Our technology is programming us

I’m only an introduction and a chapter into a book that is so far telling me everything I already knew but putting it together in a manner that is blowing my mind. That book is “Program or Be Programmed”, by Douglas Rushkoff and Leland Purvis. Consider these statements from the introduction:

A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values.

The big, unrecognized news here is about a whole lot more than multitasking, pirated MP3s, or superfast computers at the investment houses shortcutting our stock trades. It is that thinking itself is no longer–at least no longer exclusively–a personal activity. It’s something happening in a new, networked fashion. But the cybernetic organism, so far, is more like a cybernetic mob than new collective human brain. People are being reduced to externally configurable nervous systems, while computers are free to network and think in more advanced ways then we ever will.

The key phrase here is “externally configurable”. Subconciously, and quite unintentionally (most of the time), our technology is programming us, not just the other way around. It may not be going as far as programming us on what to think, but we are certainly being programmed on how to think. Technology was originally designed to take over the more mundane chores for us. Sure, we could calculate the square root of a number or run statistical analysis on a group of data, but computers could do that for us, leaving us free to work on more complicated things.

The trouble is that computers have become very good at doing our outsourced thinking for us, while we are forgetting how to do much of what we once knew. Today my kids are taught to skip straight to the computer. Sure, they’ll know the answer, but will they really understand what that answer means? Can we really attain a higher level of thinking and critical analysis without progressing through the basic foundations ourselves first?

Rushkoff goes on to offer 10 commands for reversing the trend toward technology controlling us instead of the other way around. So far (one chapter) he’s spot on. I’ve been around long enough to remember the beginnings of the Internet as a mass consumer tool. And I’ve forgotten much of what it was originally like.

I had nearly forgotten that once I controlled my email and not the other way around. It used to cost by the minute to get online. Email browsers were designed to dial in to a private network (AOL, CompuServe, etc), upload any outgoing email you’d written off-line, download any new email for you, and then disconnect. Which was good, because not only did it cost money, but it tied up the phone, and if I stayed online for too long I’d have someone pounding on my door. True browsing and chatting was reserved for late night hours when no one else would need the phone.

Today my email is always on, and if I see something come in while I’m working I drop everything to go see what it is. But in case email is too easy to ignore and someone can’t wait for a response, there’s also Instant Messaging to keep track of. Most of us are in a constant state of distraction trying to monitor all our channels and still get our work done.

And yet, argues Rushkoff, the old way was better. We knew an instant response was not expected. We had time to think about what we’d read in our last email and come up with a good response before we answered. The conversation was slower, and therefore more thoughtful, more substantive. Now? Well, let’s just say “shoot first and ask questions later” has become standard operating procedure.

My company offers a day-long class on how to write effective emails, wherein the underlying concept behind it all is essentially to slow down and think about what you’re going to say and how best to say it before you write.

Anyway, I’m only one chapter in, as I said, and this book is already smacking me upside the head. I’m starting to rue buying this an audiobook, because a) it’s difficult to go back and review specific, poignant lines, and b) it’s hard to quote from what you can’t see. There are some real doozies I’d love to be able to show you. The print book, of course, is about twice as much as the audio book, and even the ebook is not much cheaper.

But I may break down and get it anyway. So far this book has got my attention. This stuff is important.

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