BLOG: Talking with media guru Douglas Rushkoff

Tom Jackson
Jan 10, 2011

 

I have been writing about the Internet, reading about the Internet and playing with Internet projects for many years, and I've never read a better book about the Net than Douglas Rushkoff's new book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age.

Anyone who has paid close attention to how people interact with technology will recognize the wisdom of commands such as "Do Not Be Always On." I recently asked the famous media guru to answer a few questions for me:

Program or Be Programmed is a slim book, but I thought you packed a lot into it. I had the impression when I read it that it synthesizes years of thought, reading other books about the Internet and personal experience using technology. Was that how it felt to you writing it?

Yeah. Each sentence could be a paragraph, each paragraph a chapter, and each chapter a whole book. It's twenty-five years of thinking about interactive media in there. I haven't really written a book explicitly about digital technology and the net before, even though it's the field of study I'm best known for. So I had hundreds of articles and talks worth of material and collected insights to share.

The trick was doing it in a way that made sense to people immediately - especially to people who are used to engaging with ideas through Twitter feeds. There's no time to make an argument. I had to write sentences that functioned one way while being read and then unpacked themselves later in the reader's brain.

I definitely felt like I was on solid ground throughout, though. I've thought about these issues so much, and tested my conclusions over a course of years, heard the counter-arguments, and had time to refine my thinking. So of everything I've written, it's the most cured, smoothed out, and densely packed.

I agree completely with your first command, "Do Not Be Always On," but it isn't always easy to follow. This morning, for example, I made a conscious decision to read the first chapter of a novel I wanted to start before I turned on the laptop to check my email. Have you trained yourself not to be always on, or is it still a struggle sometimes?

Well, just the fact that it's only a struggle *sometimes* means we're not always on, right? I still struggle with the incoming flow of media and messaging, absolutely. I have over 3,000 unanswered emails in my inbox right now. It varies from about 1,000 to 5,000 at any given moment. I used to get really anxious about it, and now I just dig through what I can and then go off and do something I actually want or need to.

The bias of the medium makes the incoming messages seem more important than whatever we were doing. But just because something is pinging at us does not mean we have to look at it. It's a real-time thing, anyway - that's the whole point of the chapter you're referring to. It's not a living breathing human being on the other end of a phone line, it's a message.

One of my favorite sentences in your book is "I've only used one name on the Internet: Rushkoff." I try to post under a clear identity, and I hate it when I'm attacked anonymously attacked.

My newspaper finally began making people register before posting online. Before we did that, I noticed there was a split in the building on what people thought of the comments. The editors liked making it easy to comment, because they wanted pageviews, but the reporters hated it, because people didn't want to talk to us. Our sources were afraid of being attacked online. Have you noticed similar situations at other places?

Yeah, sure. The short-term needs of the market are always what bring down the quality of something. On the net, that effect is amplified. Publications want hit counts by any means necessary - but instead of just getting stupid readers, the stupid readers are actually contributors to the publication. Those comments fields are still under the masthead. They create the culture of the publication. 

So a lot of places are realizing that registration is a good idea - plus they can leverage more when they know more. Advertisers love that user data, don't forget.

But yeah - this notion that we have to leave comments on to all comers no matter what just yields the angriest and least informed crap. There's nothing wrong with making people say who they are. If they're in real danger of being killed for speaking the truth, we can make exceptions. But it's not the rule.

Another of your commands is "Share, Don't Steal." What do you do, if anything, about people trying to steal your work and distribute it on the Internet? Have you ever felt any temptation to release any of your books under Creative Commons, the way Cory Doctorow does?

I've distributed a lot of stuff under Creative Commons. Three books, and a bunch of essays. Sometimes it's practical and great, but I don't see it as a requirement. I love the freedom to use Creative Commons.

On the other hand, my book Life Inc sold maybe 25,000 copies in hardcover, yet was downloaded 250,000 times as a torrent. That's pretty nuts. I'm glad a lot of people got to read it, but it feels like a whole lot of people and search engines and torrent sites extracted value out of something I did.