Ten Commands For A Digital Age

Economists are often fond of the old adage that “there is no such thing as a free lunch”.  Yet, there are some who think that things like Google Search and Facebook really are “free”.  After-all, you don’t have to pay money to use them, right?  If you’re not financially paying for something, however, it’s probably more expensive than you realize.  Here, then, is the likely rub: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” (Andrew Lewis on MetaFilter) So how does the process of online data collection and monetization work? Check out the video below to see a nice explanation.

Anyway, since I recently reread, Program Or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff, I thought I’d share his ten commands for a digital age.  For this post, I’ll briefly spell out what these ten commands are along with some brief thoughts.

  1. Time: Do Not Always Be On — I think most of us can relate to this one.  Phone calls, texts, emails, blog posts, status updates, and tweets will rob us of our humanity, if we let them.  The trouble is that answering them more efficiently only exacerbates the problem.  The more efficiently we respond the more incoming information comes our way.  The human nervous system wasn’t meant to constantly be on call.  If you’ve experienced Phantom Vibration Syndrome, then it might be time to put away the gadgets for an extended period of time.
  2. Place: Live in Person — Suppose it’s New Years Eve and you’re with some friends.  One of your friends, always with his smartphone in hand, is looking for the best party.  Accordingly, he’s not content until he finds it and he drags you and the rest of your friends around from place to place chasing the best scene.  The reason he is able to do this is because he gets continually updates on his phone (In case you’re wondering, this has actually happened to me).  We can only really live in one place at a time, yet the Foursquare check-ins, tweets, and status updates constantly draw people’s attention from their immediate surroundings.  Instead of actually enjoying a dinner out, some people are more worried about making others think that they are enjoying a dinner out.  Vanity becomes more important than happiness when we surrender our presence to the digital world.
  3. Choice: You May Always Choose None of the Above  — We may not always be aware of it, but computing is biased towards urging us to make a choice.  Are you a libertarian?  Yes or no.  Notice that there isn’t any room to express nuanced beliefs when dealing with these questions that are presented as if two answers were the only options.  Computers are biased by bits and consequently create a world of binary choices that may mislead us.
  4. Complexity: You Are Never Completely Right — Computers are biased towards a reduction of complexity.  In the words of D.H. Lawrence, “the map appears to us more real than the land”.  Let’s use Facebook as an example.  Facebook reduces the complexities in varying types of friendships that exist in reality.  I may want to share certain things with some friends, but not others.  However, Facebook continually forces us to try and categorize people into different buckets that we want to share some information with, but not all information with. This is not a perfect map of the reality of our complex social lives.
  5. Scale: One Size  Does Not Fit All —  There is a bias on the Net towards abstraction.  Instead of creating a valuable resource, there is an economic incentive to aggregate the creative work of others, as a form of nebulous value creation.  Instead of writing your own blog, why not just aggregate the work of the best bloggers?  A race to become the most meta site out there often ensues.  But really this just adds layers of abstraction, which demeans the value that actual creators provide.  The financial world makes for a great analogy.  First, there were asset-backed securities (ABS), then CDO’s, then CDO’s-Squared — when should the abstraction stop?  Every level of abstraction seems more profitable than the one before it, but is there any real value being created here?
  6. Identity: Be YourselfAnonymity on the Web has a tendency to bring out people’s inner-trolls.  However, in some extenuating circumstances, anonymity is understandable.  Most of the time though, anonymity removes the human element from our interactions and degrades the relationships we build with others online.  The beauty of the Web is that we have time to think carefully and review things before publishing them.  Being yourself forces you to own your words and should encourage you to be civil.
  7. Social: Don’t Sell Your Friends — The Internet is an inherently social tool.  Accordingly, it’s become increasingly difficult to demarcate some people’s professional identity and their actual identity.  This, of course, can be good or bad, depending how we look at it.  Marketing is a powerful force, and the Web makes it even more powerful.  It’s important to remember that we shouldn’t misrepresent ourselves and exploit our friends for our financial gain.  If you truly believe in a product or service, that is one thing, but peddling things just for the affiliate cash is shady.
  8. Fact: Tell the Truth — To put it simply, what you write online can be hard to erase.  Before you leave a comment you should contemplate its permanence.
  9. Openness: Share, Don’t Steal — Creators spend a lot of time and energy on their work.  It’s easy to rationalize stealing another persons work in such an open system. Here’s an example.
  10. Program or Be Programmed — This is obviously a false dichotomy (which is why I think it was a poorly chosen name for the book); however, I think it’s important to at least understand the tools and models we use.  Do you need to learn how to program?  Probably not.  Do you need to understand what programming is and that it exists?  Absolutely.

Overall, I like these commands, although I did take issue with some of Rushkoff’s arguments in the book (especially the second time around).  Anyway, we live in a world with an increasing reliance on digital technology that many of us simply don’t understand.  Is this dangerous?  Well, it depends.  If we fetishize our digital tools, it certainly is dangerous.  However, digital technologies can also be a huge boon to humanity.

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