"NET EFFECT: It's not too late for humanity to survive the digital" by Douglas Rushkoff

NET EFFECT: It’s not too late for humanity to survive the digital
by Douglas Rushkoff

October 12, 2009

The first time I worked with a computer, way back in high school in the late ’70s, there was no such thing as software. To use the terminal, I had to write my own code and then input it into the computer. Only then would the computer be a typewriter, a calculator, a psychiatrist, or an elevator controller. A computer was an “anything” machine. Moreover, everything I wrote and saved—my “content”—was accessible and changeable by anyone else on the system—unless I specifically ordered otherwise. Media was no longer fixed, it was changeable. Not only ownership, but also the notion of finality itself had become arbitrary—even artificial.

Today, most of us think of computers—and all of our digital devices—in terms of the applications they offer: “What does it already do” instead of “what can I make it do?” Likewise, instead of teaching computer programming in school, we teach kids how to use Microsoft Windows. This difference is profound. It exemplifies the core difference between a society capable of thinking its way beyond its current limitations, and one destined to repeat the same mistakes until it drives itself to extinction.

Computers and networking technology present humanity with the greatest opportunity for renaissance since the invention of the 22-letter alphabet in about the second millennium BCE. But, just like then, we are squandering the opportunity. We are afraid of what it means to live in a world where we are responsible for how things turn out. We would prefer to live under the false assumption that the rules by which we live are given circumstances rather than realize they are creations of human beings and utterly up for discussion. Just as we understand our technologies to be limited by the software with which they are packaged, we understand our world as limited by the social and economic codes currently in operation.

The real power of media revolutions—such as the ones that occurred during the Axial Age when the alphabet was created and the Renaissance of the 1300’s when the printing press was invented—is that the new medium offers people an entirely new perspective with which to relate to their world. The alphabet led to monotheism and contractual law. The printing press led to the notion of individuality and the Enlightenment. The status quo not only comes under scrutiny; it is rewritten by those who have gained access to the tools of its creation.

We now have technology at our disposal that offers us even more profoundly meaningful access to this creation than ever before. However, we are squandering its real potential to patch up the holes in our failing economy, market culture, and social hierarchy. Instead of working together, consciously, to harness the power of new media and build an infrastructure capable of networking human society, enhancing cognition, and promoting a full-scale reconsideration of the assumptions on which our culture, politics, and economics are based, we assign this task to programmers working offshore, at the behest of companies looking to improve the short-term bottom line. This means using technology to increase human predictability, conformity, and compliance rather than their opposites. The effect of the net on us as people is, at best, an afterthought to be argued by intellectuals.

This wouldn’t be the first time a medium failed on its promise to offer human beings a new level of understanding and agency. Like the participants of failed cultural eras before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us. The Axial Age invention of the 22-letter alphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers, but a society of hearers, who would gather in the town square to listen to the Torah scroll read to them by a rabbi. Yes, it was better than being ignorant slaves, but it was a result far short of the medium’s real potential. Likewise, the invention of the printing press in the Renaissance led not to a society of writers, but one of readers; the presses were reserved for those with access. Broadcast radio and television were really just extensions of the printing press: expensive, one-to-many media that promote the mass distribution of the stories and ideas of a small elite at the center. We don’t make TV; we watch it.

Computers and networks finally offer us the ability to write. And we do write with them. But the underlying capability of the computer era is actually programming—which almost none of us really knows how to do. We simply use the programs that have been made for us, and enter our blog text in the appropriate box on the screen. We teach kids how to use software to write, but not how to write software. This means they have access to the capabilities given to them by others, but not the power to determine the value-creating capabilities of the technology for themselves.

Like those failed media renaissances before this one, we remain one step behind the capability actually being offered us. Only an elite—sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless—gain 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; we write, while our techno-elite program. As a result, a majority of people remain one dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind those who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age.

And it breaks my heart, it really does. I knew the implementation of a people-focused media would be a struggle, but I didn’t think so many otherwise intelligent humans would surrender their agency and awareness to the always-on drone of the corporate-driven net—at least not this quickly and totally. Still, I can’t bring myself to believe it is an inevitable state of human affairs. History can be changed, particularly before it has even occurred. We can break the cycle of illiteracy, and—at the very least—develop technologies and interfaces that promote rather than repress the awareness and access implicit in digital media.

I’m going to start writing—here and elsewhere—about what our new media does and doesn’t do. How it promotes asynchronous communication, letting people get “work” done when they want, rather than at someone else’s schedule—loosening the connection between human time and the value of labor. How it gives small producers on the periphery an opportunity to sell and exchange directly with others—rather than through central authorities. How it allows people to relegate the inhuman parts of themselves to the machines, while preserving the human for the real world. How, contrary to most of our experience, it actually gives us the freedom to restore human scale in our real lives, while engaging in non-human-scaled activities exclusively through our laptops, on an as-needed basis.

