I'm beginning to think that owning a computer is akin to owning a gun. And maybe a license should be required before we're allowed to launch relationships with our PCs. It's what I'm thinking after reading Douglas Rushkoff's thoughtful and thought-provoking Program or be Programmed, subtitled Ten Commands for a Digital Age, a punchy paperback just shy of 150 pages published by O/R Books.
Wiry and high energy, clad in a leather jacket and wire rims, Rushkoff looked like a young Woody Allen dressed as James Dean the evening I heard him read from the Intro to his book in a Manhattan bar. A columnist for The Daily Beast (one of my online staples), Rushkoff has written numerous best-sellers on the subject of media, made documentaries, aired commentaries on NPR, published opeds in The New York Times, and appeared on television's The Colbert Report. This is not somebody whose pages one scans like a Web site or whose words on media one tends to dismiss.
Rushkoff challenges us to think about the way digital technologies affect us and claims that to date "we have very little understanding of what is happening to us and how to cope." We are not dealing at all well with "the digital tsunami" in which we are immersed.
While much of what he states has been said before -- digital technologies depersonalize, for example --Rushkoff goes further and deeper, as he both understands and can explain technology. The reader is left with a quavering sense that we are in the midst of a technological high alert, a crisis only few recognize.
We must challenge ourselves with questions like: Digital technology demands immediate responses, but are we aware of our choices? Rushkoff isn't saying technology and the Internet are bad, but they require us to put our values on the line, and we need to recognize their power over us.
It's true that those addicted to the Internet seem to be in a constant state of stand by and react as if the virtual world in which they participate is somehow real. This isn't so. The Internet can't replace life or relationships, although it can create illusions about both. According to Rushkoff, recent studies involving young people, for example, indicate there's definitely a blurring line between youths' sense of what is real and what is virtual.
Computers are easy to learn. Programming is powerful. Communication is extraordinarily delicate and nuanced, and technology is changing its nature as well as who we are and what we do. We would be wise to better examine our relationship to our digital world.
Rushkoff's book is a wake up call. If we don't look at our digital technologies more closely, if we fail to deal with them more consciously and responsibly, they will own us and determine our futures. We have a choice we must make about who, or what, takes the lead in our evolution.
A note about O/R Books, a progressive book publisher that doesn't (alas) accept unsolicited manuscripts. It publishes about two elegant books a month by writers as diverse as Chris Lehman, Eileen Myles and Gordon Lish, all of whom are names immediately recognizeable if you are tuned in at all to technology, culture or media. Check out the OR Books Web site: http://www.orbooks.com/. Stay tuned.