Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programmed” and the Historical Evil of the Telephone

ring me up

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.

The phone was an amazing, world-changing tool, but for some reason people construed its invention to mean that any time someone took it into their heads to chat with you (and more likely to ask you to do something), they could ring a loud bell in your house, over and over again until you answered. Amazingly, you yourself had installed that very bell, for just that purpose, as part of your phone and part of a new social contract: you agreed to be harassed in a random, constant way by a ringing bell at the whim of others, in order to be allowed to harass others at whim. “Ring me up!”

And feature this, kids: You wouldn’t even know who was ringing you up until you picked up your receiver said into a big empty space: “Hello?” (That question/greeting, mingling trepidation and aggression, was created by the phone and shows the degree of social insanity involved.) Or, if you weren’t home, the person would let the bell ring a long, long time, then give up and resume ringing it again later. Before click-in phone jacks, you couldn’t even unplug your phone; it was hard-wired into a little box on the baseboard (I’m old, I know). But even later on, turning off the phone was a weird and radical move. You’d miss your calls!

When I was growing up, in those years that the younger set knows only from “Mad Men,” that’s what happened, all day long, in the home: bells ringing and people running (literally) to answer their phones. I took it all for granted. Only later did it occur to me what a bizarre, neurotic, anxiety-filled, barbaric and historically novel way it was to live. And as I can attest, people really were nuts back then.

Answering machines corrected the phone problem. First used as a cheap, DIY version of what used to be called an “answering service” (a bank of remote, always-on human operators, used in the 1970’s among my friends mainly by desperately auditioning actors who couldn’t afford to miss a call), soon everybody had them. The ostensible idea was to not miss calls, because it was the ’80’s now, and we were all so big and important and had lots of irons in the fire (“always on”).

But instantly everybody saw the real benefit of the answering machine: not having to answer the phone just because somebody had decided to call. And for the first time, you could actually find out who was asking for your attention and why, before responding. The answering machine was always on, so you didn’t have to be.

For a while — and this is really amazing — people actually thought “screening” calls via the machine was rude. For decades we’d been required to be politely available to any and everyone at any time, so screening seemed like cheating. That’s how thoroughly etiquette had been warped by the outrageous rudeness long inherent in the phone.

Thus, about 100 years after the phone’s invention, answering machines and then voice mail and e-mail redeemed the phone and made it a really useful social tool. Of course there were always those who obsessively called their own answering machines to see if they had any messages (and usually they were the people who didn’t have any), but at least that was their own obsessiveness, their own activity, their own thing to deal with. Choice or compulsion, it was personal.

Here’s where I most relate to Rushkoff’s big point: Now we don’t even own our own compulsions. We’ve pushed them onto the machines. We don’t have to decide to check; again we’re being pinged by “notifications” of our voice-mail messages and new texts and e-mails and software updates and Facebook updates and tweets — usually through our mobile phones, so it’s 24/7. We’ve programmed the system to program us. That’s Rushkoff’s theme and his warning. But Rushkoff has simple advice, if people would just take it: don’t be always on.

What I’m most enjoying about Program or Be Programmed is that it’s a very serious (though lively and fun) critique of the current digital predicament, from someone who, like me, must have been in certain important ways liberated by that culture when it was new (before “social media,” before mobile). I liked DOS, for example, because the “power user” that I was unexpectedly discovering myself becoming (after a lifetime as a non-math person) could tinker with DOS and learn how to use my own PC. Then, just as I was finding out about that new part of myself, along came Windows, with its seductively cute GUI metaphors (“borrowed” from Apple), whose real purpose is to lock users out of the guts of the system and make sure we don’t understand it and can’t play with it. I still remember the bleak disappointment I felt, maybe fifteen years ago now, when I tried to play around with my new Windows OS and crashed into the fact that now, for me, there was no further chance. Windows turned the power user in me away. I retreated to the surface and began working on the online interactive stuff.

Or as Rushkoff says in Chapter Four: “Instead of learning about our technology, we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us.” Check him out at

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4 thoughts on “Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programmed” and the Historical Evil of the Telephone

  1. A terrific post that puts into clear focus vague misgivings I’ve had about recent technological advances. I don’t believe I’ve read Rushkoff before, but I’ll check out his site.

  2. I just came across your blog. I too am interested in the way current political ideologies use/misuse and distort history. I’m trying to organize a creative response to the Texas US History textbooks that are little more than propaganda. You can see the beginnings of the project here:

    This project seems right up your alley and I’d love to hear your ideas about it (feel free to e-mail me with any advice you have).

    I’m responding to this post because Rushkoff’s work has long been a big influence on me and his “Program or Be Programmed” in particular influenced this project. Rushkoff himself commented on the project on BoingBoing which you can see here:

    I’d love for you to get a couple provocative articles started in the Supplement, I think it is especially important to have people like you involved.

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