29 January 2011

Slaves to the Idea of the Tower

My friend Marc over at Disquiet reviewed Doug Rushkoff's recent book about technology, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, while proscribing its dictates into a "guide" for musicians in the technological age. That review is linked below.

Rushkoff's product page (link below) says this:

The debate over whether the Net is good or bad for us fills the airwaves and the blogosphere. But for all the heat of claim and counter-claim, the argument is essentially beside the point: it’s here; it’s everywhere. The real question is, do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it? “Choose the former,” writes Rushkoff, “and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

I commented on Disquiet's FB post:

I always feel ambivalent about these kinds of self-help books for the Age of Technicity. On the one hand, the train of obeisance and acquiescence to our future with mediating machines has left the station (about the time real trains left the station!), but on the other I always want to fight against "acceptance manifestos"--there is no real way to "manage the machine" and in the end the only folks that can remotely pretend to are already those working that angle of the tech game (already a specialization in the world of our current view of the magic of technology). I feel it's closer to an addiction and this would be like saying to the smoker, just be sure to grow your own tobacco so you can be the one addicting yourself in just the right amount.

Further to the point--Rushkoff is a self-promoting "counter-revolutionary" (no clue what that means in this context) and "expert" in all things digital, but who, to my mind, is like an embedded "journalist" in the current terror campaigns--he's promoted the very war he sends back dispatches from and profited by this medium and speaks from within its parameters.

His goal has always been to make you comfortable with the medium that is remaking you.

Don't fight it, Brother, Sister...learn the best way to please IT and IT will smile upon you.

This is a real concern and has been one for aeons regarding our knowledge of the world. Philosophy has debated this knowing the world via "theory" or "practice". Of course, it's not a very real dichotomy as the two must go hand-in-hand (like lovers are supposed to; there's a thin line between love and hate).

But I think the worst thing has been happening; practice is all most of us "know". We know there is a machine and we know what we can see and use of the machine--my "knowledge" of the laptop I'm using is literally a surface knowledge...plastic keys, power cord, etc., I know nothing of its guts; I know even less of it's software (though I can name some programs).

One might believe that knowing programming will help you "direct" technology to your benefit (and it might create economic opportunities for you, I can't disagree)--but knowing coding is also a surface knowledge.

What do I know of anything? is finally a very important first question. Nothing is my best answer at this point (thank you, Michel).

I know that given the above you have to assume that I am skeptical of most of this kind of reaching after technical skill without understanding the history of our machine-driven species (emphasis on "driven"). I know nothing of how anything works--cars, computers, airplanes, refrigerators, animal bodies, atoms, bombs, seeds. Yes, I can find out the "guts" of most of these things. Yes, that is my responsibility (and I take it this is likely Rushkoff's message at bottom--I didn't read the book, only the review and the promotional page), but what am I learning?

How to better "use" technology? Perhaps this is all we can do. If so, then I propose the President add "philosophy of technology" to his list of educational priorities--I don't think it was in the SOTU. We are, as Hedges has detailed in a talk linked to in a previous post here, erasing the subjects of our liberal arts education like languages, art and music at all levels and re-tooling what's left of them to be subservient to all-mighty STEM. Just as one learns languages best at the earliest age of immersion, so too one can learn philosophy. Our children begin as philosophers but are quickly turned into technologists. "Why" is discouraged; "How to" encouraged.

I often wonder if real wisdom lies not in knowing the consequences of your "practice" but rather in knowing that a tower stretching to the heavens is irrelevant and makes us simply slaves of the idea of the tower.

Review of Program or Be Programmed by Marc Weidenbaum of Disquiet.com

Rushkoff's Product website

Episteme and Techne--Stanford


Teaching Tech

Philosophy for Kids


  1. Hi, Douglas. The ambivalence you spoke of in your initial comment at facebook.com/disquiet.fb focuses in here on Ruskhoff himself, and I share in particular your sense of him as a branded revolutionary, playing both sides. I'd say he's less like an embedded journalist and more, at times, like an arms dealer: feeding the opposition but also, as his autobiographical statement puts it on his blog, those "Fortune 500 companies that are willing to listen to reason," as he puts it.

    As you say, you haven't read the book, and critiquing a book for its marketing materials is a bit like critiquing a book for its cover, or a movie for its trailer. There is, I not only acknowledge but actively probe at times, a tension between salesman and product.

    But the book itself, you'll find, actually pursues the line you describe here. It's very much about the manner in which digital technology functions, not about specific skills to apply to the digital technology. This book isn't a guide to PhotoShop or WordPress or how to get ahead in the tech business by trying a little; it would be, for many people who read it, an explanation of the underlying biases that are inherent in digital technology: how its rhythms are different from our own, how it erases distance in a way that can cloud our own decision making, and (perhaps most trenchantly) how it breaks most decisions down to yes/no, a yes/no that for all of technology's ability to bring people together actually helps fracture them.

  2. Hey, Marc, thanks for the comment. I'll clearly need to find my way to the text. Though I doubt I'll think more of it in terms of how it's situated in the market; how it's discourse serves to explain certain features of our "limited limitlessness" (yes/no) UNLESS it there is a very loud NO (in thunder) offered to the idea that there is a way to make peace with the pieces of machinery we are becoming.

    Cognizance of the technological living that's "happening" to 85% of the US citizenry by 15% of the citizenry will not alter or even make gentler the trajectory we're riding.

    Have you read What Technology Wants? I have not, but listened to its author speak on a RadioLab podcast. I was made sore afraid once more by what I see as a clear acquiescence to the "future" of technology; by the way technologists are apologists for this mode of being...technology has an evolutionary life of its own that is apart from the human but breathes the same space and moves in conjunction with it. It seems a usurpation of life to me.

  3. Weird, I posted the day you posted a reply, but it didn't show up. I guess I hit the wrong button. Technology!

    Yeah, I read Kelly's What Technology Wants. To understand it more easily, just remove the first word of the title.

    It's a real moving-the-goalposts book. When an idea doesn't fit his vision -- and his vision is strong, crystal clear but far from rock solid -- he either focuses in or out, adjusting according to need. One moment, a specific example of technological adaptation is a great model; the next, someone is wrong 'cause they're not thinking broadly enough.

    I highly recommend the Amish section, though. It's a great read about the way that the culture adopts technology.

    The rest of the book is so rah-rah (go, Frankenveggies!; go, pesticide!; go, cloning!) it can get dizzying. It is all very anthropomorphic (to the point that he starts arguing all intelligence in the universe is humanoid) and tautological (technology is so great that even when it messes up, new technology will arrive to fix the problem).