Rushkoff: Program or be programmed!

Here's a classic Rushkoff riff from the recent SXSW 2010. Program or be programmed!


  1. User verses used? I write code but can’t afford health insurance. Guess if I was a kid again, I’d consider programming to be antiquated. So, how do I teach this nano-bot to dance, again?

  2. Amen, Douglas!

    I’ve been arguing this point for years. There’s a world of difference between “using” the world and understanding how the world works.

  3. “I do believe that if you are not a programmer, you are one of the programmed… doesn’t even know the rules, what can be bent and what can’t”

    Sounds exactly like Neo vs. the Matrix.

  4. F-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-f-false dichotomy, anecdotal evidence, sweeping generalizations, I’ve been thinking the same thing! Seriously!

  5. People don’t know how to cook anymore, and we’re all getting fatter and fatter.

    So specialization is bad? Hmm.

  6. Over the top; Doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Freedom of cult is where people find freedom to create their culture — their religion, economy, government, and corporate form. I don’t see how any of that is substantially developed by becoming a (literal) computer programmer.

    The people who are creating new societies are the people who are really “reprogramming” the social fabric. You don’t need a computer to do it.

  7. this is an epistemological monoculture.

    everything is code? we’re all either users or programmers? is he really proposing that we must know everything about the workings of our environment as a ‘system’ to be empowered individuals? isn’t that just metonymic for ‘the more you know, the more you can do, the better off you are?’ is that news?

    why is this an interesting way of looking at the world?

  8. It’s an interesting, but rather flawed short speech, overflowing with false dichotomies and woefully inaccurate analogies. Tsk, tsk.

    The false assumption that “if you are not a programmer you are one of the programmed” is far, far too absolute, and allows no such obvious nuance as simply having a comprehension of how programs work to be able to see and understand the underlying effect of those programs and their actions on the surrounding world, thereby helping one to avoid being one of the mute, meek, and mild programmed.

    When speakers like this drift into such deep reliance on arbitrary metaphor, analogy, and their own unshared assumption of unique language specificity, the content drifts somewhat into fantasy and unsupportable supposition.

    One small, albeit not great, counter metaphor: To drive a car, and to have some understanding (and multi-directional control cum action/reaction) of its effect/affect on pedestrians, society, the world at large, and so on does not at all require one to become a licenced mechanic and car plant assembly line worker — nor does it stop you from chooaing to be one of the driven rather than the driver, or t’other way round.

    Some people really are too bright for their own good; their brilliance and tight focus obfuscates the larger reality that surrounds them.

    1. It’s an interesting, but rather flawed short speech, overflowing with false dichotomies and woefully inaccurate analogies. Tsk, tsk.

      In other words: It’s a speech by Rushkoff.

    2. yes, but while you are in control of the car, it has a level of control over you. If it breaks down, a tie rod breaks and you go swerving through traffic, possibly killing you, thats a pretty high level of control. A mechanic would have checked the tie rods (or just felt them wearing out) and had them replaced, enforcing his control over his environment. I don’t think this guy was being all that literal, the power of allegorical and metaphorical references seems to be lost in the last few generations, its pretty much what the entire gospel of christ in the new testament is taught in, obviously you don’t take most of the bible literally, but it makes some really important moral points about how you should choose to live your life.

  9. Two Commandments for the Molecular Age

    1. Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.
    2. Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his or her own consciousness.

    Articulated by Dr. Timothy Leary, Ph.D.

  10. As a user of computers for more than 37 years, programming for more 29 and building computers and networks for more than 23… I find his take interesting. Usually I write this sort talking off as babble.

    I do not entirely agree with strictly being one or the other; obviously most people have some experience with programming and programmers are certainly also users.

    I doubt there is anyone who even comes close to knowing all of the rules of any given modern system. I personally enjoy figuring out the rules of game systems and how to bend them – I do not like to break rules, as I see that as true cheating and not as sporting/fun as it is to bend rules.

    I personally only like to play online competitive games, but that has been slowly souring over the past fifteen years. I played Quake, the first true online first-person 3D shooter, since just about the day it came out. Now I play Battlefield Bad Company 2, and I am very disappointed where gaming like this has gone.

    Originally, with Quake, people who had access to the hardware and Internet connection were very civil. If the teams were unbalanced, we would discuss who should change to which team to make the game more fair, and hence, more enjoyable for all.

    Today it seems that the lowest common denominator rules, like people constantly changing to the winning team. I have seen games where it was 20 vs 12 (on a 16 vs 16 server) and either completely unplayable as one of the 12 (getting hammered) or completely boring as one of the 20 because there is no challenge.

    Also, now, people on the winning team show no sportsmanship by talking shit to the other team.

    I guess this is what we get when people who live in trailer homes have pretty good computers and an Internet connection.

