Program or Be Programmed


 

The following is excerpted from Program or Be Programmed: Ten
Commands for a Digital Age, available only through OR Books.  

 

Our screens are the windows
through which we are experiencing, organizing, and
interpreting the world in
which we live. They are also the interfaces through which we
express who we are
and what we believe to everyone else. They are fast becoming
the boundaries of
our perceptual and conceptual apparatus; the edge between our
nervous systems
and everyone else's, our understanding of the world and the
world itself. And they have been created entirely by us. 

But — just as we do with religion,
law, and almost every other human invention — we tend to relate
to digital technology as a pre-existing condition of the
universe. We think of our technologies in terms of the
applications
they offer right out of the box instead of how we might change
them or even write
new ones.  We are content to learn what our computers already do
instead of what we can make
them do. 

This isn't even the way a
kid naturally approaches a video game. Sure,
a child may play the video game as it's supposed to be played
for a few dozen
or hundred hours. 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. Is he still playing
the game? Yes,
but from outside the confines of the original rules. He's gone
from player to
cheater.

After
that, if he really likes the game, he goes back online to find
the modification
kit — a simple set of tools that lets a more advanced user change
the way the
game looks and feels. So 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 uploads his version of the game to the
Internet, and
watches with pride as dozens or even hundreds of other kids
download and play
his game, and then comment about it on gamers' bulletin boards.
The more open
it is to modification, the more consistent software becomes with
the social
bias of digital media.

Finally,
if the version of the game that kid has developed is popular and
interesting
enough, he just may get a call from a gaming company looking for
new
programmers. Then, instead of just creating his own components
for some other
programmer's game engine, he will be ready to build his own.

These
stages of development — from player to cheater to modder to
programmer — mirror our
own developing relationship to media through the ages. In
preliterate
civilizations, people attempted to live their lives and appease
their gods with
no real sense of the rules. They just did what they could,
sacrificing animals
and even children along the way to appease the gods they didn't
understand. The
invention of text gave them a set of rules to follow — or not.
Now, everyone was
a cheater to some extent, at least in that they had the choice
of whether to go
by the law, or to evade it. With the printing press came
writing. The Bible was
no longer set in stone, but something to be changed. Martin
Luther posted his ninety-five
theses, the first great "mod" of Catholicism and later,  nations
rewrote their histories by launching their revolutions.

Finally,
the invention of digital technology gives us the ability to
program: to create
self-sustaining information systems, or virtual life. These are
technologies
that carry on long after we've created them, making future
decisions without
us. The digital age includes robotics, genetics, nanotechnology,
and computer
programs — each capable of self-regulation, self-improvement, and
self-perpetuation. They can alter themselves, create new
versions of themselves,
and even collaborate with others. They grow. These are not just
things you make
and use. These are emergent forms that are biased toward their
own survival.
Programming in a digital age means determining the codes and
rules through
which our many technologies will build the future — or at least
how they will
start out.

The
problem is that we haven't actually seized
the capability of each great media age. We have remained one
dimensional leap
behind the technology on offer. Before text, only the Pharaoh
could hear the
words of the gods. After text, the people could gather in the
town square and
hear the word of God read to them by a rabbi. But only the rabbi
could read the
scroll. The people remained one stage behind their elite. After
the printing
press a great many people learned to read, but only an elite
with access to the
presses had the ability to write. People didn't become authors;
they became the
gaming equivalent of the "cheaters" who could now read the Bible
for themselves
and choose which laws to follow.

Finally,
we have the tools to program. Yet we are content to seize only
the capability
of the last great media renaissance, that of writing. We feel
proud to build a
web page or finish our profile on a social networking site, as
if this means we
are now full-fledged participants in the cyber era. We remain
unaware of the
biases of the programs in which we are participating, as well as
the ways they
circumscribe our newfound authorship within their predetermined
agendas. Yes,
it is a leap forward, at least in the sense that we are now
capable of some
active participation, but we may as well be sending text
messages to the
producers of a TV talent show, telling them which of their ten
contestants we
think sings the best. Such are the limits of our interactivity
when the ways in
which we are allowed to interact have been programmed for us in
advance.