It’s not too late to shift from an “always on” digital culture to an “always alive” real culture, with occasional, digitally assisted transmissions for non-local and sub-human activities.

The digital should have made all of this more probable and more possible, not less.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author, most recently, of Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back. He hosts The Media Squat on WFMU, and teaches media studies at The New School.

14 thoughts on “"NET EFFECT: It's not too late for humanity to survive the digital" by Douglas Rushkoff

  1. It’s clear that the percentage of computer-using kids who learn to program is lower today than it was in the 1970s, but given the ubiquity of computers that is hardly surprising. If the absolute number of kids learning to program is higher–and I’m sure that it is substantially so–then isn’t your concern rather attenuated?

  2. I’ve gotta say I’m not to sure what your argument is here, Douglas. Perhaps it will unfold as you write more.

    You seem to be channelling Seymour Papert or RMS with your lament over people not being able to programme, but I’ve always thought this was one of RMS’s weakest arguments for Free Software.

    While it’s true that we must be aware of the hidden affordances within our provided technologies and their ability to subtly shape society, many would simply argue that the plethora of technological options available to us today makes your argument moot.

    These days technology makes it possible for us all to be writers, publishers, graphic artists, musicians, record labels, film makers, film distributors, animators, 3D developers, roboticists, multi-media artists, architects etc., so surely what’s important is the capacity to express ourselves and share our messages with the world, which current technology eminently allows us to do (and the options are expanding all the time).

    Will the capacity to programme really make that much of a difference? Aren’t current technologies democratising enough? (There is certainly plenty of writing about emerging technologies that claim so.)

    I ask because I genuinely want to know, and suspect it’s an argument you will have to deal with.

  3. Agreed, but slow up a bit.

    Doug writes, “a majority of people remain one dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind those who manage to monopolize access.” The facts are, this is life, the way things are. Certainly, it is the way the market has been; working as it has to guide taxpayer stimulus dollars back into the arms of “those who manage to monopolize access.” Doug is merely saying it does not have to be this way over and over again.

    I might add, Douglas is correct about those off shore programmers busy propping up our “economy.” Interesting, what another offshore demographic is doing in places like India and Iran. I suggest wafer thin multipods with twitter and a lens can only do so much.

    An end to the unimproved artifice of totalised tribal warfare!

    “The old agonal warfare was between brothers; conducted according to rules; limited in objectives, and limited in time, in a necessary alternation of peace and war; the brothers need each other in order to fight again another day. The new warfare is total: it seeks an end to war, an end to brotherhood.

    The quarrel is over the paternal inheritance. Fraternities are moieties, or segments, into which the body of the world is divided; giving to each a property, a lot (Moira); a system of provinces marked off by boundaries, i.e., fenced by taboo. The myths represent totemism as what remains of a diminished totality, or what results from a separating out from each other of what was previously united. Here is the origin of the division of labor —something that Freud did not know. The division of labor is established by distributing the parts among the clans as their totems. “‘The plan, or order, which was carried out when all the people camped together, was that of a wide circle. This tribal circle was called Hu-dhu-ga, and typified the cosmos. . . . The circle was divided into two great divisions or halves’ (the exogamous phratries). ‘The one called In-shta-sun-da represented the Heavens; and the other, the Hun-ga-she-nu, denoted the Earth…. Each of the two great divisions was subdivided into clans, and each of the ten clans had its particular symbol’ (totem) ‘representing a cosmic force, one of the various forms of life on the Earth.'”

    Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, 69; cf. 55-56. Cf. Levi-Strauss, Totemism, 26″ – Norman Brown. Love’s Body

    I dare say mother is understood sufficiently now, that we might engineer some fascinating new artifices and structures. But, maybe Ulysses is just plumb tuckered out and it’s time to hand the house over to the daughters? You know, that other demographic…


  4. Same as it ever was, for sure.
    Perhaps incorrectly, I thought we had the opportunity for a shift.

    It’s not that everyone must know how to program; it’s more the possibility that everyone know it’s even there. But I hear the general argument: if we now have access to Microsoft Office and Google Docs, isn’t everything so much better that we don’t need to worry about who is programming whom with what?

    I can’t go there, quite. I see a bigger possibility. Something really special and wonderful that could happen as people learn how to scale their lives appropriately in different places, through different media, or none at all. But maybe not.

    You may return to your regularly scheduled programming.

  5. I relished being taught by a friend 15 years ago how to build my own PC. He was evangelical about people controlling the means of information technology. It took me 13 years to get fed up enough with the niggles to buy one built by someone else – but it happened. Tech DIY requires persistence and a temperament that it’s often healthy to grow out of…

    And despite having a strong (but vaporous) aspiration to be a programmer as a Spectrum-owning teen, it was almost accidental that I ended up actually earning money from programming. I learned HTML to publish my writing, and then ended up being forced to learn ColdFusion to help the code guy out at a badly-organized company I was working for.

