly devoid of facts.  And as long as media remained a top-down proposition, there was very little fact-based, peer-to-peer communication to challenge any of it.  People were working hard on assembly lines or in cubicles anyway, no longer experiencing themselves in their multiple social roles simultaneously.  They were workers on the job, trying to earn a paycheck, and consumers at home relaxing to the mythological drone of mass media.

Digital technology broke this.

The fundamental difference between mass media and digital media is interactivity. . . .

It's hard for any company to maintain its mythology (much less its monopoly) in such an environment.  As we transform from media consumers back to cultural communicators, we message one another seeking approval and reinforcement.  Myths and narratives will always be deconstructed, and mistruths eventually corrected.  The bias of our interactions in digital media shifts back toward the nonfiction on which we all depend to make sense of our world, get the most done, and have the most fun.  The more valuable, truthful, and real our messages, the more they will spread and the better we will do.  We must learn to tell the truth. . . .

In advertising terms, this means abandoning brand mythology and returning to attributes.  It may sound obvious to those of us in the real world, but marketers need to learn that the easiest way to sell stuff in the digital age is to make good stuff.  The fictional story that cookies were baked by elves is no longer as important as whether the cookies are healthy, have natural ingredients, are sources appropriately, involve slave labor, or are manufactured in an environmentally friendly fashion.  The facts about the cookies--particularly the facts that are socially relevant--are what will spread online.

Openness - Share Don't Steal

As the net became privatized and commercialized, its bias for openness and sharing remained.  Only now it is often people and institutions exploiting this bias in order to steal or extract value from one another's work.  Digital technology's architecture of shared resources, as well as the gift economy through which the net was developed, have engendered a bias toward openness.  It's as if our digital activity wants to be shared with others.  As a culture and economy inexperienced in this sort of collaboration, however, we have great trouble distinguishing between sharing and stealing. . . .

In the digital realm, with just a bit of effort, we can see, take, and replicate anything that anybody does.  There is no such thing as unbreakable copy protection.  If a CD or DVD can be played, it can be copied in one way or another (even if it means losing one "generation" of digital fidelity).  But the fact that we can copy and distribute anything that anybody does, does not make it right.  Most of us could pretty easily break into a neighbor's house by shattering a single pane of glass and take what we want with little risk of getting caught.  Or we could just look at their personal papers, review their tax filings and bank statements, and maybe check to see what form of birth control they use.

What stops us is not law enforcement, but the social contract.  On some level, through parental training or simple logic, we understand that a world where people broke into one another's homes wouldn't be a nice place to live.  We respect the concepts of ownership and privacy because we want others to do the same.  Restraint is just part of being members of a civilized society.

These same social norms do not yet apply to the net, where sharing, borrowing, stealing, and repurposing are all rather mashed up themselves.  That's why we tend to apply the otherwise refreshing ethos of openness so universally and, ultimately, inappropriately. . . .

By confronting the biases of digital media head-on, however, we can come to terms with the seeming paradox of ownership in a digital mediaspace.  On the simplest level, the problem here is that the laws we developed to protect things used to deal with real stuff.  Real stuff is in limited supply.  Its scarcity demands protection.  Digital content, because it can be copied for free, is in infinite supply.  When I steal a pair of shoes from a cobbler, his investment of time and materials have been robbed as well.  When I illegally copy a song from an album, I haven't cost the musician anything; at least I haven't cost him anything more than if I had never listened to the song in the first place.  He loses the opportunity cost of a new customer, but I haven't actually robbed him of the thing he made.  I just copied it.  Besides, why should I give him scarce money for something that can be copied infinitely for free?

The answer, of course, is that I should be paying the musician for his time and energy making the music that I am enjoying.  It's a cost that should be shared by all of us who listen to it, and shared equally.  This notion is alien to us. . . .

Purpose - Program or Be Programmed

We see actual coding as some boring chore, a working-class skill like bricklaying, which may as well be outsourced to some poor nation while our kids play and even design video games.  We look at developing the plots and characters for a game as the interesting part, and the programming as the rote task better offloaded to people somewhere else.  We lose sight of the fact that the programming--the code itself--is the place from which the most significant innovations emerge. . . .

Digital technology doesn't merely convey our bodies, but ourselves.  Our screens are the windows through which we are experiencing, organizing, and interpreting the world in which we live.  They are also the interfaces through which we express who we are and what we believe to everyone else.  They are fast becoming the boundaries of our perceptual and conceptual apparatus; the edge between our nervous systems and everyone else's, our understanding of the world and the world itself.

If we don't know how they work, we have no way of knowing what is really out there.  We cannot truly communicate, because we have no idea how the media we are using bias the messages we are sending and receiving.  Our senses and our thoughts are already clouded by our own misperceptions, prejudices, and confusion.  Our digital tools add yet another layer of bias on top of that.  But if we don't know what their intended and accidental biases are, we don't stand a chance of becoming coherent participants in the digital age.  Programming is the sweet spot, the high leverage point in a digital society.  If we don't learn to program, we risk being programmed ourselves. . . .

For the person who understands code, the whole world reveals itself as a series of decisions made by planner and designers for how the rest of us should live.  Not just computers, but everything from the way streets are organized in a town to the way election rules (are tilted for a purpose vote for any three candidates) begin to look like what they are: sets of rules developed to promote certain outcomes.  Once the biases become apparent, anything becomes possible.  The world and its many arbitrary systems can be hacked. . . .

Our enthusiasm for digital technology about which we have little understanding and over which we have little control leads us not toward greater agency, but toward less.  We end up at the mercy of voting machines with "black box" technologies known only to their programmers, whose neutrality we must accept on faith.  We become dependent on search engines and smart phones developed by companies we can only hope value our productivity over their bottom lines.  We learn to socialize and make friends through interfaces and networks that may be more dedicated to finding a valid advertising model than helping us find one another.

Yet again, we have surrendered the unfolding of a new technological age to a small elite who have seized the capability on offer. . . .

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