Friday, October 1, 2010

Sell or be Sold!

The title is just a play on the idiotic title of Douglas Rushkoff's latest book Program of Be Programmed. The logic is fear mongering. It is the equivalent of an automobile enthusiast in 1920 saying "Be your own mechanic or have your auto eat you alive with costs because of your ignorance". Or, the fear mongering of a merchant in ancient Rome announcing "Sell or be sold!". Nutty! Not everybody should be a salesman. Not everybody should learn the mysterious innards of a car. And similarly, not everyone should learn to program.

Douglas Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed from DANGEROUS MINDS on Vimeo.

Back in 1980 I would have agreed with "Program or be programmed" because machines were simpler then and simple programming languages abounded and the technical slope to be climbed to do something interesting with a machine was not very steep. But today, machines are essentially closed boxes (manufacturers have no interest in selling you a machine along with the tools to "program it yourself"). The machines are much more complex and consequently the programming languages are an order, probably two orders of magnitude, more complex than those in 1980. So why would you break your bones trying to learn to program?

I understand that fear mongering sells books. I understand enthusiasts wanting to sign everybody up to "participate" in whatever activity excites them. But 99% of the people on earth today don't need to program. That is a specialist craft. And it has become "professionalized". The old do-it-yourself and hacker mentality of the 1960s through 1980s is long gone. Program if you want a career that pays relatively well. But you don't have to program to use your computer to surf the web, join in social networks, play games, or do your finances. Rushkoff is creating a bogeyman. (Note: if you get 5:00 minutes into this interview he backs off his extremist claim that "everybody must be a programmer" but he still makes claims that are nutty.)

Here is text I've transcribed from the video showing the idiocy of Rushkoff trying "sell" his fear of "Program or be programmed!":
Rushkoff: Now we get computers and we know how to use them but we don't really know how to program them. And that, as I see it, sets up a potentially dangerous difference between those who know how this technology works and those who really don't.

Metzger: Dangerous how?

Rushkoff: Dangerous in that, if you're incapable of distinguishing between that which is and that which has been made to be like this, then it is really difficult to, um, engage consciously with reality, it's difficult to have any autonomy, it's, it's, you know the thing that happened to a lot of us either when we took psyhodelics for the first time, or studied buddhism for the first time, or went on line for the first time, is that we had this realization that 'oh, a whole lot of what I've been taking for granted isn't just this way by nature, these are not pre-existing circumstances, the world was made like this by people. These are social constructions. These are programs. From money to democracy to the city to using cars, that so much of the world around us doesn't have to be this way, it is this way because of a series of choices. If we move into an increasingly programmed reality without understanding that it has been programmed, much less understanding how to program it ourselves, I feel we are going to become incapable of really distinguishing between the map and the territory.
What a pile of horse shit! He is saying you can't operate an automobile unless you are a mechanic because you wont be able to "really distinguish between the map and the territory" of automobiling. Nutty! I need a general understanding of how a car works, but I shouldn't need to be able to pop the hood and point to devices and explain in detail their operation. That's a specialist's task, a mechanics task!

You can tell his argument is weak because the above quote gets murky with metaphysics and mystical terms. There is no crisp logic and not clear "this because of that" to it. Just like we don't train every kid in school to be a mechanic. We don't need to train every kid to be a programmer. Sure kids need to know "how a car works" and a kid needs to know "what is a computer and how a program works" but at a high level of principles without the ugly details of actual hardware, actual operating system, all the gory details of a programming language, and the necessary accoutrements of a professional programmer with knowledge about development environments, testing techniques, documentation, etc. That's for the pros. The other 99% can get along well enough with generalities and conceptual sketches.

At 6:30 into this video he puts up another idiotic claim that the "golden era" of computers is now past. In those golden days we used bulletin boards and downloaded comments, thought about our replies, composed them, and uploaded them. But today so many social media applications are instant & now. He claims "We've turned the Net from an asynchronous medium to an always on medium." And he "blames" the market for "doing this" to us. Nutty. You can choose applications, like blogging, that are asynchronous, if you enjoy that style of interaction. Or you can chat if you want instant interaction. It is a choice. It isn't "dictated by the market". Nutty!

Rushkoff is an idiot and doing fearmongering to sell this book. He is distorting what is into a story that reflects his fears and his fancies. There is nothing wrong with alerting people to alternative interpretations, but when you, like Rushkoff, claim your "insights" are Truth and sell them using fear, you've gone too far.