    I almost wish for a time gone by, but not too much, since I realize we would not be where we are without the commonality of technologies like computers and the Internet.

  11. His “elite” vs “herd” view dovetails very nicely with William Gibson’s “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” argument.

  12. He conflates social programming with writing code. He never explains why these are the same. I don’t think they are at all the same.

    Writing code is really not as revolutionary as the writing a book. It’s more akin to being hte guy that knows how to set the text in the press.

    1. I agree with your assessment of Rushkoff’s talk – programming is fascinating but ultimately distracting from reality.

      A computer program can be developed and refined in a satisfying manner – when errors occur, the tools are there to debug, and a previous ‘clean’ state can always be restored. In the realm of the programmable, development is incremental and may be ratcheted forward.

      Development in the wider context highlights how programming does not equate to reality. Reality has only one active copy or ‘working set’ whose state is changed irreversibly by our actions.

      Rushkoff’s unquestioned assumption is that once ‘progress’ arrives, it is here for good. In the real world, we find counter examples.

      Take the satellite states – in Tajekistan under soviet influence, women had equal status to men. There was access to education, hot water and electrical power. Today a new generation is growing up in that country, where women will typically wear muslim headdress and will be unlikely to have learnt foreign languages, where electrical power may only be available for three hours a day. By most metrics, the standard of living has fallen.

      In a world where technology can enter retreat, what use is programming?
      What is the relevance of whether Apple stores its files hierarchically to the people of Tajekistan, or Yemen, or anyone other than an iPad developer?

    2. Only if you’re writing Java for someone else is that true.
      You don’t have to be a good/fancy/eloquent writer to be a writer at all.
      You just have ideas and to be able to use characters to put them on the page.

  13. @johnphantom “I guess this is what we get when people who live in trailer homes have pretty good computers and an Internet connection.”

    Ww y sck. I take it you only play Quake in your basement entertainment compound/panic room.

      1. So why didn’t you completely disemvowel him like you did me? Does his statement have some validity?

        1. Well, he’s insulting fewer people, anyway. As someone who grew up in an aluminum double-wide, I can say with some certainty that my neighbors in the (ahem) Rios Canyon Mobile Manor were not, in fact, poor sports, cheaters, or obnoxious teabaggers. I submit that this may have worked against their best interests: cheating or self-centered poor sportsmanship might have hauled them out of metal-screen-door poverty faster. God knows it took my family seven years to move on up to a house without wheels underneath. If only we’d had real bricks and mortar around us (instead of molded Fiberglas), it might have occurred to us to cheat on our taxes or embezzle something. Alas.

          Then again, even had the technology existed on a widespread consumer level at the time, I doubt we could have afforded the computer or the internet connection while were living in Country Dick Montana’s celebrated Lakeside Trailer Park. Maybe that’s what saved my trailer-trash ass from becoming a bastard on Xbox Live.

          1. Eh, I grew up rich – house with a guest house on top of a mountain in the USVI. I am fairly poor now. For what it is worth, money makes life easier but not necessarily more enjoyable. It is my certainty that you cannot buy class.

            I am sorry for what I said about trailer park people. You are all right; there are good and bad people no matter what their background is.

            My point is that anybody could have a computer and Internet access. There certainly are plenty of “trailer trash” people who have very nice things given to them by rich parents and live in mansions.

            I retract my insolence towards any people who are not advantaged by money.

            My remark to nutate was retaliatory in nature, it is something that I have learned from the gaming experience I wrote above.

  14. He ever so briefly mentioned that Apple is doing away with file structure.

    This is why the iPad is a large iPodTouch and not a small laptop.

    Where is the file? no files… just buy the app (from apple only) and
    your information is in that shell.

    Brilliant! totally unnoticed or comprehended.

    1. Wondering if that is what is happening with a little app I recently got called macjournal. For the life of me I cannot find the file I saved. It opens when the app opens, and everything is there. It seems to be contained within the app somewhere but I can’t get at it. This is on my desktop computer not an iPhone. Anyways, I don’t think I want file structure done away with.

  15. Heheheh… bringin’ teh flamez to teh boinginfo hiwayz!

    I just know that one of my big programming influences lived and lives in a trailer. He could do ill stuff with a tandy coco. He even got those on the internet!

    Sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings. Particularly Mr. Rushkoff’s, he offers some firm commentary and in a brief forum like that does a pretty good job of at least inciting some insightful discussion.

  16. Rushkoff says — When we get a new medium, civilization seems to be one stage behind.

    And then he says — Text gave us Judaism; the printing press gave us Protestantism; what does this one give us?

    Well, if his first statement is correct, then I suppose the answer to his question must be ‘totalitarianism’.

    On the other hand, he also thinks that writers are an elite, so his analysis is obviously pretty suspect.

