• In advance of his keynote speech at today’s Tools of Change Frankfurt conference, Douglass Rushkoff discusses his new book Program or Be Programmed and the advantages of working with a small, digital publisher instead of a traditional corporate one.
• “People accept the tools and interfaces that they’re presented with as if they were pre-existing conditions of the universe,” says Rushkoff.
By Chad W. Post
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s TOC Frankfurt, Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist who has authored several books on the subject, including Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Cyberspace, Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids, Open Source Democracy, and Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. He’s also a graphic novelist whose Testament was critically acclaimed. Last year, Random House published Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back, Rushkoff’s critical look at the history and rise of corporations.
His latest book—Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age — is available from OR Books and is a very provocative look at living in our digital world. Through ten “commands” (such as “Do Not Be ‘Always On,’” “One Size Does Not Fit All,” and “Do Not Sell Your Friends”), Rushkoff examines the biases of digital technologies, urging readers to reflect on how to remain human in this age of smartphones and wired everything. Program or Be Programmed carves out a space between the pundits claiming that the Internet is ruining life as we know it and those who feel that the Internet will help create a democratic utopia.
In advance of his TOC presentation tomorrow, we had a chance to catch up with Douglas and talk to him about his new book and publishing with the upstart OR Books.
Publishing Perspectives: Your last book, Life, Inc. came out from Random House, but Program or Be Programmed is being published by the relatively new OR Books—a very interesting press that’s much smaller than RH in terms of distribution (OR Books are only available through their website), name recognition, advances, etc. What made you decide to go with OR?
Douglas Rushkoff: First and foremost, I wanted the books to be cheaper for the reader. With the traditional publishing system, there are too many middlemen, and too many people needing to justify their place in the food chain. This ends up costing a lot of money, and ultimately costing a lot of time, too.
I also wanted to release a couple of months after I finished the book, instead of a couple of years. I am tired of writing books that correctly predict a phenomenon that hasn’t happened yet, but then come out after the thing has happened. Writing about technology, in particular, is pretty tricky if you have to do it a couple of years in advance.
I also wanted to work with a house that wasn’t fixated on sell-in figures or first week sales, but one that preferred to see a book as something that could take a few weeks or even months to become popular. Big publishers are trapped responding to corporate owners who are looking for growth to match their debt structures. Unfortunately for them, publishing is not a growth industry but a sustainable industry. So the models don’t work for real books — only for runaway bestsellers. Then the focus turns to marketability of titles rather than sustainability or importance of ideas.
OR, in particular, is run by an old friend, John Oakes. We’ve been looking for a way to work together for years, and this seemed like the right project at the right time.
PP: How has the process of publishing with OR been different from that of publishing with RH? Specifically, are there different marketing strategies?
DR: I’m not really privy to the marketing. From the surface, the publishers are selling to completely different constituencies. Random House is selling to Barnes and Noble while OR is direct marketing to consumers. So these are really different models, I’m sure. Random House has to think about a whole big picture — everything from Ingram to Amazon. John only has to think about the buy button on his own site. No sell-ins, no returns. He’s got an easier job, from that perspective.
The main differences for me have been my level of direct involvement, which with OR Books has been greater. For me, this is a good thing, because I’ve been in books for a while and think I make valuable contributions. I’ve gotten to influence everything from the cover and font to press release and the strategy approaching NPR.
Of course, they’re more free to involve me because there’s no corporate politics or set policy. People in “real” publishing have bosses and departments and methods. So editors aren’t told sell-in figures, publicists have to weigh booking one author vs. another on the same show, and people are doing a lot of their work blind.
The advantage, of course, is that when you work under a big corporate imprint, you get a network of salespeople to put you into stores, you get noticed by reviewers and publications who balk at independent presses, and you get the possibility of academic or other releases. Plus, you get paid before you write the book. The big publisher can fund a year or two of research and writing and that’s no small thing. And at just a few publishers — and I’d have to say Random House is one of them — you get to be part of the continuity of publishing culture. It took decades or more to be built, and there is a sense that you’re working in a tradition.
