On Thursday, May 26th, Douglas Rushkoff presented the most thought-provoking session at the Webvisions Conference. Promoting his latest book, Program or Be Programmed, he suggested that digital technology imposes biases on our online experiences. Understanding these biases allows us to work around the medium’s limitations and use it most effectively.
Digital technology supports communication with varied response times, which promotes an “always-on” mentality. Constantly pinged by email, social networks, and texts, many people habitually check their computers and mobile devices for updates. Rushkoff challenged us: “Do not be always on.”
He suggested: “Live in person.” Online communication is beneficial for people geographically distant but not for people in the same building. If you are texting someone in the same room, you are missing non-verbal cues which add depth to your exchange and enable you to better relate.
“You are never completely right.” The internet encourages oversimplification. People share opinions without much knowledge or research of their topic. Users often post Facebook and Twitter updates, for example, with strong conviction but without real expertise.
Rushkoff stressed his most important principle: “Program or be programmed.” Every digital tool we use has a purpose that may not align with our goals. Some people assume the purpose of Facebook, for example, is to help users make friends. In reality, Facebook’s agenda is to profit from our social activity by selling our data to marketers and weaving ads into the interface. The Facebook user is the product.
Without awareness of digital technology’s biases, we are not using the medium most advantageously and may be enjoying a lesser quality of life. The best defense, Rushkoff asserted, is to actively construct the tools we use in our daily online activities. Programming should be a basic literacy skill of the 21st century, so we can provide alternatives to the tools created by for-profit corporations. Rushkoff argued, “If you are not making the program, then you are living the program. If you are not using the technology, then the technology is using you.”
At the very least, we should understand the inherent characteristics of the online environment. We can then consciously decide when to use the technology and how our goals can best be served.
For the full inspiring keynote and complete list of biases, watch the below video.