Do You Use Your Technology or Does It Use You?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun on 16 October 2012

I used to think that kids who grew up with computers in their homes and schools would understand them really well. Better than we grownups do, anyway. Most of us only had television sets when we were kids, and maybe a simple videogame console. Computers came much later, and when they did, they offered us a whole new world of possibilities.

Television, you see, was a completely closed medium. We watched it all afternoon when we came home from school, but couldn’t change anything about it. The only way we could affect what appeared on the TV was to change the channel. We could pick which program we wanted to watch, but then we just watched it. Someone else, far away, made the programs. We simply received them.

Maybe that’s why it’s so appropriate they called the stuff on television “programming.” They weren’t programming the TV sets; they were programming us viewers.

The Digital Revolution

The first computers most of us touched turned this whole situation on its head. They were basically like TV sets, except they also had keyboards. So now, instead of just watching what was on the TV, we could put stuff onto the monitor. Television changed from a thing we watched to a thing we made.

Imagine having a telephone for many years, but only using it as a radio. You’d pick up the receiver, and listen to the news or the weather or a song. And then imagine suddenly realizing that you could talk through the thing, as well! That’s how big a shift it was to see TV evolve into a computer.

But wait, there’s more. Not only could we make our own content, the computer was an anything machine. You could make it be a typewriter, a paintbrush, a calculator… anything. All you needed to do was to give it a new set of instructions—a program. To use a computer was to create a program and then use it.

Sure, many of us simply got our programs from friends and schools instead of writing them ourselves, but we were aware that there were different programs for different jobs, and that we could have created any of these things ourselves, if we were willing to put the time in. (Just like we sometimes buy a sandwich at the deli, even though we know how to put salami on a roll.) Using one kind of program encouraged us to work or play in a certain way, while using another encouraged something else; each program had tendencies, or biases, toward certain behaviors, mind-sets, and approaches. We understood that, because we could read the commands in our programs, and alter them if necessary. That’s why we enjoyed a sense of choice about what computers could do, and a feeling of command over them.

How programming got mysterious

Software companies didn’t want computer users to make programs; they wanted to sell them software. So computers started getting more and more easy to use, thanks to pre-installed programs featuring attractive buttons and windows that made it possible for us to get things done without typing in any commands. But in the process, computers became more difficult to program for ourselves; we could no longer see how these programs were made. (It was like buying a pre-made sandwich, instead of choosing its ingredients at the deli counter.) Today, computers are so easy to use that we don’t even need instruction manuals—but at what cost?

Today, people think of an “app” as something that is downloaded from an App Store rather than something you build yourself. To those of us who know what a program really is, that’s almost like saying a sand castle is something you buy. Or that swimming is something you go to the pool to watch. Or that telephones are for listening to music, instead of talking to friends.

As I watched computers get easier to use but more difficult for non-programmers to understand, I wrote books for grownups explaining that, as with any family immigrating to a new culture, it’s the kids who learn the language and customs the best. I described grownups as slightly disoriented “digital immigrants,” and young people raised with computers and the Internet as “digital natives,” who would instinctively know how digital technology works. Kids would be so good at programming, I predicted, that they would one day program humanity itself out of the terrible hole into which we have dug ourselves.

Oddly enough, however, most kids today seem to know—or care—less than grownups do about how computers and the Internet, not to mention websites, smartphones, and videogames really work. Kids write with computers, make friends through Facebook and other online social networking services and find information through Google. Having grown up with digital technology all around them, as a part of their “natural” environment, kids tend to accept them exactly as they are, without question.

Don’t take your tech for granted

Studies have shown that kids and young adults are less likely than are grownups to be able to tell the difference between a news story and an advertisement. Kids also are less able than are grownups to figure what their digital technology wants from them—which is to say, to recognize the biases with which the technology was programmed.

All technologies have biases. It’s true that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But guns are much more likely to be used to kill people than, say, pillows are. Yes, a pillow can still be used to commit a murder, but it is much more biased toward sleeping. Guns are more biased toward killing.

Knowing the biases of a technology before you use it can save a lot of headaches later on. If we had really considered all the biases of the automobile before we made them an American way of life, things might have turned out differently. People used to walk to work. In Europe, people still walk home for lunch. Automobiles are biased toward distance, for instance. So as we built neighborhoods around the needs of the automobile, we ended up having to travel long distances to get to work. Now we just take that for granted as a fact of life. We need cars, and American adults actually work on average one day each week just to pay for the car that gets them there.

When we use technologies in a passive, unthinking way, we risk changing our world and behaving in ways driven by our technologies’ built-in biases. For example, think of the difference between the websites Amazon and Facebook. What does Amazon want you to do? Buy stuff. So every button, every paragraph, every pop-up window you see when you visit Amazon is designed to get you to buy stuff. Facebook, on the other hand, wants you to share information about yourself—because that information is valuable to the marketing companies and research firms who pay Facebook for access to it. That’s why Facebook encourages you to list the bands and brands you like, and to “friend” and “like” everything in your universe. You aren’t Facebook’s customer; those businesses are. Your information is Facebook’s product.

The people who program websites and TV shows and other technology and media—I mean the people who decide what these media should do, and for whom—do so on behalf of their real customers. For example, who is the customer of American Idol? Not you, the viewer, but Ford, Coca-Cola, and AT&T, who advertise through the show and want viewers to buy their stuff. That’s why the Idol contestants call home with AT&T phones and drive Ford cars, and it’s why the judges drink from big plastic Coke cups.

Apple’s App Store encourages you to think of all your online purchasing as something that has to be orchestrated by Apple. The online stock trading platforms your grownups use are configured to make them want to trade more frequently, earning the companies behind them more commissions.

By figuring out the way your digital world is really put together, you gain the ability to see what your media and technology want from you. Only then will you be able to consciously choose which of these websites, entertainments, and gadgets are worth your time and energy.

Program or be programmed

I hope some of you choose to go a step beyond figuring out what your media and technology wants from you. If you learn what programming is, and how it works you’ll be learning to speak what amounts to a basic language of the 21st century.

Think about the way a great gamer approaches a new videogame. Sure, he may play the game as it’s supposed to be played for a few dozen or hundred hours. But when he gets stuck, what does he do? He goes online to find the “cheat codes” for the game. Now, with infinite ammunition or extra-strength armor, he can get through the entire game. He’s still playing the game, but from outside the confines of the original rules.

After that, if he really likes the game, the gamer goes back online to find its modification kit—a simple set of tools that lets a more advanced user “mod” (change) the way the game looks and feels. Instead of running around in a dungeon fighting monsters, a kid might make a version of the game where players run around in a high school fighting their teachers—much to the chagrin of parents and educators everywhere. He might upload his version of the game to the Internet, watching with pride as other kids download his game and comment about it in gamers’ forums. Some day that gamer might even start building original videogames—making the progression all the way from player to cheater to modder to programmer.

When humans first acquired language, we didn’t just learn to listen, we learned to speak. When we got written language, we didn’t just learn how to read, we learned how to write. And now that we have computers and the Internet, we can’t just settle for being users—especially when we can’t trust the people programming these media and technologies to do so on our behalf.

Learning to program lets you see through the veil of reality as it is currently constructed, and beyond to the strings and wires through which the illusion is perpetuated. It’s like going behind the scenes at Disneyland or Six Flags, where the real mechanics actually takes place.

What’s more, learning to program makes everything look different. You begin to see the other kinds of programs running our world, from the grading system used to maintain the values of your school system, to the economic operating system keeping the wealthy rich.

They’re all just programs, and they’re all absolutely accessible to anyone who cares to learn the code. It’s a program-or-be-programmed world.