Whether I work with a big publisher or a little one, though, I know I’m largely responsible for getting the word out. It’s a different world than it used to be, and authors are responsible for making the contacts that announce the existence of a book. So far, independents are a little better at accepting this reality. On the other hand, big publishers tend to have at least someone in the publicity department who can actually get the booker of almost any show on the phone. Or a marketing person who can talk directly to one of B&N’s buyers. There’s still a few human networks at play that matter. It’s just that they aren’t activated for a vast majority of the books being published by these places.
PP: Where did the idea behind Program or Be Programmed come from?
DR: I guess the original idea was my first encounter with networked computers in the 80’s. I wrote Cyberia, celebrating (and to some extent parodying) the ability of early cyberpunks to rewrite reality from the bottom up. These were the days of Mondo2000 and the WELL, when it seemed like anything was possible. Learning to program wasn’t just about computers, but about reality itself.
Over the years, I’ve seen people not only lose that sensibility about these technologies, but lose sight of the fact that digital technologies are programmed at all. People accept the tools and interfaces that they’re presented with as if they were pre-existing conditions of the universe.
And then we end up with all these conversations and books about whether digital technology is good for us or bad for us — does it make us smarter or dumber. As if they were these things that just got handed to us by God and are going to have some effect on us. We seem to be forgetting that we make these things, or that someone makes these things, and that they are embedded with their agendas. So kids look at Facebook, say, and they think this piece of software has been designed to help them make friends. If they even think about it that much. They don’t think of it as software that has been programmed. They just think Facebook is there to help them make friends. And they don’t realize that’s not what Facebook is really programmed for. Its purpose — the purpose of its founders and its components — is different.
So the genesis of the idea was to tell people that if they remain unaware of how their programs work — of what the programs are for — they will end up less the users of their technologies than the used.
PP: Some of “commands” are pretty straightforward and personal—thinking of “Do Not Always ‘Be On’” and the anxiety most everyone feels trying to “keep up” — whereas others are a bit more abstract and rooted in huge socio-historical issues — such as “One Size Does Not Fit All.” Regardless, all (except maybe “Program or Be Programmed”) seem to urge caution. If there’s one message you want people to take away from this book, what is it?
DR: If you don’t know anything about the software, then you are the software.
PP: In the past you’ve written quite a bit about the power and promise of all things digital, and in comparison, this book seems a bit more pessimistic. From the intro: “A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning is instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values.” But as you also say, the Internet isn’t going away anytime soon. Instead, it will probably continue to play a larger and larger role in our lives. What do you think would happen if we were able to recuperate a sense of humanity — an idea behind a lot of your commands—and retake control of technology? By becoming “programmers” can we change the world?
DR: I’ve been hearing this question since about 1995. “In the past, you were so optimistic, and now you are pessimistic.” So I’m wondering where this glorious past is, unless it’s like yesterday. Program or Be Programmed contains pretty much the most optimistic sentences I’ve ever written, telling readers that “this is the moment we have been waiting for” and that we are participating in “nothing less than the conscious intervention in our own evolution as a species.”
I think what you’re really reacting to is whether a particular paragraph makes you happy or sad. It is sad that most of us remain so painfully unaware of how our technologies work. It is sad that computers started out so easy to work, and that as they have become more complex we humans have become more simple. It is sad that in the US we don’t teach computer programming in school, while in India and China they do. I just state the facts.
My opinion — my argument — is that it is not too late. That’s optimistic. I don’t think we have grown too stupid or too lazy to become — at the very least — partners with our digital technologies, working toward greater autonomy for ourselves rather than just a greater number of predetermined choices.
Of course, by becoming programmers we can change the world. Programmers are building the world — embedding agendas into technologies that will live on long after we are gone.
Program or Be Programmed is available through the OR Books website.