First check out this music video titled "Code Monkey:"
Fun huh? But why is this relevant to a review of Douglas Rushkoff's Program Or Be Programmed? I'll get to that in a second. But first some general background:
In Program or Be Programmed Rushkoff argues that technology has biases that encourage certain behaviors. He describes those biases (for him there are ten main ones). And then, to make sure we don’t become unwitting victims of those biases, he prescribes guidelines that will allow us to steer clear of those biases worst potential social effects. For example, in Chapter One (which is titled “Always On”) he observes that computer networks follow their own time. And because that time doesn’t usually jibe with human time it often interrupts and intrudes on our thought processes. To remedy that bias we should take care to moderate our connections to digital devices and “refuse to be always on.” [p. 37] The subsequent nine chapters follow the same approach albeit for ten other biases.
I’ll refrain from judging the middle chapters mostly because the tenth, which has the same title as the book, was at once the most interesting and at the same time the most incomplete. Rushkoff, in an appeal to history, argues that in an age of print it was those who could read and write who shaped the world. Similarly, in an age of code, it is those who program who are defining human experience. So in Rushkoff’s view, coding is rapidly becoming a new literacy – and those who don’t have it will rapidly become the subjects of those who do. Here's Rushkoff's two minute video promotion of the book:
As a programmer myself I’m flattered by the power he’s conferred on my profession. I’ll confess that in an essay I wrote a while back called Code and Composition, I fell prey to similarly exaggerated senses about the power which programmers supposedly wield. And as an instructor of technology studies I’m half-tempted, following Rushkoff’s warnings to have my students take a crack at learning Scratch, SIMPLE or LOGOS. Certainly we shouldn’t discount the power that code is having over our lives. But we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that just because programmers are the ones who are writing the code that they are doing so independently without having to answer to institutions with even more influence. In most software shops they have to execute a vision that’s been handed to them by designers and product managers and shareholders.
In short, coders may be implicated in the digital refashioning of the world. And their lives may not be as desiccated or lacking in creativity as the portrait that is offered up in Code Monkey. And it’s probably a good idea to expose students to what coding is just so they can get a more hands-on feel for the way code is determining the world we’re living in. But programmers are nearly as subject to being programmed as those who don’t. Code Monkey – I think – would agree.