Program or Be Programmed: A Book Review

Most of us have been using social media for years without any formal introduction to the “governing dynamics” of the digitally networked world.  Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for the Digital Age offers an introduction, a set of guiding principles as well as a meditation/poetics of sorts on the pains and pleasures of living, thinking and working in a digital social network.  Overall, this is an excellent book – thoughtful, thought-provoking and practically useful.  Here are some of the thoughts it inspired in me so far:

First, the rise of social media is changing the world probably as deeply as any earlier shift in technology, culture, politics or science.   Just as the development of the alphabet and the printing press, social media is rewiring our minds, re-ordering our relationships and the shared expectations that govern our public sphere.  That’s why, we make a mistake when we judge the significance of social media strictly by the numbers: the number of people using social media, the valuation of the Facebook IPO, the number of “likes” a company’s page has attracted, etc.  The fixation on numbers causes us to miss the real story.

Second, Rushkoff is brilliant in his characterizations of the dominant “biases” of digital social networks.  He observes, for example, that all media are biased toward abstraction in that they all disconnect representations from underlying realities.  In other words, text disconnects speech from the speaker.  Print disconnects text from the scribe.  The computer disconnects print from paper.  All of language is an abstraction of the real world.  Rushkoff acknowledges the dangers of living in an increasingly symbolized and abstracted world, but he eloquently argues that the only healthy reaction is to participate actively and fearlessly in the creation of the next large-scale abstraction.

Here, Rushkoff’s writing reminded me of some beautiful passages from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles…Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle, another circle can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning…and under every deep, a new deep opens…Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series…There is no virtue which is final; all are initial…The principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example of a bolder generalization… Fear not the new generalization.”

Third, social media clearly favor facts over fictions, actions over assertions, and they show little appetite for the brand mythologies that still form the backbone of corporate PR.  That’s why, this book — and Chapter 8 in particular — is a must-read for people in PR, advertising and marketing.  Rushkoff certainly reinforced my impression that most corporations today simply don’t understand social media, even as they scramble to develop well-financed social media strategies.

I plan to re-read this book, and I will probably read some of Rushkoff other books.

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