Program or Be Programmed, part 4: You May Always Choose None of the Above

Next up on the yorocko tour of Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, “Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for Life in A Digital Age,” command number three: You May Always Choose None of the Above. This follows the commands to Live in Person and Do Not Be Always On. See all the posts on Program . . .  here.

I’ve long loved G.K. Chesterton, and two of my favorite Chesterton quotes are scribbled in blue ballpoint on the inside flap of my hardbound copy of Heretics and Orthodoxy:

“The admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.”


“Every act of will is an act of self-limitation.”

Both are from an essay entitled “The Suicide of Thought” that extols the necessity of limitation in any conception of freedom, either of action or thought.

Douglas Rushkoff has realized, though, that as important as the irrevocable choice may be for philosophy and democracy, we need to know who or what is setting the parameters of our choices. In a digital realm, everything must be pitched as a choice presented by a programmer as code. The classic example is the cd, in which a sound engineer records sounds as a series of digits that can be copied. This is a technological advance over cassettes and records, where an actual physical event disturbs a needle or cellophane strip thus leaving a real record of that sound event that is released when played back.

The record and tape are capsules that captured something that actually happened. The cd (and thus the mp3) are symbolic representations rendered in a series of digits in order to be copied. The difference has to do with much more than sound quality. It reaches into the nature of sound and music itself. For example, the custom of inviting friends over to listen to records gave way not to a custom of inviting friends over to listen to cd’s, but rather to a trade of cd’s and then a sharing of files, because the music itself became something different when it became digital. It became a commodity to be traded among individuals instead of an event to be experienced in groups.

It’s what Rushkoff calls “digital technology’s pre-existing bias for yes-or-no decisions,” its bias “towards the discrete.” He gets at the problem of the bias like this:

All the messy stuff in between yes and no, on and off, just doesn’t travel down wires, through chips, or in packets.

All the messy stuff in between. That stuff is not of interest to the program. Whether it’s in sounds that don’t register on the cd or consumer preferences, if it can’t be pinned to a 1 or a 0 and stuffed into a program, it isn’t valuable. “There’s a value set attending all this choice,” Rushkoff says, “and the one choice we’re not getting to make is whether or not to deal with all this choice.”

In the next post, I’ll explore how ministry is captive to all this choice, and ways that ministry shows an alternative.

I’d love to hear your experience and thoughts on it.






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