  17. Some good points, but bad use of language – even mystical *sic*.

    Happens a lot to programmers – as they tell each other that they are the most important people in the world.

    For sure coding is a mighty tool of our time, but coding is just a part of the complex socio-economical-network we are living in.

    Hey – coding is nothing without cheap chinese factory workers slaving away their lives and polluting the place for your fucking computer, so that you can write your poser-bits of code and claim changing the world with your programs.

    If you really want to evolve then code BETTER and FASTER, FASTER – so that noone has to code ever again because in the future we’ll simply tell the fucking machine what to do and it will understand us and do as we say.
    And of course the machines of the future will be able to reproduce themselves – and they will be fucking clean.

    So actually we got to classes of slaves – let’s call them “Slaves for the Future”

    1. Coding Slaves
    2. Computer-Factory Slaves

    Yeah, that’s right, you ain’t no coding-gods – you are just another Slave-Class – and you gonna give your life for our future. Call yourselves Code-Warriors if that makes you feel better – but in the end you are just working, working, working, working for a future where the stuff that you do right now will be obsolete – you are coding to get over coding – so: CODE FASTER.

    Because the faster and better you code, the faster the slaves will be freed from the factories and the faster you’ll sit in a fucking spaceship to go wherever you want.


  18. I think previous comments are being a little to literal about Rushkoff’s definition of “programming”. In reference to things that make up the “social fabric”.. he’s basically making the argument that we should aim to be producers, not blind-consumers. That while in previous generations (where things moved a little more slowly) it was acceptable for our power/control systems to be 1 generation behind..that is no longer the case (we won’t solve the problems of today/tomorrow by having command/control/social infrastructures that are 1 generation behind).

    Change won’t come fast enough from the top…there’s to much entrenched habits and outdated beliefs. We have to bootstrap collective (and creative) change from the bottom up…because a good energetic groundswell movement (on any topic) is hard for people in charge to sidestep or marginalize.

  19. I’m being programmed by the evil Bic pen company!!! Ahhhh!

    Please, just because I don’t understand the technology that goes into manufacturing my pen, doesn’t mean that I’m being “programmed” by “the man.” Same goes for my use of the alphabet or books or the internet.

    This is arm-waving hot air. I would like to see concrete examples for each of his eras: early Hebraic writing, printing press, etc. — describing how people are programmed by the shady elite who invented each technology.

  20. Isn’t this the guy that did a comic book based on the bible? How does his fixation with that outdated tome relate to getting on this modern world? Yawn.

  21. I thought his comments were interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering. I think some of the previous commenters must be reading more into his words than what he actually said (or else they heard more of the speech than was presented in the clip above). I interpreted it merely as a nice little tale about how advances in communications technology invariably empower the elites who control that technology a lot more than they empower the masses who passively use and benefit from that technology.

    And that’s true. Written language has been around for thousands of years; but widespread literacy wasn’t commonplace until the modern era. And the literate elite have always had an advantage over the illiterate masses. The printing press was invented centuries ago; but, until the invention of the “blog” just a few years ago, the average person was merely a consumer of written publications, not an actual producer. And those literary elites who have been able to disseminate their ideas in written form have always had an advantage over the masses who merely read the ideas of others.

    Nowadays, the internet gives even the unwashed masses the opportunity to make their own ideas known (for better or worse). But it’s hard to deny that, even online, there is still an elite who have more power than the average computer user to get their ideas across. In principle, any computer user could post a comment on an online forum like I’m doing now. But how many actually do? In principle, any computer user could create a blog and routinely publicize their thoughts on just about any subject. But bloggers make up only a small percentage of computer users. And, even among bloggers, there is a hierarchy. The average blogger has maybe a handful of regular readers, and maybe a few dozen occasional readers. But certain “elite bloggers” may have thousands of regular readers, and hundreds of thousands of occasional readers.

    Communications technology is empowering; but it doesn’t empower everyone equally. It mainly empowers those who understand how to use that technology, and how to use it effectively. Written language empowered the literate; but, arguably, it helped to enslave the illiterate. The printing press helped bring literacy to the masses; but it mainly empowered the so-called “literati” — scholars, journalists, novelists, pamphleteers, etc. — who had the wherewithal to get their writings published and distributed to a mass audience, thereby making them the shapers of public opinion. And those wealthy elites who had enough money to buy lots of books, and enough leisure time to read them, got far more benefit from the printing revolution than did the average working class reader who may have owned and read a Bible and a few dime novels, but little else. As for the internet, no one can deny that it makes a wealth of information available to anyone who wants to access it, and even gives ordinary people a convenient means of publishing their own ideas. So, in that sense, it seems as if the internet ought to create a level playing field. But it doesn’t. Even online, there is an elite, and there are masses. The masses use the internet. The elite shapes it. The masses look up stuff on Wikipedia. The elite edits Wikipedia. The masses buy stuff online. The elite sells stuff online. The masses access web content. The elite creates web content. The masses read popular blogs. The elite writes popular blogs. Yes, the internet does empower the masses; but it empowers the online elites even more.

