Book Event Advocates Technological Literacy
It’s easy to slough off our parents because they have trouble inserting hyperlinks in an email or don’t have the technological vocabulary to troubleshoot an issue. But what neither I nor my parents know is how the programs we use actually work — why does a right-click let me download that file? What is going on inside this 13.5 by 2-inch machine that makes the magic happen?
Douglas Rushkoff explores this phenomena of our lack of behind-the-screen knowledge in his new book, “Program or be Programmed,” which he discussed on March 29 at the New York Institute for Technology. The discussion was hosted by the Center for Communication, and Douglas was joined by moderator Jeremy McCarter, a senior writer at Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
Rushkoff spoke to an audience made up mainly of young students who through NYIT are engaged in this conversation of “what we can do with the web.” The students behind me spent 10 minutes before the show relaying the tweets of the Bronx Zoo cobra to one another, and I thought, “Wow, people really do use Twitter” — so tech savvy.
Rushkoff’s book shows how computers and the Internet arrived and how, just like other forms of technology, the production has been left in the hands of a select few, and most people use the technology with little critical thought. The book is made up an introduction plus of 10 chapters, each a “command” that will help its readers navigate the net without being controlled by it. Rushkoff gives a history of how we got where we are and what we can do to regain the power that we could have had years ago from computers.
At first glance the names of the commands seemed obvious — yeah, duh, don’t “always be on,” obviously we shouldn’t “sell our friends.” But Rushkoff provides a history not just of computers but of society and the emergence of all technology, and how we have to make the critical choice of deciding whether or not we will protect our ability to make our own decisions.
Rushkoff’s main message is that technology has biases. He said in the discussion, “It’s like how ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ But guns are more biased to kill people than say, a pillow.” We must understand the bias and work with it, not against it.
One bias is that the computer has no sense of time. In his book Rushkoff writes, “Instead of operating in time, computers operate from decision to decision, choice to choice.” But what we’ve done is made time the essence of our web use — we need instant gratification in order to be satisfied.
“Everything must happen right away or, better, now,” he writes. “There is no later.”
Granted, programming isn’t easy. Rushkoff admits to not even being a programmer, and doesn’t claim that we should all give up our highly promising careers as artists to learn the cryptic language of ones and zeros. “It’s not a matter of being able to do it well. It’s being able to understand that you could do it,” he said in the discussion.” I’m not talking about the difference between a driver and an auto-mechanic. You have to know how to use it — it’s the difference between a driver and a passenger.”
What Rushkoff had to say wasn’t as ominous as imagined — at times his book is loaded with the harsh realities of how our society took what could have always been an incredible power-to-the-people technology and how we’ve completely abused it by simply not thinking about it enough. Instead, he’s promoting a notion, one particularly geared toward students, that we do have the competence to become the decision makers and the creators, not just those who sit wide eyed and hit “enter” without a second of hesitation.