Program or be programmed by Douglas Rushkoff

Program or be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff

Ten Commands for a Digital Age

2010/11 : 978-1-59376-426-5

Summary of the Commands

  1. TIME - do not always be on
  2. PLACE - live in person
  3. CHOICE - you may always choose none of the above
  4. COMPLEXITY - you are never completely right
  5. SCALE - one size does not fit all
  6. IDENTITY - be yourself
  7. SOCIAL - do not sell you friends
  8. FACT - tell the truth
  9. OPENNESS - share, don't steal
  10. PURPOSE - program or be programmed

Chapter Notes


  • The printing revolution challenged us to rethink the limits of education.
    • loss of memory capacity, but increase in processing power
  • The industrial revolution challenged us to rethink the limits of the human body.
    • physical tasks made obsolete by machines
    • loss of physical skills / crafting
  • The digital revolution challenged us to rethink the limits of the human mind.
    • mental tasks made obsolete by programs
    • loss of cognitive skills / thinking

Why is the digital revolution profoundly different than the previous ones?

Digital technology is not just extending human agency through a new linguistic or communications system.

The capability on offer is programming - replicating in different ways the very function of cognition through external, extra-human mechanisms. 

In the printing revolution, information was suddenly stored in text instead of inside our brains. In the digital revolution, not only information, but entire processes are stored in programs, instead of inside our brains. Leads to losing cognitive skills, not just losing facts and information. We offload not just information to harddrives but our thinking to computers!

The commandments are based on biases inherent in digital technology, attempting to balance out these tendencies.

(Definition of BIAS: Leaning. Tendency to promote one set of behaviours over another.)

1. TIME - do not always be on

"Computers live in the ticks of the clock. We live in the big spaces between those ticks, when the time actually passes. By becoming "always" on, we surrender time to a technology that knows and needs no such thing."

Human NS exists in present tense, in CONTINUOUS TIME. Computers exist in thousands of seperate digital events, in DISCRETE TIME.

Underlying Bias: Digital technology leans away from continuous time and toward asynchronicity. The programming in our phones encourage certain human behaviours and also promot this bias. 

Example of asynchronicity: Email. The old use was better! 

Then came interactive communication programs, including notifications, stronger ways of affecting behaviour in humans. Leads to multitasking, partial attention. 

New types of media are built to maximize engagement or time on screen - thereby

  • creating false goal of immediacy
  • Value the recent over the relevant
  • instead of encouraging thoughtfulness, deliberateness, empowerment and awareness, leave us frazzled and exhausted. Examples: Stress. Phantom vibration syndrome.

What to do
Only concrete advice:

  • Respond slowly to messages, reclaiming the right to asynchronous, deliberate and high-quality communication. Gives autonomy to choose when and to whom to be available, and also leads to respect, since the slowest responder typically has a higher status or power.

Am sure Rushkoff would approve these tips:

  • shut of all notifications on your phone to allow deliberate use of the technology, instead of being a victim of behaviorism and neuropsychology used against you.
  • Dedicate specific time to digital communication. fx Write emails only twice a day in purposefull bulks of time, instead of writing emails throughout the day.
  • Keep you phone shut off and far away when you want to be present. Don't keep the phone next to your bed, don't have it in your pocket at dinner, don't bring it on walks. One study showed that just the presence of a cell phone on the table, screen-down, was distracting and led to decreased cognitive performance. 

maybe you have your own tips?

2. PLACE - live in person

digital networks exchange intimacy for distance. Because the technology allows decentralized sharing of information, the bias leans away from the local, PLACELESS.

the tech is great for creating simulations and approximations of human interaction at a distance, more than fostering intimate interactions between people in the same space. 

MINUS (ANONYMOUS GLOBAL CONSUMPTION) this dislocation also allows big companies to compete with local retailers through targeted marketing and branding, reducing our consumption patterns to a purely monetary affair, stripping a transaction of other values. Rushkoff thinks a decentralized medium is not optimal for connecting with people in the neighborhood. 

MINUS (DESENSITIZATION) to news from around the world

MINUS (dependency on the digital tools)  "depending on tech for connection to each other leads to fetishizing the tools" - example: not using powerpoint for presentations. 


  • take advantage of the current space and what it offers, instead of using placeless technology even for local needse.
  • Enjoy full-spectrum communication with other people, and enjoy live-stream technology for long-distance communication.

3. CHOICE - you may always choose none of the above

In the digital realm, everything is made into a choice, and is therefore biased towards the discrete. (constituting a seperate entity with a clear beginning and ending) 

The digital realm is biased towards choice, because everything digital must be expressed in terms of a discrete, yes-or-no, symbolic language. This often forces choices on humans operating within the digital sphere.

CD vs analog record: Whereas an analog record is a physical event where sound is made into a physical object ( a record), digital records are a numerical representation of the sound. Digital recordings are compromises where only the part of sound which is represented with numbers is kept. Choices are made in the programming to decide what is signal, what is noise, and the rest is cut out. 

This is not a bad thing, this is just how computers work. But it has consequences how our complex, continuous world is represented in information digitally, where data-sets are sorted and analysed. The programmer decides which categories matter, and which don't.


More choices is equated with more freedom and more specific needs being met. But not in reality... 

  1. we get fatigued and obsessive and less free by ruminating and analysing which choices to make all the time. 
  2. in the consumer society, choice is less about giving people what they want, than about getting them to take what the choice-giver has to sell.
  3. we don't get to decide NOT to make a choice at all when we are presented with certain options, as we always are digitally. The more we conform to available choices, the more predictable and machine-like we become. 

What to do?

  • An example of a positive trend online is "tagging" - where categories are created by users, instead of pre-determined categories.
  • Be sceptical and aware of which options you are presented with online - know that you can make your own choice - or no choice at all.

4. COMPLEXITY - you are never completely right

SCALE - one size does not fit all

IDENTITY - be yourself

SOCIAL - do not sell you friends

FACT - tell the truth

OPENNESS - share, don't steal

PURPOSE - program or be programmed

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