    And the difference between the online elites who shape the internet and the masses who merely use it really boils down to just three things: (1) Passion – Elites care enough about something to put in the time and effort necessary to create web content dealing with whatever it is they are passionate about. The average person doesn’t really care all that much. (2) Leisure – Elites are actually able to spend a lot of time online. The average person is too busy with work, family, etc. to devote lots of time to creating web content. (3) Knowledge – Elites know how to use the internet effectively. They know how to code. They know how to do web design. They’re skilled at online research. The average internet user just doesn’t have those skills (and probably doesn’t care enough to learn them). For example, I have no clue how to edit a Wikipedia page; and, frankly, I just don’t care enough to bother to learn how. So, at least as far as Wikipedia is concerned, I’ll always be one of the WikiMasses and will never be a member of the WikiElite.

    So, the essential message I got out of Rushkoff’s little talk was that, if you want to be part of the elite that shapes the internet, rather than being among the masses who merely use the internet, you’ve got to develop the essential programming skills necessary to create your own online content. But that’s just how I interpreted what he was saying. I may be wrong.

    1. I think you missed the point that in all these stages this power is (at least at first) given to the ‘elite’ be the masses.

      Could have consumers waited a touch longer until someone who would have become part of Free Software anyway wrote a BASIC interpreter instead of using MicroSoft Basic? Yup.
      Could they have written in-house ones in companies, rather than use it? Yup.

      Same can be said for just about any of the first ‘commercial’ software, licensed out rather than an in-house/FOSS-before-FOSS thing.

      But they decided to fall for marketing and spend more in the long-run rather than take responsibility for their own systems.

      Give up your most basic level of control, and you’ll eventually forget how to live without it.

      I have friends over in Japan that were helpless when their tire went flat here, because they didn’t know how to change it, didn’t have any other means of getting to work, didn’t know about puncture sealants… I still remember how shocked they were when I said I changed my own oil. “How??”
      There was nothing keeping them from reading the drivers’ manual on their vehicles, but they didn’t want to know.

      Think of how terrible the reputation of auto mechanics; yet people would still rather leave their car in the hands of someone they see as a likely swindler, rather than learn how to do the task themselves.

  22. Am i the only one who thought that what he said could be easily transposed to politics and such ?
    I mean, there is indeed an elite of people who bend our world, we try our best to shape it but unless we have the same ammount of power we are just stuck as a higher breed of slave, thats all… i wonder what would happen if everyone was brought at the same level ? i guess it’ll be pretty chaotic, urg… look like i wont be able to sleep now :/

  23. I think some of the previous commenters must be reading more into his words than what he actually said

    He could have avoided that by actually making sense. I spaced out after like one minute. Classic piece of fluff if you ask me.

  24. Most comments are taking his words very literally.
    definitions as I understand them:

    Programmers: a person with insight of the inner workings of things around him and who contributes in shaping how things go.
    in another word: a person who takes informed decisions.

    Programmed: a follower to trends around him, whether it is fashion, a new product…
    this means it goes with things without careful thinking of the impact of his actions to things around him.

    That actually applies to things more than you think, when you buy a product, you are supporting this company, does this company deserves this support or not, are they helping in creating a better world or making it worse.
    everything that happens around happens because one or more person had some motive that made them work to realize this, any state is usually the result of many actions by many different people with many different motives.

    a programmer is someone who makes the action and reacts to other peoples actions with insight of their motivations.
    someone who doesn’t follow blindly … just because it is cool or it is helpful or it sounds in my benefit because things are not always what they look like.

    this applies to every aspect of our life including politics, our social life, our relations to other, how we deal with technology, what products do we use…. everything.

  25. I belive that we seem to be one generation behind because creation is speeding up. For the fist time in history our minds are beginning to outpace technology. We are becoming more intuitive…..Peace out!

  26. Villem Flusser said in 1989 in his talk about the “information age” that programmers are the new bishops. He talked about “literates” who understand the codes and illiterates who are affected by codes. He drew an analogy with the power the literates (being able to read and write) hold in the dark ages and the way programmers shape today’s world and our interactions and communications. From this background (and Mr. Flusser goes to great lengths and detail) Rushkoff’s short talk makes sense to me.

  27. Program or be programmed is a false promise. Understanding things doesn’t mean you’re safe: there are many knowing people being powerless: knowledge is not power by itself. Power results from sth. material: money (loss), large crowds with knife and forks, publisher power (TV networks) and so on.. If your working or living situation requires you to be programmed it’s rather irrelevant whether you’re able to program.

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