Net Effect: It's Not Too Late for Humanity to Survive the Digital

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 12 October 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.