Program or Be Programmed: The Video Short

Astra Taylor and Laura Hanna, the filmmakers behind the fabulous documentary Zizek! have just released a short promotional video that shares the core concepts of my new book Program or Be Programmed. It was a strange and wonderful experience to be poked and prodded for a couple of weeks as they distilled and then re-distilled what I was saying down to increasingly essential - and visualizable - points. And most gratifying, they did it as a labor of love to promote the ideas - which is about the best complement an author can get.


  1. I keep getting the feeling that hes telling me to go out and learn a completely new skill that is completely useless for me and will take up hours and hours of time to learn – because he already knows this. I wonder what this world would be like without music? Should I learn to play an instrument or twelve so that I wont get swindled? Does he know how to build or repair a car? Does he know how to build a house? How to prepare mortar and lay brick? Is he a carpenter? Prepare a killed animal? Kill an animal? I don’t know most of that stuff personally and it has a greater impact on my life than my computer. And its easier to learn.

    I can’t build a phone, should I? I mean I use it for communication and maybe I’m being used by it because of my lack of phone-building knowledge?

    I’d love to learn programming – but I, like the large majority of people, just don’t have the time to sit down and do it. Give me an easy programming language that I can learn – or a new day in the week, then we can talk.

  2. So, I guess I should learn how to drive rather than just get picked up at the bus stop. I should learn how to make movies, make books, and generate electricity.

    I happen to be a software developer who has an on-again-off-again hobby of building robots, but I wouldn’t claim these are skills everybody should acquire.

    Every minute you are screwing around with your computer trying to get it to say “hello world” is a minute that you aren’t planting a garden, playing guitar, or working on your TPS reports. The law of comparative advantage says that if I’m relatively good at growing corn and you are good at programming, then we should each do what we are good at and trade what we produce.

    Have I totally missed the point here?

  3. Interesting and thought provoking idea, but somewhat flawed in it’s simplicity. Is it programmers that decide how to reshape the world, or marketeers? And for that matter, hasn’t marketing been shaping the world for quite a long time now? True perhaps in some cases, open source for instance, but generally it’s not programmers making the decisions of how technology should be used. It wasn’t the programmers at Facebook that decided it should be used to monetize relationships, that was a business decision, right?

  4. I still agree with the other commenters. I’m a professional programmer. I do it every day. It’s a useful skill, and it pays my bills. But, lots of other skills are useful, and they all lend insight into the various objects with which they’re associated. I don’t see why computers are the special exception that *everyone* needs to understand. I personally like to learn new things, and understand how they work – lately I’ve been building surfboards, growing a garden, and of course programming. I’ve also built radio controlled airplanes, a car engine, bicycles. These are all useful skills that give greater insight into how things work. But, because I’m busy doing these other things, I’m not learning how to purify water, or generate electricity from the sun, or build houses. These are all useful, enlightening, interesting skills *too* that I can’t afford to invest in. Why don’t they get the same special status as computer programming?

    Not everyone can know everything. There are too many things to learn. We have to pick and choose our areas of expertise. I’m not convinced that *everyone* needs to choose computer programming.

  5. The previous commenters’ analogies are missing the point. Building a house, hunting animals, and mastering an instrument are not really comparable to learning a programming language in the context with which it is being presented.

    Now lets skip justifying laziness with contrary remarks.

    Programming is important to language, writing and thought. It lets us creatively and practically organize information. In today’s world, information and computers provide more influence than many of us can grasp.

    The video is only implying that to stay relevant in this new world, one should obtain some level of understanding in programming.

  6. Mr Rushkoff,

    Given that only 2% (estimated) of the population have the mindset to develop software in any reasonably competent manner, what, precisely, should the masses be programming?

  7. The idea of computers here is irrelevant — the “programming” is really about your mind.

    A shorter way of expressing this idea is:

    “Develop critical thinking skills so that your life is your own”.

    In the middle ages, authorities such as the Catholic Church controlled most aspects of people’s lives, whether they liked it or not. However, now that you are free from that kind of domination, if you are easily manipulated, you are still not free.

    By becoming a critical thinker, you can help ensure that your thoughts and actions focus on advancing your own life rather than enriching others.

  8. I think what Rushkoff is trying to get across isn’t so much that everyone needs to literally become an expert in writing code. Rather, people must gain a fundamental understanding of the biases of the digital technologies we use on a regular basis.