Our
enthusiasm for digital technology about which we have little
understanding and
over which we have little control leads us not toward greater
agency, but
toward less. We end up at the mercy of voting machines with
"black box"
technologies known only to their programmers, whose neutrality
we must accept
on faith. We become dependent on search engines and smart phones
developed by
companies we can only hope value our productivity over their
bottom lines. We
learn to socialize and make friends through interfaces and
networks that may be
more dedicated to finding a valid advertising model than helping
us find one another.

Yet
again, we have surrendered the unfolding of a new technological
age to a small
elite who have seized the capability on offer. But while
Renaissance kings
maintained their monopoly over the printing presses by force,
today's elite is
depending on little more than our own disinterest. We are too
busy wading
through our overflowing inboxes to consider how they got this
way, and whether
there's a better or less frantic way to stay informed and in
touch. We are
intimidated by the whole notion of programming, seeing it as a
chore for
mathematically inclined menials than a language through which we
can re-create
the world on our own terms.

We're
not just building cars or televisions sets — devices that, if we
later decide we
don't like, we can choose not to use. We're tinkering with the
genome, building
intelligent machines, and designing nanotechnologies that will
continue where
we leave off. The biases of the digital age will not just be
those of the
people who programmed it, but of the programs, machines, and
life-forms they
have unleashed. In the short term, we are looking at a society
increasingly
dependent on machines, yet decreasingly capable of making or
even using them
effectively. Other societies, such as China, where programming
is more valued,
seem destined to surpass us — unless, of course, the other forms
of cultural
repression in force there offset their progress as
technologists. We shall see.
Until push comes to shove and geopolitics force us to program or
perish,
however, we will likely content ourselves with the phone apps
and social
networks on offer. We will be driven toward the activities that
help distract
us from the coming challenges — or stave them off — rather than the
ones that
encourage us to act upon them.

But
futurism is not an exact science, particularly where technology
is concerned.
In most cases, the real biases of a technology are not even
known until that
technology has had a chance to exist and replicate for a while.
Technologies
created for one reason usually end up having a very different
use and effect.
The "missed call" feature on cell phones ended up being hacked
to give us text
messaging. Personal computers, once connected to phone lines,
ended up becoming
more useful as Internet terminals. Our technologies only submit
to our own
needs and biases once we hack them in one way or another. We are
in partnership
with our digital tools, teaching them how to survive and spread
by showing them
how they can serve our own intentions. We do this by accepting
our roles as our
programs' true users, rather than subordinating ourselves to
them and becoming
the used.

In
the long term, if we take up this challenge, we are looking at
nothing less
than the conscious, collective intervention of human beings in
their own
evolution. It's the opportunity of a civilization's lifetime.
Shouldn't more of
us want to participate actively in this project?

Digital
technologies are different. They are not just objects, but
systems embedded
with purpose. They act with intention. If we don't know how they
work, we won't
even know what they want. The less involved and aware we are of
the way our
technologies are programmed and program themselves, the more
narrow our choices
will become; the less we will be able to envision alternatives
to the pathways
described by our programs; and the more our lives and
experiences will be
dictated by their biases.

On
the other hand, the more humans become involved in their design,
the more
humanely inspired these tools will end up behaving. We are
developing
technologies and networks that have the potential to reshape our
economy, our
ecology, and our society more profoundly and intentionally than
ever before in
our collective history. As biologists now understand, our
evolution as a
species was not a product of random chance, but the forward
momentum of matter
and life seeking greater organization and awareness. This is not
a moment to
relinquish our participation in that development, but to step up
and bring our
own sense of purpose to the table. It is the moment we have been
waiting for.

 

Photo by Marcin Wichary, courtesy of Creative Commons license.