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