    Take the Facebook example he mentions. Whenever Facebook changes the methods by which account privacy is handled, how many people freak out and starting spreading ridiculous mis-information? “OMG Facebook now allows anyone to know exactly where you are whenever you login!!. They will hand out your children’s names and birthdays to anyone who asks!. If we can get 1,000,000 people to LIKE this, Facebook will change it back! Otherwise, we’re leaving Facebook forever!! Click LIKE and repost if you agree!” Usually it’s in all caps with terrible use of grammar and punctuation.

    I have constantly tried to explain to people that the purpose of Facebook–the way by which it makes money–in a nutshell is to sell the information its users post to advertisers. And they’re doing an amazing job at it to boot. How many people who use Facebook understand this? Unless people understand the bias of Facebook, we’re going to be more of a benefit to it that it is to us.

    This is something along the lines of an idea I’ve been touting for a number of years now. Sure, all of this new technology is awesome, but how often do people stop for a moment and reflect upon how it is affecting us? How it changes the way we live and interact and look at the world? I was a kid in the 80s and had an early exposure to computers. I remember well all the promises that were being made about how “Computers are going to make our lives so much easier! We’re going to have so much leisure time!” But look at how things turned out… we’re working harder with longer hours and have less to show for it.

    Yet every time there’s a new iPhone model is released, a mass-hypnosis falls over our society: “OOOH! NEW IPHONE! SHINY! SO SHINY AND NEW!” and without thinking, people rush out in droves to gobble up the latest SHINY-FASTER-NEW of the week. The programmers of society do their jobs well.

    So the question I ask is this: Is this technology really enhancing and improving our lives, or are we simply being used as tools to drive the markets that sell us this stuff? Understanding the biases of these technologies is one of the first and fundamental steps to regaining control over this seemingly out-of-control process.

    Sure, gardening and making music are also hugely important, but I think here the same theory can be applied. How many people question why it is that so few people would even know how to go about planting a garden? Industrial agribusiness was adopted with so little consideration of its true bias and of the likely long term consequences.

    So… “program or be programmed” is kind of like another way of saying “Either be a conscious contributor to the creation of reality, or simply be a passive sleeper and end up as food for The Machine.” My copy of the book arrived yesterday, and I’ve read the intro and first chapter… it’s good stuff. At the very least, it’s worth wrapping your mind around, even if you aren’t 100% sold on the specifics. It’s more the underlying philosophy that’s important.

  9. So all this for saying what I was taught in kindergarden? Critical thinking? I can do that (although without the spelling): “Try to figure out who said/did what and why before deciding on its accuracy and righteuousness”.
    Who doesn’t know facebook is out to take your facts, sell them and try to pawn things on to you? Thats why most people use fake names there or skip info. Sure they can dig for it – thats ok. Thats part of the bad deal. “Get more easily connected with all your friends you don’t really know so well and can’t be bothered to call through this narcisistic medium – but we get to sell some info about you”

    Look, this is probably a cool book that says allot of useful things to allot of people, me included and perhaps Im sort of stuck on this one tiny speck of info – but its been promoted through out.

    Programming is one the best promoted professions/activities in the world. Programmers in movies are like geeky superheroes who can do anything, in the papers the title “programmer” exists. But have you ever heard “roofer” as some title to be proud of?

    “wait I’m laying shingle, we should be safe for another day” [fade to black]

  10. The book seemed interesting, but the dramatic music around 0:45 and 1:16 made me lose all interest in this thing.

    I hate ultimatums and fear-driven marketing: “[…]If you don’t know what the software you’re using is for […] you’re being used by it” and “[…] I promise you someone or something else will do it for us […]”? I feel this sounds a bit too much like Fox News… I am learning Python and I love it, one should learn to program because it is fun, not because of fear.

    I recently began reading Lanier’s “You are not a gadget’, and I clearly remember him writing about being careful about this kind of technobabble and “digital Maoism”.

    Recommendation: Check Lanier’s book instead.

  11. @Anon • #5
    > Is it programmers that decide how to reshape the world, or marketeers?
    Haven’t, yet, read the book, but read about Veblen and “Conspicuous consumption”.
    U’ll see there how engineers creates the world, while marketeer’s purpose being to “addictive or narcissistic behaviors induced by consumerism”.

