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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Program or Be Programmed

Read an interesting book recommended by a friend the other day: Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff. The main thrust of Rushkoff’s book is that all media, all forms of communication, starting at speech, moving on to the first examples of an alphabet, to the printing press and now to online communication have a bias and one needs to be aware of a medium’s bias when communicating through it. Bias in this context meaning that each medium tends to elicit particular attitudes and behaviours from it’s users.

If I can attempt to paraphrase, Rushkoff infers that this last communication revolution based upon the computer is a very important one, because now we’re actually getting to the point where the tools we are creating are taking on the characteristics of living things. They’re not quite living things yet though and at least until the hypothetical singularity manifests, the people who program these almost living tools will continue to take on an increasingly important role. Conversely, in the years to come those who do not at least have a basic idea of how programming is done will be at an acute disadvantage (politically, socially, financially, culturally) much like the illiterate following society’s adoption of the written word.

Somewhat tangential to the main point of the book were a couple of things that stood out to me personally:

Social media and commercialisation

Rushkoff devotes one chapter entitled ‘Do Not Sell Your Friends’ to discussing the social bias of digital media and the friction that this can cause when rubbed against commercial interests. I won’t try to do the chapter justice here in this short post – buy the book if you want the full picture – but one passage that stood out to me specifically was:

The real way to “go social,” if [businesses] wanted to, would not be to accumulate more page friends or message followers, but rather to get their friends and followers to befriend and follow one another. That’s how to create a culture in a peer-to-peer, networked medium. instead of looking to monetise or otherwise intercede between existing social connections, those promoting networks should be looking to foster connections between people who are as yet unknown to each other yet potentially in need of each other. And then let them go about their business – or their socializing.1

Sometimes one reads something and for whatever reason, it resonates. The above passage has given me reason to re-evaluate some of my own ideas about what it means for an organisation to ‘go social.’ I suspect that the idea of not trying to ‘monetise or otherwise intercede between existing social connections’ doesn’t even occur to many businesses attempting to foray into the social media wilderness. Could there be sufficient pay-off in developing a culture around a brand that helps to sustain it without needing to exploit the data of your users? I hope so. But regardless of what implications and utility this approach may have for the commercial sector, I have a strong feeling that the strategy Rushkoff describes would work well for public sector organisations whose missions are often more wide-ranging than the generation of profit alone.

The command-line and the GUI

In discussing the development of the modern computer user interface, Rushkoff states:

So the people investing in software and hardware development sought to discourage this hacker’s bias by making interfaces more complex … The easy command-line interface (where you just type a word telling the machine what you want it to do) was replaced with clicking and dragging and pointing and watching.1

I smiled as I read this passage as I have been a long time advocate of the utility of the command line. Anyone who’s comfortable with development or system administration tasks on Unix or Linux based systems usually is. However, as much as I am a fan of the command-line, I don’t want to go back to a world where my entire interaction with my computer consists of typing into a command prompt. Some applications just wouldn’t be possible using the command-line paradigm. And while I’m very comfortable traversing a Unix or Unix-like file system via the command-line, there certainly are times when it’s convenient to be able to interact with my files via a GUI. There may be some out there who scoff at my words as they read them via their text-based web browser and if so, I’m OK with that. I guess I’m just not that hardcore.

But what I do take issue with is this perception I detect from time to time that if you’re using a command-line then you’re doing it wrong. The command-line is the less evolved ancestor of the GUI, you see. A vestige of a time when only the neckbeards used computers and now that ‘normal people’ need to use computers, it’s just not practical anymore. This seems to me to be what Rushkoff is warning against, ‘normal people’ need to be able to better understand the inner workings of the tools that they’re using if they are to use them in an informed way that allows them to best protect themselves. Being able to grok the command-line and having a powerful implementation of a command-line interface available would be a step in the right direction.

This topic reminds me of an article by Vivek Haldar on The Cognitive Style of Unix. Haldar cites the research of a cognitive psychologist, Dr. Christof van Nimwegen, who has studied in quite some depth the benefits of the command-line over the GUI. They appear to be substantial and not always obvious to the casual observer.

The command-line has its place and I’ll go on record here and now to say that it always will, at least as long as humans can’t effect complex interactions with our machines via thought alone and do away with physical interfaces entirely.


Program or Be Programmed was a good, punchy read. As I am in fact rather ignorant of what I gather is a quite prolific amount of writing and speaking that has emanated from Rushkoff, I look forward to catching more in the future.

  1. © 2010 Douglas Rushkoff. Brief passages reproduced here for review purposes.  2

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