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.