  12. This isn’t some kind of libertarian manifesto people, calm the fuck down. He’s not trying to say that “every single human being on the planet needs to know more about programming than anyone else or we’re all going to be a bunch of fat lazy slobs”. The point is that as our technology gets faster and better yet fewer and fewer know how it works under the hood. The analogy about taking the bus because you don’t know how a car works is incredibly ignorant and misses the point.

    You know how your car works, it’s a static analog object. Sure, the manufacture can put different bits on the different chips and maybe you don’t understand all those components, but they’re essentially computer products anyway. A car engine, without a computer, cannot be modified in secret. When you pop open the hood you can tell if some new physical component is changing the way the engine works. However with a computer program you have absolutely no idea what facebook does with your data, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. You have no hood to pop open and you have no source code of what’s happening. You can’t download facebook’s source, at least legally, and even if you did the likelihood that you’ll be able to understand what this website is doing will be limited based on your knowledge of programming. If you understood just a little bit of code you could tell what facebook was attempting to do, like “oh, I see that they took my data and sent it to X”. In a way though, I can see a parallel with cars and anything else electronic/digital. If you don’t understand how it was programmed, it’s more than likely you’re being programmed by it, EVEN YOUR CAR!!111one

  13. Keep in mind that the premise of the book is to suggest that an understanding of the biases of our media and technology is what is needed, not necessarily an understanding of the nuts-and-bolts code.

    Here’s a thought experiment: To anyone over the age of 25, digital technology- from Facebook to online discussion forums to chat rooms to cell phones- is relatively new. Even for those of us who were denizens of the very early Internet, long before the Web and AOL and all of that, the ubiquity of this technology is new. Back then, it was just the geeks who were using this technology; now it’s everyone.

    So now we’re living in a world where communication happens instantly and far more erratically. Twitter, and its 140 character limit; Facebook, and its 420 character limit; the changing parameters by which privacy is defined, thanks to the open nature of these technologies; and of course, text-messaging, which at least according to my observation is the primary way by which people under the age of 20 communicate with each other.

    As where people in the older generations- even those of us who have more than a slight interest in all this technology- still find it far more natural to physically gather and engage face-to-face, without our gadgets, the younger generations for whom always-connected, always-on, instant-access is the norm are likely finding that to be more and more of an anachronism. And as time goes on, as face-to-face physical interaction becomes less and less prevalent, will sitting around a campfire without our gadgets close at hand become as awkward and unnatural to people as figuring out how to engage in asynchronous online communication was for people in the early days of the web? Will people ultimately loose the ability to interact and communicate on a perennial, face-to-face level, and only know how to communicate within virtual spaces?

  14. Personally I think the author’s view is a little narrow and pessimistic. Even we programmers have a limited degree of knowledge of what’s going on below our horizon. My code is couched on layers of abstraction between my keyboard and the hardware that actually does the work; I can’t claim to have any more than a vague understanding of how all the countless transistors across potentially millions of computer CPUs that my software runs on really operate to bring my instructions to life. Is it so much different when the typical user goes through one more layer of abstraction – the one I have created – to cause his computer to accomplish some specific task? Must a designer understand the content-aware fill algorithm to be truly “using” and not being “used by” photoshop as he prepares a photograph for print? Must a blogger understand how his content management system stores and retrieves his posts, or how HTML and CSS describes their presentation? Or are these levels of interaction, while an order more abstract than mine, fundamentally the same *kind* of experience – controlling the input into the machine in order to achieve a desired output? Each is certainly a much different kind of interaction from watching television or reading a book or having a conversation with a friend, but I would argue that using a computer “mundanely” has more in common with programming than it has in common with those other activities. Don’t be so hard on the users, I say – instead, let those of us whose chosen specialty *is* programming labor to give them ever more power to express themselves at the level of engagement they’re comfortable with.

  15. Sure. And let’s hope users know enough about what they are using to be able to tell the programmers who have these interests at heart from those who don’t. Or if they can’t even know that much, to at least know there are human beings making some choices on their behalf.

  16. >>By becoming a critical thinker, you can help ensure that your thoughts and actions focus on >>advancing your own life rather than enriching others.

    How does cynicism advance your advancement?

  17. >>By becoming a critical thinker, you can help ensure that your thoughts and actions focus on >>advancing your own life rather than enriching others.

    How does cynicism advance your advancement?

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