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. Continue reading

Facebook, Locke, and Privacy


It cracks me up — though it doesn’t appear to amuse John Locke, left — that Facebook users are expressing privacy concerns.

Of course every site of which you’re an active user, and to which you provide billing and credit card info, location, various statuses, and so forth, makes you vulnerable both to theft and to having your personal info sold, legitimately or otherwise, to spammers, junkmailers, market researchers, and others. If FB’s security around that stuff is weak or its policies lax, that’s mildly unfortunate, and with a site so big — really, a kind of ad hoc and rapidly developing platform — there’s no way for FB to handle everything that happens on FB.

But since when did the ultimate purpose of privacy come down to keeping your personal data secret? The real theory and practice of privacy has played a critical role in creating the liberal, Western culture that everybody using FB reflexively relies on. And FB is the biggest reflection yet of our collective urge to demolish that theory and practice.

The amazing thing about FB is that instead of asking 50 [UPDATE: I mean 500!] million people to take a moment to respond to a marketing survey — which of course would be impossible to do, would get a 2% response rate even if it were feasible, and could pose only a very limited number of questions, providing dumb, crude results — FB has inspired all 50[0] million actively to publish, on their own hook, a vast, developing, daily and hourly proliferating and self-perpetuating body of extraordinarily detailed information about themselves. This is not about your name (please!) but about your and everybody’s else’s “likes,” keywords in posts, and perhaps most importantly, [UPDATE: or maybe not?] digitally networked relationships. That’s a 100% response rate from 50[0] million people on a kind of info that has never been imagined before.

ZuckerbergNobody planned that. The whole point is that only we who joined FB could have done it.

The real value of that info lies not in what we like to think of as the personal. As usual, FB users aggrandize themselves, placing importance on their individual preferences and choices (without self-aggrandizement, no FB!). Actually nobody significantly cares what you, in particular, “like,” or who you, in particular, are particular “friends” with. (If you’re using FB to start a loose association of terrorist sleeper cells, you’re the exception that proves this rule.) The value of the data lies in how an extraordinary multitude of factors of your personal info relate to those many factors of the other 49[9],999,999 active FB users’. Pattern-making has only just begun, and so far what’s known about it looks pretty crude to me, but I think the possibilities for vastness, nuance, and kinds of reporting look, literally, infinite.

OMG, what if this capability falls into the wrong hands?

It’s already in the wrong hands: ours.

Real privacy was never supposed to be about mere sneakthief prevention or avoiding irritating solicitation. And it actually was individual — in a way that FB, for all its titillation of “you,” and “your” supposedly individual “likes,” overwhelmingly is not. FB may be the biggest collective action ever taken, though in service of ends that we in the collective — and maybe even the inventors — know not of. Which may make it merely the biggest mass hysteria outbreak of all time. And time alone will tell.

In liberal Western thought, however, the very justification of private property, over and against those who have called property nothing but theft, has been that liberty, and thus genuine, responsible contribution to the public good, is possible only in a condition of personal independence from excessive influence. The one way to limit the power of the sovereign, back in the day, was to create private spheres where the sovereign could not legally enter (without consent). Those rights are held individually, not collectively (even though representative bodies may be elected to enforce them). Hence this post’s reference to Locke, but he was far from alone.

Publishing — public speech, one of the key liberties — has always involved a tension: it sacrifices a portion of the privacy that enables it. People used to publish anonymously, and nobody would have published at all except for some benefit (money, glory, controlling or insulting other people, attracting sex partners) that appeared to outweigh the awful sacrifice. Publishing involves compromises of which FBers, a new kind of publisher, appear largely oblivious. When you blithely publish a picture of my vacation house without my consent, for the public ooh-and-ahing (and possibly the private disdain) of your 4000 FB “friends,” you’ve violated not only my privacy but much more importantly 1000 years of the hard-won liberty you rely on both to travel to my vacation house at all and to publish at will.

Turning what should be private into something obsessively, self-consciously public — written conversation, in particular, whether one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many, seems to me the most revolting example of this phenomenon on FB — is part and parcel of a retreat from genuine public engagement. And that retreat includes ranting on FB, and soliciting signatures and votes, regarding whatever’s bugging you politically. Real engagement is only truly possible, according to the old rad Whigs on whose thinking our entire culture is so problematically based, where privacy is not only maintained but also understood. Our understanding of what privacy is, as both FBing itself and FBers’ worries about security show, has been undermined, possibly fatally.

