When human beings acquired language, we learned not just how to listen but how to speak. When we gained literacy, we learned not just how to read but how to write. And as we move into an increasingly digital reality, we must learn not just how to use programs but how to make them.
In the emerging, highly programmed landscape ahead, you will either create the software or you will be the software. It’s really that simple. Program, or be programmed. Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.
For while digital technologies are in many was a natural outgrowth of what went before, they are also markedly different. Computers and networks are more than mere tools. They are like living things, themselves. Unlike a rake, a pen, or even a jackhammer, a digital technology is programmed. This means it comes with instructions not just for its use but also for itself. And as such technologies come to characterize the future of the way we live and work, the people, programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works. After that, it’s the digital technologies themselves that will be shaping our world, both with and without our explicit cooperation.
That’s why this moment matters. We are creating a blueprint together – a design for our collective future. The possibilities for social, economic, practical, artistic, and even spiritual progress are tremendous. Just as words gave people the ability to pass on knowledge for what we now call civilization, networked activity could soon offer us access to shared thinking – an extension of consciousness still inconceivable to most of us today.
But so far, anyway, too many of us are finding our digital networks responding unpredictably or even opposed to our intentions. Educators who looked forward to accessing the world’s bounty of information for their lessons are faced with students who believe that finding an answer on Wikipedia is the satisfactory fulfillment of an inquiry. Parents who believed their kids would intuitively multitask their way to professional success are now concerned those same kids are losing the ability to focus on any one thing. Social and community organizers who saw in social media a new, safe way for people to gather, voice their opinions, and effect bottom-up change are often re coiling at the way networked anonymity breeds mob behavior, merciless attack, and thoughtless responses. A society that looked at the Internet as a path toward highly articulated connections and new methods of creating meaning instead finding itself disconnected, denied deep thinking, and drained of enduring values.
It doesn’t have to turn out this way. And it won’t if we simply learn the biases of the technologies we are using and become conscious participants in the ways they are deployed. Faced with a networked future that seems to favor the distracted over the focused, the automatic over the considered, and the contrary over the compassionate, it’s time to press the pause button and ask what all this means to the future of our work, our lives, and even our species. And while the question may be similar in shape to those facing humans passing through other great technological shifts, they are even more significant this time around- they can be more directly and purposely addressed.
The human response, if humanity is going to make this leap along with out networked machines, must be a wholesale reorganization of the way we operate our work, our schools, our lives, and ultimately our nervous systems in this new environment. Resistance is futile, but so is the abandonment of personal experience scaled to the individual human organism. There is a place for humanity – for you and me – in the new cybernetic order.
Like the participants of the media revolutions before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacy of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us. And so we, too, remain one step behind the capabilities actually being offered to us. Only an elite – sometimes a new elite, but an elite nonetheless-gains the ability to fully exploit the new medium on offer. The rest learn to be satisfied with gaining the ability offered by the last new medium. As a result, most of society remains one full dimensional leap of awareness and capability behind the few who manage to monopolize access to the real power of any media age.
And this time, the stakes are actually even higher. Before, failing meant surrendering our agency to a new elite. In a digital age, failure could mean relinquishing our nascent collective agency to the machines themselves. The process appears to have already begun. Instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even the benefit of some particular group- we are optimizing humans for machinery. And that’s why the choices we make (or don’t make) right now really do matter as much or more than they did for our ancestors contending with language, text, and printing.
The difference is in the nature of the capability on offer-namely, programming. We are not just extending human agency through a new linguistic or communications system. We are replicating the very function of cognition through external, extra-human mechanisms. These tools are not mere extensions of the will of some individual or group, but tools that have the ability to think and operate other components in the neural network – namely, us. If we want to participate in this activity, we need to engage in a renaissance of human capacity. We need to rely on a purpose and on values as real and powerful as the science and logic our machines are using in their own evolutionary ascent. The strategies we have developed to cope with new mediating technologies in the past will no longer serve us- however similar in shape the computing revolution may appear to previous reckonings with future shock.
The industrial age challenged us to rethink the limits of the human body: Where does my body end and the tool begin? The digital age challenges us to rethink the limits of the human mind: What are the boundaries of my cognition? And while machines once replaced and usurped the value of human labor, computers and networks do more than usurp the value of human thought. They not only copy our intellectual processes – our repeatable programs – but they also discourage our more complex processes- our higher order cognition, contemplation, innovation, and meaning making that should be the reward of “outsourcing” our arithmetic to silicon chips in the first place.
The way to get on top of all this, of course, is to have some inkling of how these “thinking” devices and systems are programmed – to have some input into the way it is done, and for what reasons. Back in the earliest days of personal computing, we may not have understood how our calculators worked, but we understood exactly what they were doing for us: adding one number to another, finding a square root, and so on. With computers and networks, unlike our calculators, we don’t even know what we are asking our machines to do, much less how they are going to go about doing it. Every Google search is – at least for most of us – a Hail Mary pass into the datasphere, requesting something from an opaque black box. How does it know what is relevant? How is it making its decisions? Why can’t the corporation in charge tell us? And we have too little time to consider the consequences of not knowing everything we might like to about our machines. As our own obsolescence looms, we continue to accept new technologies into our lives with little or no understanding of how these devices work and work on us.
We do not know how to program our computers, nor do we care. We spend much more time and energy trying to figure out how to use them to program one another instead. And this potentials a grave mistake.
We are living through a real shift- one that has already crashed our economy twice, changed the way we educate and entertain ourselves, and altered the very fabric of human relationships. Yet, so far, we have very little understanding of what is happening to us and how to cope. But it’s a conversation that needs to be started now.
Only by understanding the biases of the media through which we engage with the world can we differentiate between what we intend, and what the machines we’re using intend for us- whether they are their programmers even know it.