We Are the Programmers

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Adbusters on 10 November 2000

It all began with the remote control.

The little plastic device empowered us to change the pictures on our screens with the tiniest effort of a single finger. From the comfort of the living room couch, we could exchange Walter Cronkite’s mug for David Brinkley’s, or reject Angie Dickinson in favor of Suzanne Pleshette. Not to mention how easily we could click away from the latest annoying cereal spokesanimal or hamburger huckster. Thanks to the remote control, the “channel surfer” was born. But it was only the beginning.

A new arsenal of interactive devices promises to change our relationship to TV, forever. Thanks to the videogame joystick, the computer mouse, and the wireless keyboard — television is now an activity. Something we do, rather than something being done to us. With more interactive opportunities being packed into our set-top boxes every day, our experience of the tube will never be the same.

Think back to the first time you ever encountered a videogame. It was probably some version of “Pong”: two white squares on a black background, hitting a tiny white dot back and forth. Now, remember the exhilaration you felt at discovering this new way to enjoy a television set. Were you thinking, “what a great way to practice ping-pong?” Of course not. You were simply thrilled to be able to move something around on the TV set! Just being able to shift that little white box up and down on the screen meant more than winning the game. It launched a media revolution.

That little joystick gives us control of the pixel for the first time. As a result, we don’t look at the stuff on television with the same reverence. That screen is no longer the exclusive province of the TV programmers, the news anchors, or the sitcom stars. Its’ a place where we can play, as well.

Now, as the computer mouse and keyboard find their way into the culture of the couch, email and web browsing turn the television from a mere monitor into a portal. We can communicate with other people through that box! Within a few years, we will be no more likely to be watching someone else do something on TV than expressing ourselves through the TV set.

Just as reading takes on a whole new significance once we learn how to write, TV takes on a whole new dimension when we can travel through its imagery ourselves, or even create our own.

Even our way of experiencing drama will be changing, as more of us learn how to navigate through worlds like Doom and Tomb Raider. We may no longer be satisfied with the kinds of decisions that Xena makes when battling an army of ghouls – not when we’ve fought that same battle ourselves the night before in a Playstation game.

Ultimately, the opportunity to use a television set in any number of ways turns passive TV viewing into a conscious choice. We will no longer have to ask “what’s on?” and submit to whatever the networks have in store. For we will be television programmers, ourselves.