Click Culture

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 August 1996

Do you have the attention span required to scroll through this entire nine-hundred-word column or, like me and countless others, will you most likely get the gist by scanning the first couple of sentences and then moving on to something else?

The habits you pick up playing with the TV remote, the Sega joystick, and the computer mouse have changed the way you read and react to this newspaper. I cannot control your journey as easily as I could before. You are more conscious of every attempt made to program you, and more able and willing to steer clear. After all, they don’t call the stuff on television “programming” for nothing. The people making television are not programming the TV set or their own schedules - they’re programming us, the viewers. Their programs work to influence our purchasing decisions, political allegiances, personal identifications, and moral foundations. They want to sell us something, even if it’s just more TV.

Most broadcast-style media achieve their programming the same way. They put the viewer in a state of tension so they can relieve that tension in any way they see fit. Whether it’s a church making people feel shameful about sex in order to redirect this appetite towards God, or Wired magazine making people feel uneasy about technology so they feel dependent on the magazine for answers, tension puts the recipient of programming at the mercy of the programmer.

With television, our only way out was to get up off the couch and turn the dial away from the program putting us into tension. It cost more calories to change the channel than simply to sit and accept the anxiety. Besides, we were well-behaved viewers with well-trained attention spans. We took pride in our ability to grin and bear it.

Devices like the remote, the joystick, and mouse have fundamentally changed our relationship to the screen and the programming it broadcasts. If you’re watching a TV show where the character makes a silly choice or catches a fatal disease, you can escape the tension for less than a single calorie by clicking the remote. That’s what our kids do, but we are told (by the very same programmers) that this behavior is a symptom of their dangerously depleted attention spans. I wonder though, are they clicking away because they can’t follow linear arguments, or because they won’t tolerate manipulative programming and the anxiety it produces?

The joystick has taken us further out our passive relationship to the tube. No matter how pre-rendered a video game, the experience of manipulating the image on the screen with a handheld device liberates us from the notion that everything on the TV is gospel truth piped into our homes. The image can be altered. The network news anchorman is not the only one who can move things around up there.

The computer mouse is the most recent addition to click culture, and makes us feel as empowered in moving through cyberspace as we already did through the television dial. But in the case of the Internet, this may be a hollow and illusory form of empowerment. Instead of liberating us from the spell of passive programming, as the clicker did with television, the mouse seems to reduce the online experience to mindless clicking. The Internet was already a conscious and participatory experience. To turn it into channel surfing reduces its ability empower users’ self-expression. The mouse button is a hell of lot less expressive and articulate than a keyboard.

Web surfing isn’t really surfing at all. At least television surfing requires that we navigate images that are changing in real time. Each television channel is in motion. Images missed may never be caught again. The skill of channel surfing is knowing where to be and when to be there in order to catch the best waves of media. Web surfing, if it can even be called that, is movement through essentially static stacks of dead data. It’s not surfing, it’s grave-picking. But, conspiracy theories aside, that’s precisely the Web Programmer’s objective: to get us to quit actively talking and start passively absorbing. More hits mean more money.

In order to gauge whether we are clicking away from imposed tension or simply clicking ourselves into mindless net-purgatory, we need to stay conscious of our own impulses as well as the intentions of those whose media we consume.

I like to think I’m using the this space to share potentially empowering thoughts and strategies. So, if you got this far it means I’m either accomplishing that goal or have skillfully hypnotized you into a passive stupor. In either case, your only choice is to wake up now.