Those Whigs were not democrats. They feared social “levelling” in part because they feared and loathed the classes beneath them and wanted to protect their property (secretly suspecting, perhaps, that property is theft, and that the laborers might someday try to get it back!). But on the highest levels, they at worst rationalized their elitism, and at best transcended it, by warning against the absence of political independence that can come with the democratizing spirit. They feared political machines and parties and demagogues.

It’s an irony — polite word for “OMFG, now we’ve totally ruined everything” — that the virtual-world take on college elitism that was the original FB has so democratized publishing, while so quickly demolishing general understanding of privacy, that our political machines might look benign by comparison, to the old 17th C. liberty crowd, without whom none of this stuff would have developed in the first place.

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Writing vs. Blogging

“Remarks are not literature,” Gertrude Stein warned the young Hemingway.
“Blogging is not writing,” I kept saying, a few years ago, to myself.

When I get involved in a lot of “actual” writing projects, like now, I can’t find time to write these blog posts. But since these blog posts involve writing, and I’m free on the blog to write whatever I want, and I take writing the posts seriously and enjoy writing them, I’m wondering what’s “actual” about the nonblog writing I do. Usually my nonblog writing involves an assignment (that is, I’m not the only person who wants me to do the writing); and editors and/or collaborators (I’m not the only person who has something to say about how it’s written); deadlines; money; and more readers than I get for my blog. Those are all good reasons to write elsewhere than here. And I was doing it long before I ever started blogging, which I resisted for years.

Yet now I end up questioning both the blogging and the “actual” writing. One part of me says that maybe I should just go totally self-published online. There are a lot of reasons to do so — but nobody has expressed impatience with writing books and taking commissions better than my old friend Kyle Gann in his piece Almost All Is Vanity on his blog “Postclassic: Music after the Fact.” (Warning: If you have no sense of humor, and/or are under 50, Gann’s piece will bum you out.)

The irony, there, is that a “published” writer is questioning the value of publishing offline — when you’d tend to think a writer published by somebody else, which not everybody gets to be, would see less value in being a blogger, which everybody now does get to be. But something unexpected changed when the Internet made everybody a publisher (too often everybody doesn’t realize they’re publishers, but still). Potentially, it can now look more fun to publish just like everybody else does, now that everybody else is publishing too. Less lonely, for one thing — even though I do reach more readers through books and magazines than I do on my own site. Maybe if I stopped all that, and just really bore down on my own site, I could shift the balance.

But even if I worked on getting critical-mass readership for the blog, and even if I succeeded, would it ever have the feeling of heft or texture that comes with writing a book for an established publisher or an edited essay in someone else’s magazine? It wouldn’t. At least not yet. Part of that may just be a dinosaur thing.

But part of it works more like this: In publishing the pieces on this blog, which bounce off my books, and off current affairs, and off other people’s books and blogs, I have begun to develop an explicit thesis about what I’m really saying, bottom line, both about American history and its problems, and about how those problems resonate with other existential issues. I didn’t expect that to happen, but it’s been happening, and I don’t know if it would have happened if I’d continued to write only in the context of being published by somebody else. So that’s cool. I have a better idea of what I think and feel and grope toward knowing. And at least a few other people find the posts valuable in their own right.

But when I envision developing that thesis, and possibly presenting it, I imagine it taking the form of something I can only call a work. Blogging, ultimately, involves remarking on stuff, as in the Stein quotation above. It doesn’t add up to a work. (Gann’s No Such Thing As Silence, for example, is a work, as is John Cage’s 4’33’“, the piece Gann’s book discusses.) The distinction is not online vs. off. Blogging is like having a column, and sometimes writers have anthologized their columns, but that anthology isn’t a work; we look for something more significant from some of those writers. One may download both an anthology and a work or buy either at a mom-and-pop bookstore or monster retail chain. It’s a difference in kind, not in delivery system. And while blogging (and FB and Twitter, etc.) encourages everybody to have a column, it doesn’t seem to me to encourage work. Yet.

I don’t yet see a space anywhere online where full-scale works (of prose) successfully exist solely in that space. A work may still need to have a physical dimension (as its name implies), even if you prefer to download its virtual dimension. Today’s NYT piece on kids and textbooks may even support that idea.

[UPDATE: Anyway, what I started to say was — see? this is how lame blogging is — that I’m busy with some writing assignments and can’t figure out to keep the blog going as well as I’d like, and I find that surprisingly frustrating. That’s all.]

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