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Chapter One of Douglas Rushkoff’s very enlightening new book Program or Be Programmed — a book that everyone who texts, tweets, Skypes, updates status, IM’s, or otherwise engages in digital communication should buy or be given as a holiday gift — clarifies something that’s been bugging me for a while now. Rushkoff shows that unlike us, our computers operate “asynchronously,” outside of time. That quality was once, and not so long ago either, a huge boon to us, he says, because when digital communication came along, it enabled us to disconnect from our own time-centered way of doing things, which can often drive us crazy. Even as digital technology extended our range and means of communication, and made document transmission almost instantaneous, it recovered for us something that I used to think of as extra space in which to think, contemplate, respond more intelligently and creatively.

Get an e-mail, answer it whenever you want. Send an e-mail when it occurs to you to send it, even at 3:00 a.m., and don’t worry that you’ll be bothering anyone. How I once loved it. Suddenly written correspondence flourished, at least mine did, after decades of being killed by the phone (Rushkoff reminds us that what e-mail really replaced was certain kinds of phone calls, actually slowing down communication, in a beneficial way).

Rushkoff then traces some unfortunate recent developments in digital communication’s relationship to time, and ours. In violation of how computers actually work, we’ve dragged them back into our time-driven craziness and forced them to behave in a warped way, against their own nature, to enable us to be frenetically “always on.” It used to be the computer, outside time, that was always on, so we didn’t have to be; for the computer “always on” is calm and alert. For us, “always on” is anything but calm and alert. We’ve ruined what was so recently an amazing tool.

Who benefits? We think we do, because we think we’re doing so much more, so much faster. But as we all really know, we’re not really getting more done, just freaking out more. The mobile revolution means that phone companies benefit, mainly. So there it is again: the old villain of the piece, our ancient foe, the phone.

I’ve looked this way at the same issue: it was phones, once, that ruined everything. (more…)

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Over on Twitter, I’m trying a “today in history” countdown from May 1  to July 4, 1776. (So as of now, I’ve already posted May 1-3.) That is, I’m giving the story of Declaration away, in a superficial day-by-day rendering, leading up to the Independence Day climax about nine weeks from now. It’s tricky because I’m also occasionally posting there on other things, so the story can get lost; I’m therefore organizing it under a double hashtag that, at the moment, returns only the Declaration countdown. To see it all line up, search Twitter for this: #1776 #history

The idea is copped, in a quick-and-dirty way, from PatriotCast, whose astonishing eight-year mission is to go day by day through the entire American Revolution. I picked up on PatriotCast right around April 18, so it’s been exciting so far. A very impressive concept — and a daunting execution. (Per the subtitle to my book, I’ve only got weeks to get through, and it’s mainly on a single front.) PatriotCast also has a Website and a Facebook presence.

I’m hoping people will want to alert American history-buff friends to my Declaration countdown — like the book, I think it will be surprising —  and to PatriotCast’s much more ambitious effort.

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I’ve put this more obnoxiously elsewhere (Twitter doesn’t allow for much nuance), and inaccurately too, since I ascribed the problem, knee-jerk, to my old favorite target PBS (nervous newbie Twittering inspiring rush to judgment on my part) …

But still! I really am bugged to learn that the upcoming twelve-hour History Channel documentary “America: the Story of Us,” a sweeping history of just what its title implies, moves from the founding of Plymouth Colony to Lexington and Concord in ninety seconds.  Same old story, taken here to nearly grotesque extremes: the colonial period as mere prologue to the “real” thing. But there’s no chance of even beginning to get any realistic feeling for our history without a dive into the first 150 years of European expansion into North America. And with twelve hours…! At least give us Bacon’s Rebellion, the revised New England charter, the Anglo-Iroquois empire!

The producers’ dispiriting decision in this case suggests a tired, foregone AP American History mood to the whole thing. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m trying to “tweet” more slowly. Or at least less heatedly.

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