Program or be programmed: Douglas Rushkoff on ‘digital native’ naivete and programming as a basic literacy skill.

“The answer to that, I think, is to turn computing into a counterculture.” — Douglas Rushkoff

Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age
Mountainview, November 10 2010

Excerpts from Rushkoff’s talk below:

I thought, and I wrote my early books, very, very optimistically, about youth. I thought that once the generation that was twelve or thirteen years old, when I was writing… once they got into their twenties and thirties, once they’re starting to run things, everything will be okay. Because these people are what I call ‘digital natives’. And unlike us ‘digital immigrants’, who were raised in the analog world, the digital natives are going to be able to, surf this terrain, you know, like… natives. Like native speakers… they’ll be able to tell the difference between ads and editorial, and see what’s coercion and what’s actually truth.

And, as you guys probably know, the data is in. Young people are way, way worse, at discerning between valid information and crap online. At negotiating between sources and (finding) reputable material.

…they don’t know the alternatives. They look at each thing as if it was made to do the thing that its makers are telling them it’s there to do. I mean, talk to anybody under seventeen, and ask them, “what is Facebook for?” They’ll tell you, “Facebook is here to help me make friends!” (The audience chuckles.) Right?

Go to the boardroom… and what are they doing? “(Ask them) what is Facebook for?” Facebook is there for companies to monetize the connections, the relationships, between young people. Or to create, what they’re calling “social marketing opportunities.” I mean, what is it for (in the public perception) is not what it’s for (in actuality). What it’s for is something different. Which comes back to “program or be programmed.”

There’s this sense online — and, you know, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle talk about it alot — that everything online must scale. Whenever you talk to someone in business online, they’re like, “how does it scale? How will it scale? How will it scale up? It’s gotta scale up!” If it doesn’t scale, it’s like it’s not real.

And what they decided, what O’Reilly decided, was that, “nah, we’re out of Web point-two, Web two-point-oh, now we’re in Web Cubed.” Right, and what you want to do is get away from actually doing anything and become the indexer of people who are doing stuff. It’s like he finally realized what Google does, right? But, his idea is that you don’t want to be writing books. You want to be Amazon, aggregating books. You want to be the music store — you want to be the meta-music store aggregating music stores.

The problem with that from a post-modernist perspective is that you get into an infinite regressive loop!

Right? So, all right, why don’t I just be the aggregator of aggregators, then? And then he (pointing offstage) can be the aggregator of aggregator-aggregators. And so on and so on. It’s like, “I’m going to start the incubator that incubates incubators. Or the one that incubates incubator-incubating incubators.” (The audience laughs.) You could keep going forever.

The fact that you could keep going forever means that it doesn’t actually work, right, that that’s actually a place that’s not the creation of value. That’s the extraction of value. And that’s what we’re looking at there — and that’s another story for another day — but that’s really the incompatibility of twenty-first century economics with the thirteenth century, currency operating system that we’re trying to run this economy on. But it’s why we’re having the stock market crash. It’s why we’re having the banking crash. There’s a number of reasons, but it’s, there’s this Jack Welsh idea, that what you want to do is you want to get away from having a productive business. Sell off your aerospace! Sell off your washing machines! Don’t do any of that real stuff; become a holding company. Or become a bank. Get closer and closer, to just — if you want to make money, just get closer and closer to making money.

(The audience chuckles and murmurs.)

And it makes sense in a society where the making of money is making of money. Where the creation of value is tied to value, though, you want to do something else.

What you’re doing in the best-case scenario, is restoring the pre-Renaissance, peer-to-peer economy, that was destroyed by central banking, destroyed by monopoly charters, and destroyed by, really a collusion by government and a few corporations to prevent a peer-to-peer economy and re-centralize economic activity.

When you let me write a book and sell it to him (points offstage) without Amazon, without Harper Collins, without borrowing money from Chase or J.P. Morgan… you’ve done something really powerful, right? You haven’t just disintermediated one company. You’ve disintermediated the central economy.

And you’ve restored my ability to create value without having a job. And what is a job but a legacy of this old industrial-age model, that was created to prevent us from just doing stuff. Right, late Middle Ages, end of feudalism. What was going on? People were doing stuff and getting rich. That’s what was happening. There were merchants starting to travel around and trade. There were people developing crafts. All these people who had been peasants were now doing stuff — trading with one another, using local currencies, but transacting and getting wealthy.

They were what was called, “the bourgeoisie”.

The aristocracy hated the bourgeoisie. Why? Because the more bourgeoisie you became, the less dependent you were on centralized power: on lords and lasses, to give you the land to go make your food on. So what did they do? They ended the peer-to-peer economy, with law. That’s what charter monopolies were. “Nobody’s allowed to do any business in this industry except my friend. You want to do that business now? You work for him.” That’s what charter monopolies and the corporations we know today, that’s what that — the code, is based on that.

And the second was centralized currency. You’re not allowed to transact with one another unless you borrow this transaction medium from a central bank. From us. From our treasury. This was how the rich got to stay rich, simply by being rich, rather than by creating value. And that worked for six hundred years, as long as we could expand the economy… through other places and extract their value and their labor.

“Computer” broke that. Right? And you guys broke that more than most, by realizing ‘bottom-up’.

Many people feel that as an author, I should basically share everything I write, for free, comments on, online. Period. No matter what. And, you know, there’s this, ethos, as if by charging for the stuff I’ve created, I’m somehow against the boingboing, Linux, openness, thing. And what they don’t realize is that when I share my writing for free online, value is still being extracted by companies, very often you guys (Google employees)!

If people are accessing my data through Google indexes, Google is still advertising. Google is still extracting value from the ability to index and send people to my (website), but they’re not passing that value on to me. Unless we enter into some interesting deal, and I start putting ads onto my stuff (makes a sour expression). Where(as) Rupert Murdoch, however evil and foxnewsie he is, at least he cut me in on his take. Right, so the idea that opensource and openness and free are all equivalent — is kind of muddled in peoples’ minds…

There was a great debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, in the early 1900s, where Walter Lippmann wrote the first books on propaganda. He was Ed Bernays’ teacher. And, he basically said that people are stupid; they just have pictures in their heads. They don’t really know what’s going on. And all we can do is get a benevolent elite to run things, who then hire very clever public relations people, who then get the masses to be compliant.

John Dewey saw this — he was an old guy, like an, eighty year-old teacher at Columbia Teacher’s College. and he was like, ‘omigod this is crazy’, and he started writing all these articles and letters saying, “no, people can be educated, people can be smart enough. We just need a new relationship between people and the press and education and all this.” And it fell mostly on deaf ears. And…. and that’s the way it’s basically… Lippmann has been right, through most of history.

People look at the world uncritically. And unthinkingly. To me, we have these windows of opportunity: the invention of language may have been one, but the invention of text was certainly one, and the invention of digital technology is another one.

We get these windows of opportunity for the other ninety-percent to go, “oh, I get it! We’re all in charge of reality. You know, that, we can actually participate in this thing.” And I just don’t know how many more of those opportunities we get.

So I would argue, yes, this is the status quo, and it’s going to be exacerbated by digital technology, but… um, it could just as easily be broken free. That this is another moment for humans to break free. It’s just hard, you know. We (all) want to make a living and programmers are in the employ of big companies that… that’s not their interest.


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