I like other stuff he has written, but I won't be reading this book. I'm outraged that he is making such ludicrous claims and using such disreputable means to sell his book.

Update 2010oct08: Here is a video that distills Rushkoff's book into two minutes of video. I still don't buy the "message"...


thomas said...

I agree with you about the complexity issues of computers and cars. Back in the day, a car could break down and easily repaired with a little knowledge and a handful of tools. Things were simple. Now, with computers, I can only imagine that the comparison is sound and I trust your judgement on things involving computers. With today's cars, even a mechanic must update his knowledge and tools quite often and the average person just cannot afford to work on his own car except maybe minor maintenance.

I don't know why anyone would want to complicate life anymore than it is by placing some mystical meaning to computers or cars or cleaning the house.. We live our lives and then at the end we die. I wonder if this guy would think that we should go to medical school and learn how our body works so we can doctor ourselves and somehow that would give us some spiritual enlightenment.. I think removing your own appendix would give you some sort of spiritual insight or even if you removed it from one of your kids or wife, but probably, you would have to review what you learned in the afterlife (whatever that may be).

I enjoyed your post. I especially liked the "pile of horse shit" line. Anyway, you said it all quite well.

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I like your idea on "self-surgery" (for Rushkoff, not for you or me). Maybe we should chip in and buy him a Do-It-Yourself surgery kit... nothing extravagant, maybe a hacksaw and a pocket knife, you know, the "essentials".

I got carried away with the "flowery" language. You appreciated it, but I'm mad at myself for getting carried away. But I was bothered by his obvious blathering (the bit I quoted). You can tell that (a) he was "reaching" for something to say and (b) he was falling back on academic obfuscation because he really had no justification for his proposed "danger" if we all didn't become computer programmers.

I programmed for 30 years. I really enjoyed it for the first 20+ years. But toward the end I was becoming what I had seen in older guys: falling behind, not learning the latest language, the latest "bag of tricks", and not staying up with the current fads. I hated that.

I thought when I retired I would have the time to program for "fun" but I've spent no time on it. I came to realize that I was "programmed out".

The think Ruskkoff doesn't realize is that the tremendous technological turnover means that you can spend a lifetime as an "expert" and end up knowing not much more than a recent graduate when it comes to the latest programming language/tools/environment. There is something really, really sad in that. I can't think of any other professon when the old are chewed up and spit out in quite the same way.

As a kid I bought into the idea that you grew old gracefully and that you were respected for your experience. But in today's society, you are thrown on the dust heap at the end. The society shows no respect for the dignity of work or a life well lived. Oh well. I'm sounding like a grouch and an old curmudgeon. I've got to watch that. That's something I definitely don't want to turn into (you know, the commercial that has the old geezer regaling the kids with the story about "hard times" where he had to walk to school 5 miles, in the dead of a winter storm, and 'uphill' both ways!).

thomas said...

Judging from your blog; you are learning everyday and writing about so many different subjects, that kids in school would not keep up with, so I don't think you have to worry too much about the curmudgeon over taking you. But, we all have to watch ourselves because when we are no longer in the middle of things, we tend to judge those that are and think that we did it better. This happens to people that get promoted to supervisor or something, they lose the feel for being out there on the line and forget how things go and how it feels to have some cranky boss criticizing every move or decision without even seeing the job.

I think a lot of countries are far ahead of us when it comes to respecting individuals especially older people. I don't think most Americans respect anything but the rich and powerful. The guys like Neil Alan Smith who spend their lives the way they find themselves spending their lives deserve respect as much as any self centered, selfish rich guy.

We Americans don't really know what success is or who is worthy of our respect or at least their own dignity. I don't think I will lose out on too much if I take my computer to the Apple store and get it repaired instead of doing it myself. And, I am not embarrassed to admit that I can't fix a newer car.. I don't think I lose any manhood or miss some mystical connection. If one is a dishwasher till he dies then he is still better off than the average thief on Wall Street.

Anyway, I will chip in for the surgical kit if you will mail it. (humor)

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: Thanks for the link to Neil Alan Smith. We need to spend more time honouring the ordinary people who are the rock on which civilization is built. The crazies at the top get all the glory.

I can understand why the crazy rich & famous get media adulation, but it saddens me. Their lives are just as petty as that of anybody else. But their wealth/celebrity makes them an object of desire.

When I think of Paris Hilton I get sick. I can name a dozen girls I've known that were as empty-headed as she is. She's a loser, but she gets "glammed up" because she has the money to -- in some sense -- "buy" attention.

