The Costs of Being Programmed

One of the arguments in Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed was the ontological argument that computers are inherently binaristic, capable of only understanding on or off while humans are more complex and nuanced, to say the least.

Another argument that I found compelling was really the rallying call Rushkoff makes here: that we must all be programmers. Perhaps I misunderstood it when I read the book the first time, but it appears that he does indeed call for digital citizens to learn programming. He says this in a passage in the final chapter of the book: “the irony here is that computers are frightfully easy to learn. Programming is immensely powerful, but it is really no big deal to learn.”[1] Once you look at some computer code, you can make some sense of it. Learning a computer language is really not much different than learning a “foreign” language. There is a vocabulary, and there are rules of syntax and grammar. The only difference is that you must be precise in writing code because computers are terrible at nuance and interpretation. They only faithfully follow instructions and panic when they don’t understand those instructions.

My interpretation of Rushkoff’s argument was more that we should understand how computers work and how digital technology is inherently biased. I unknowningly appropriated in class his example of automobiles. He responds to the point I was trying to make: that almost all of us own and operate an automobile but don’t actually understand how they work. He writes:

Throughout the twentieth century, we remained blissfully ignorant of the real biases of automotive transportation. We approached our cars as consumers, through ads, rather than as engineers or, better, civic planners. We gladly surrendered our public streetcars to private automobiles, unaware of the real expenses involved. We surrendered our highway policy to a former General Motors chief, who became secretary of defense primarily for the purpose of making public roads suitable for private cars and spending public money on a highway system. We surrendered city and town life for the commuting suburbs, unaware that the bias of the automobile was to separate home from work. As a result, we couldn’t see that our national landscape was being altered to manufacture dependence on the automobile. We also missed the possibility that these vehicles could make the earth’s atmosphere unfit for human life, or that we would one day be fighting wars primarily to maintain the flow of oil required to keep them running.[2]

Our collective failure to understand automobiles as machines, rather than as tools, has led to real, high costs. We spend the equivalent of a full day each week supporting our automobiles, we devote scarce tax money to building and maintaining roads for them, and we poison our air with their exhaust. In other words, not understanding automobiles has programmed us to work for our cars rather than the other way around. If we understood how our cars actually work, we’d look for an alternative. A friend used to say, being a former car owner is like being a former smoker: you ignore all rational thinking to keep doing it.

But this is not a call for all of us to become mechanics. It’s a call for us to become informed and understand that for all their utility, digital technology has real costs.

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  1. Rushkoff 133.  ↩
  2. Rushkoff 131–132.  ↩

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