    My point on this is that CF is a very human-friendly scripting language, easy to get going with if you know HTML. But it has a bad image in purist circles (which aren’t so rare in programming) because it compromises some programming power and hard elegance for its friendliness. To the extent that opening people up to programming is possible, this is a big hurdle. I’m aware that things like Ruby on Rails might be doing this abstraction that makes programming easier in a better way than CF. But there seems to be such a level of abstraction required before programming becomes viable for more than a specialized demographic that you’re almost at the level of “software” anyway. I wonder if the best that coding can offer in the way of democratization is the metaphor of things like open source?

  6. Douglas, I hope you don’t think I’m disagreeing with you. I’m just saying it’s a hard cause to argue.

    I assume you are linking this back to what you’ve said in the past about being able to rewrite society’s operating system. I see the bigger possibility too, but how to get this message across? Does anyone really care?

    To stick with the programming analogy for a moment, we aren’t simply talking Microsoft Office and Google Docs, we’re talking a gazillion Web 2.0 apps. What freedom of choice! For must people a gazillion apps (or a gazillion types of breakfast cereal) precludes them from thinking there are any choices missing outside the dizzying array of what’s on offer. What freedom that brings!

    The public knows we can program (going with US spelling now!) from all those stories we hear about programmers making their fortune from an iPhone app they banged up in minutes. But why bother programming yourself when someone who does want to will surely create something that meets your needs out of the 90,000 apps on the App Store? The illusion of freedom of choice is complete… being a consumer is enough to give more choices than anyone can ever process.

    Let’s not underestimate the corporate system’s capacity to co-opt anything and everything to it’s own end. They already sell us “freedom”, why would we want anything more?

    Perhaps if you could explain how people could “learn how to scale their lives appropriately in different places, through different media, or none at all” I could be helped over my pessimism.

  7. No one’s disagreeing here: “a full-scale reconsideration of the assumptions on which our culture, politics, and economics are based,” is what we want. We want a network of bottom up programmers incorporated solely for the purpose of re-engineering.

    Our difficulties arise with the nature of the current top down order and with our language. Programming is not just a metaphor, unless one takes one’s freedom, bangs out that app and retires. And that’s the end of the story? More freedom for all?

    That is one dreadful narrative. I’m reading Krishnamurti’s Letters to the Schools. He addresses freedom, knowledge and intelligence and many other so called “concepts” which he constantly reminds us not to treat as concepts. Here’s a taste:

    “Is there an action that is not mechanical, non-repetitive, non-routine and so without regret? This is really important for us to understand for where there is freedom and the flowering of goodness, action can never be mechanical. Writing is mechanical, learning a language, driving a car is mechanical; acquiring any kind of technical knowledge and acting according to that is mechanistic. Again in this mechanical activity there might be a break and in that break a new conclusion is formed which again becomes mechanical. One must bear in mind constantly that freedom is essential for the beauty of goodness. There is a non-mechanistic action but you have to discover it. You cannot be told about it, you cannot be instructed in it, you cannot learn from examples, for then it becomes imitation and conformity. Then you have lost freedom completely and there is no goodness.”

    I believe, when Doug intimates a solution in lives of different or appropriate scale he means something like this, that when we learn in freedom we can act in freedom. To me and Krishnamurti, i believe, this means learning without fear, anxiety or competition, in leisure, in freedom.

    For lives already caught up in these things, the only solution is to rescale one’s life until there is freedom. Right action will result and this is natural flowering. Despite our lives as they are today, with a little intention, we can provide our children with real freedom. We are all so endowed. But for so many adults, now, freedom is just a concept which, strangely enough, feels like anxiety.

    And if we are unable to secure this for our children …..


  8. I like where this thought is heading:

    “We would prefer to live under the false assumption that the rules by which we live are given circumstances rather than realize they are creations of human beings and utterly up for discussion.”

    Though I’m probably biased. I test out as an INTJ so, of course that would resonate with me.

    “INTJs apply (often ruthlessly) the criterion “Does it work?” to everything from their own research efforts to the prevailing social norms.”

    That is the programmer’s mentality though – “Does it Work”

  9. “…the invention of the printing press in the Renaissance led not to a society of writers, but one of readers; the presses were reserved for those with access.” Nor did it lead to a society of typesetters, i.e., “programmers” of the printing press, because writers were content to leave the technical aspects of book-publishing to the printing-press experts.

    Could each writer have built his own printing press and invented his own font? Perhaps. But maybe he didn’t want to spend the time doing so but preferred to spend his time writing instead. Granted, his words will be printed in a font devised by someone else rather than his own, but this is a red herring: neither did he invent the alphabet he writes in or the words he uses borrowed letters to construct, which he would have to do if we’re to take this appropriation of technology idea to its logical conclusion.

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