Neil Alan Smith had a good heart. The article you pointed at makes this clear:

He lived in a mobile home near the restaurant and paid rent to the owner, Bonnie Schaeffer-Mott. Once, when she feared the power company would shut off the electricity, she asked Mr. Smith for help.

He gave her more than what she had asked to borrow and insisted she take it. "I'll never forget that," said Schaeffer-Mott, 51.

And this comment is as good as you can get for an epitaph to put on a gravestone:

They [his twin sister and a one time roommate] will toast the memory of a solitary man who knew his likes and lived within his means, a man who could be counted upon.

As for America... I just remember the "can do" attitude of the 1950s. Things went sour during the cultural struggles of the 1960s. I never understood the drug culture and the 1970s pop psychology "me first, last, and always" was a sign the country was off the rails. This was confirmed by the "greed is good" Reaganism of the 1980s (but I did like the resurgence in the economy in the late 1980s and through the 1990s). But the 1990s and the 2000s were marred by vicious political fighting. I don't blame the Democrats. I see the Republicans as the ones who claim to honour "Mom and apple pie" but who have subverted the wholesome America I knew from the 1950s. The so-called "family values" people are far worse than the staid, conservative, keep-to-yourself, and do-the-right-thing 1950s type. Instead, the modern Right is in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway vicious and pushy political type. Sad.

I keep worrying as I get older. I know your boundaries close in, so I worry about not staying on top of new things. I worry about becoming a grumpy old man. I want to keep a spark of youth and a lively interest in the world around me. I want to keep a positive attitude. So my grumbling and worrying is healthy. I'm trying to keep myself on the "straight and narrow" and live a decent live.

And that comes back to Neil Alan Smith. He didn't win any awards and he didn't get celebrated. He wasn't an "outstanding citizen". but it sure sounds like he was a solid guy who just did his thing. He was "salt of the earth", the kind of people who make up the foundation of a society. We need to honour those people rather than the extravagant and wasteful rich or the attention-hungry do-anything-for-media-coverage fools who clutter the news and "entertainment" stories. We need more stories of solid people.

By the way... I liked CBS's Charles Kuralt for this very reason. He was famous as a reporter who brought stories of "ordinary folk" to the news. If you haven't read his A Life on the Road I would recommend it.

thomas said...

I am very close to Neil's situation, but I have a family and my kids, but other than that I am just a construction worker, so I kind of know where he stood in life. People need to realize once in a while that all of the grand things are possible because there are people washing dishes or cleaning sewers or placing utilities in the ground. I don't think that it should be aggrandized or made into more than it is, but these common people do make it possible to have a Super Bowl or a concert or a fine dinner at a restaurant. They should not be the stars, but they should, on occasion, be recognized in some way even if it is just the gratitude of their employer. The Tao Te Ching teaches that water always flows to the lowest place.

Can anyone claim to be better than Neil Smith? He lived within his means and was even able to loan money to his "landlord". Most of the grumbling middle income people cannot live within their means and be content.

Oh, and I should have made it clear that I first read of Neil at James Fallow's blog where he has been posting on the "Whiny Professor".

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: I agree with your observations. I interpret this as saying we need to recognize the contributions of everybody without patronizing them or inflating their value. Yep.

I would add that we all need to realize that your life is more than your job. I read somewhere that Americans are unusual in tending to identify with their job. The job defines their 'value' in life. But a job is only a means toward an end: money to live one's life.

I like to think that a lot of people are like me: no strong "vocational calling". My job was OK, but I didn't identify with it. The job was something I did, and I did it well because I liked to feel good about myself. But my real value came from my outside interests.

Everybody finds value differently. Many in clubs and groups they belong to. Some in religion. Some in hobbies. Most invest a lot in their family and community. It is funny to devalue this and consider only "the job". That's a lot like what many feminists complain about: women who are stay-at-home moms shouldn't be devalued because they have committed themselves to something other than "a job".

The funny thing about identifying yourself with your job is that modern life has moved more and more toward people being "employees" (and not independent farmers or small businesses) and at the same time companies have dropped any pretense at "caring" for their employees. So you are in a non-reciprocating relationship. You identify your value in a "job" while the company that gives you that job values you less and less. There's something desperately wrong with this picture. In short, people have to find value outside of their "job".

It is interesting that you spotted Neil Alan Smith on James Fallows' site. I read most of Fallows' stuff, but I'm not always up to date, so I missed this. I'll have to go look and see what Fallows had to say. Thanks.