11.26.2012

Douglas Rushkoff — media theorist

By Josh

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist, the author of 14 books including Media Virus, Life Inc, and Program or Be Programmed, and he made the Frontline documentaries Merchants of Cool, The Persuaders, and Digital Nation.

For UNBORED, Douglas wrote an essay titled “Do you use your technology or does it use you?” In it, he talks about the promise of the digital revolution — and how programming got mysterious. He urges readers not to take tech for granted. Here’s an excerpt from his UNBORED essay:

When we use technologies in a passive, unthinking way, we risk changing our world and behaving in ways driven by our technologies’ built-in biases. For example, think of the difference between the websites Amazon and Facebook. What does Amazon want you to do? Buy stuff. So every button, every paragraph, every pop-up window you see when you visit Amazon is designed to get you to buy stuff. Facebook, on the other hand, wants you to share information about yourself — because that information is valuable to the marketing companies and research firms who pay Facebook for access to it. That’s why Facebook encourages you to list the bands and brands you like, and to “friend” and “like” everything in your universe. You aren’t Facebook’s customer; those businesses are. Your information is Facebook’s product.

The people who program websites and TV shows and other technology and media — I mean the people who decide what these media should do, and for whom — do so on behalf of their real customers. For example, who is the customer of American Idol? Not you, the viewer, but Ford, Coca-Cola, and AT&T, who advertise through the show and want viewers to buy their stuff. That’s why the Idol contestants call home with AT&T phones and drive Ford cars, and it’s why the judges drink from big plastic Coke cups.

Apple’s App Store encourages you to think of all your online purchasing as something that has to be orchestrated by Apple. The online stock trading platforms your grownups use are configured to make them want to trade more frequently, earning the companies behind them more commissions. By figuring out the way your digital world is really put together, you gain the ability to see what your media and technology want from you. Only then will you be able to consciously choose which of these websites, entertainments, and gadgets are worth your time and energy.

FUN FACTS about Douglas Rushkoff:

* He is the originator of such terms as “viral media” and “social currency.”

* Earlier this year he published A.D.D.: Adolescent Demo Division, a graphic novel about kids raised from birth to be videogame players. [NOTE: Not appropriate for younger readers.]

* This year, Douglas wrote Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. It’s about what happens when we stop thinking of the past or the future, and only think about right now.

* He has a 7-year-old daughter named Mamie.

* He helps a new company called CodeCademy.com explain to the world why learning about computers might be a good idea, particularly for young people.

What else? Douglas tells us: “I’ve gotten really interested in ways to learn about how computers think, but that don’t involve actually using computers. So I’m thinking up various kinds of games that kids can play with each other in which they act out the various functions that computers do. Except they’re not actually computers at all.”

And: “My family also got totally slammed by Hurricane Sandy, so I’m learning about solar generators and other ways to keep our house heated without a working electrical grid.”