Review of Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed

Since at least the invention of BASIC and Logo in the 1960s, people, such as Seymour Papert, have made an argument that anyone can and should learn to how to program, and even make their own software applications.  The argument is that we should think of it as a new literacy, a 4th “R” of sorts – computational thinking, or multimedia authoring, or just simply, programming.  For me, it’s about knowing more than just how to make a powerpoint presentation or a web page, for example, and learning how to make an interactive animation or game or simulation and so forth.  I’ve blogged about it before (Programming: The New Literacy) and wrote a chapter on the topic (Toward a Nation of Educoders).

The most recent work in this area is a short book by Douglas Rushkoff titled Program or Be Programmed, and it was originally a short talk (here’s the video, along with a newer video made after the book).

So I went into the book expecting to agree with most of the points.  I’ve only gotten through the beginning pages so far and I do agree with many points, but there are also some problematic ones, especially relating to Rushkoff’s ideas about education and learning (which is not the focus of the book), and philosophy of technology.


First here are some quotes from the early part of the book to get an idea, including some relating to education:

p.7 “When human beings acquired language, we learned not justhow 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 howto 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 theformer, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization.”

p.8 “the people programmingthem take on an increasingly important role in shaping our world and how it works”

pp. 12-13 “The Axial Age invention of the twenty-two-letteralphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers,but a society of hearers, who would gather in the town squareto listen to the Torah scroll read to them by a rabbi. Yes, it wasbetter than being ignorant slaves, but it was a result far short ofthe medium’s real potential.Likewise, the invention of the printing press in theRenaissance led not to a society of writers but one of readers”

p. 13 “Computers and networks finally offer us the ability towrite. And we do write with them on our websites, blogs,and social networks. But the underlying capability of thecomputer era is actually programming—which almost none of us knows how to do.”

So far so good.  Now on education:

p. 15 “elementary school boards adopt “laptop” curriculums lessbecause they believe that they’ll teach better than because they fear their students will miss out on something if theydon’t.”

This sounds like the same argument Larry Cuban made before (see this post), that schools only get educational technology and software to be “hip” and “with the times.”


The book seems to not be based on any research-guided understanding of how people learn.  It’s very centered on a model of a disembodied brain controlling our behavior (see my previous post on embodied cognition), and he also seems to share Nicholas Carr’s assertion that technologies like Google are making us stupid:

“Our brains adapt to different situations.”  “The outsourcing of our memory to machines expands the amount of data to which we have access, but degrades our brain’s own ability to remember things.”

A recent article surveyed numerous scholars and the majority of them thought Nicholas Carr was wrong – Google and similar tools are helping make us smarter.

He also completely buys into the digital natives vs. digital immigrants idea (refuted by many), including the idea that the brains of digital natives are “wired” differently:

p.32 “A brain learning on computers ends up wired differently than a brain learning on textbooks.”

Rushkoff argues that technology is a part of us and an extension of us, and yet he somehow simultaneously argues that we shouldn’t stay connected with technology:

p. 37 “She is already violating the first command by maintaining an “always on” relationship to her devices and networks.“

Rushkoff keeps mentioning the Torah and religion over and over again, and the role of technologies/media in shaping religion (sort of an extreme version of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato and others’ ideas I guess (like most of these types of books & journalism, there are little to no citations).

He is also probably of the belief that online education is inherently inferior to face to face education (which is not the case, see these meta-analyses and other potential misconceptions about learning and technology):

pp.41-42 “But those back-and-forth exchanges are occurring at a distance. They are better than nothing—particularly for people in unique situations—but they are not a replacement for real interaction.”

Basically, I’ve seen this type of book so many times I can’t count.  It’s a book about some new X, from the perspective of some person who has never done X, doesn’t like X, or was born long before X.  X might be video games, it might be open education, it might be embodied cognition, distance learning, educational technology, open access research and scholarship, web 2.0, etc.

Posted in computers, edtech, education, learning sciences, programming, technology, theory

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