Book Review: Program or Be Programmed

I guess I must be late to the discovery of Douglas Rushkoff. But, better late than never, right? I just finished his Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for the Digital Age and I have to say, it was just what I needed: a perfect balance of a message that I try to articulate (put young people in the seat of knowledge and creation) with warnings about the shifts that are taking place in our culture around technology and digital media. In the end, Rushkoff is positive about the possibilities but the theme of needing to understand (if not create) the underlying programming of technology and be aware of its biases is a critical part of understanding our times.

I have more little sticky notes in this short book than I know what to do with but Rushkoff explores many interesting themes in lively writing and under the guise of technology and media have certain qualities that either complement or hinder our own desire and needs when we sit down at our devices.

  • Technology is built so that time is always in fast flow, but we are not built that way. We need time for thinking and reflecting, and we need to avoid the suck of digital media into the never-ending flow of information. He reminds us of the early days of email and chat rooms, where the slowness of connections actually forces us to think before we wrote and reacted to the writing of others.
  • He reminds us that we do have choices in what we do, but mostly, those choices are situated by the programmers. There is an illusion of choice, and illusion of agency, in our interactions with digital media.
  • Rushkoff talks a lot about identity (who you are and who you represent yourself to be), telling the truth in online spaces, and social compacts that we have (don’t sell out your friends in networking spaces). These ideas really do connect to what we need to teach our young people about digital citizenship.
  • He also explores the ideas of what it means to have openness on the web, and how sharing and stealing are two very different ideals, and why sharing progress is better for society as a whole than stealing it is. Yes, these ideas have been explored in a lot of areas, but Rushkoff again connects them to the social compacts that we all agree to (tacitly) as humans using technology to interact and create in these artificial spaces.

Finally, as the title suggests, he implores us to know something about the ways of programmers. He doesn’t necessarily argue that everyone should be a programmer (although it is interesting that Rushkoff is now part of the Code Academy, which is built around the notion of educating the public about code) but he does believe that some ancillary knowledge about the 1s and 0s underneath the source code provides us with an insight into the intent of the technology, and maybe provides us with a path to adapt it for our own needs.

Peace (in the program),


  1. Thanks for this post Kevin, I will have to get the book. This theme of if you are not a programmer you are the programmed seems to be in the either lately. Just today I was listening to Triangulation on The guest was Eban Upton, a co-founder of Raspberry Pi. the $35 computer. The development of Raspberry Pi was triggered by the steady decline of students in the computer science department at Cambridge University. Upton and other at Cambridge thought that part of the reason for this decline was the kids were not tinkering with basic computers like the Commodore 64 he and other had in the early days of computers. Kids learned to code their own games with these early computer. Now kids have access to very powerful code and machines that others design and build.
    According to Upton the Raspberry Pi is flying out the door, about 4000 a day, and they can not keep up with the orders. Hopefully this will help raise the next generation of programmers and designers.

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