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The Unintended Effects of Our Technology Choices

I have to thank a friend of mine, Peter Skillen, for recommending the book Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, by Douglas Rushkoff. Anyone who knows me knows that I worked for over two decades at LCSI, the company started by Seymour Papert that developed numerous versions of the Logo computer language. I’m a big supporter of children learning some form of programming - I myself found it incredibly empowering to be able to really ‘own’ my computer experience by building programs on the computer that came from my imagination and interests. It gave me a DIY/maker sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

So I was very interested when I saw the book title. Rushkoff begins by suggesting that when any new technology is introduced, there’s usually only a small elite group that takes advantage of all the opportunities the technology makes possible, while most others merely are catching up with the previous ‘big thing’. When the alphabet was invented, most people became listeners, although they could have become readers. Instead, they were read to by the elite few - the readers. With the invention of the printing press, people became readers (catching up), while, once again, an elite group took full advantage of the technology and became writers. Now, with digital technologies, many people are becoming writers, even though the technology enables so much more. It provides those willing to learn, the means to create the programs to which others respond and which, ultimately, shape our behaviors. Once again, only a small group, the technological elite, is taking advantage of the full potential of these new technologies. Those who don’t program or understand the programming behind the applications of these technologies become merely nodes in the knowledge network of the technologically literate and, because of the nature of computers, of the technologies themselves.

In spite of its title, my real take-away from the book is that we all need to understand not only the obvious but also the subtle sometimes almost imperceptible ways in which the nature and capabilities of our technology choices sculpt our behavior. Whether it’s by reducing everything to either yes or no, on or off, 1 or 0 choices, altering how we listen and consequently learn to hear music once it's no longer analog but only digital, or how our devices begin to act as intermediaries when we interact with each other whether in another country or sitting next to us at the table, the slight shifts created by technology, over time, develop into fundamental changes. Some of these are good, some more questionable, but all are moving forward in a seemingly unstoppable trajectory. According to Rushkoff, programmers don’t necessarily have the power to predict the future, but they at least have an understanding of how the programs that are shaping our thinking operate. Programmer or not, it's crucial to be aware of the fact that all apps are programmed and that programming means conforming to certain rules, formats, and limitations. It’s only through understanding these constraints that we may be able to make informed choices about what we may be willing to give up along the way and what we need or want to save.

As I read this book, I was reminded of a quote I recently came across, “Smartphones are for snacking, tablets are for dining, and laptops are for cooking.” (Unfortunately, I lost the source of this quotation, so if anyone is aware of its author, please let me know.)

Do you think this is a fair description? How important do you think the ‘cooking’ part of technology is? Are you ‘cooking’ with your tablet or is it not quite there yet? Are you creating projects limited only by your imagination, not the technology’s capabilities?

If technology is already reshaping our behavior, how do our more overt choices of device compound this shift? Is this what we want?
October 1st, 2012 @ 3:00PM