Command for Librarians in a Digital Age

The indie publication of Program or Be Programmed meant no reviews in the traditional publishing press journals (Kirkus, PW) but Library Journal has become a real friend to the book and its ideas. Here’s an interview they just did with me about how librarians should adapt to the needs of digital readers, and non-readers.

Q&A with Douglas Rushkoff, Media Theorist and Author of Program or Be Programmed
Interview by Josh Hadro and Barbara Genco Feb 23, 2011

Ever feel like you’re a dandelion tuft on the Internet winds, floating in and out of Facebook and Twitter feeds to wherever those links might take you? Not to worry, just chalk up those hours on handhelds and laptops as time well spent—we’re current, we’re engaged, and we’re savvy to the ways of life on the web. But savvy this: what if we’re completely oblivious to the way the digital environment is actually shaping us as we attempt to take it all in?

That’s what worries media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff, the thought that we’re being caught unawares by software of our own design, that we may end up abdicating our agency as the reins on everyday technology slip from our grasp.

If this all sounds a bit dire, it is—in his new book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, Rushkoff says the stakes are as high as they come: “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.”

So, how to stake a claim for individuality and expression against the digital crush of homogeneity? And how do libraries figure into humanity’s stand? LJ recently caught up with Rushkoff and asked.

LJ: You wrote, “every Google Search is-at least for most of us-a Hail Mary pass into the datasphere, requesting something from an opaque black box.” Much of what you describe in the book is a part of what librarians have been discussing in terms of information literacy for years. But the amount of library instruction most people receive in school and college pales in comparison to the conditioning they’re subject to in the rest of Internet culture. How do you break others out of the search box mold, so to speak?

Douglas Rushkoff: Well, I think it’s almost always pointless to try to “break out” where technology and behavior are concerned. Better to push through. My strategy would be to teach more about the search they’re actually doing. How does Boolean search work, how does Google’s algorithm work, and how is this kind of data mining biased? What sorts of results are possible, and what sorts are not? What is being hidden from view? What would be lost if everyone in the world could only find things out this way?

Those kinds of questions put the search box in the role of the authority, rather than the librarian or the teacher. You have to remember that the kids you’re working with now have been raised in a world with these technologies as given circumstances. They are more than primed to play the revolutionary. Be on their side in challenging the all-high-authority of search results.

LJ: And what’s the librarian’s role in that education, given the limited amount of contact they have with the public (not to mention that it’s also self-selected contact)?

DR: Tricky, especially when so many libraries are themselves being threatened with replacement by databases. The librarian has to remember that the stacks are both a real reference system and a metaphor for a way of organizing human thought. The first function is practical, while the second is theoretical, even spiritual. If I were a librarian and had any time at all with students, I’d be less concerned with teaching them the intricacies of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature (is that still around?) than offering them an immersive library experience. They need to be grounded in a single experience of wonder, enabled by the ability to make connections in physical space between resources.

So I’d give them an assignment like finding a single resource in any way they choose-computer search, Google, whatever. Something they really want to see or know about. And when they go to the shelf to get that thing, they have to look at everything else on that shelf and the one either above or below it. Just look at what’s there.

Nine out of ten of those kids will end up finding something else they really want to read, that they didn’t even know existed.

And when they come back, have a conversation about what was next to the book they wanted. Stuff they thought belonged there, or not? Was there any logic to what was next to the book? Whose logic was it?

LJ: What prompted these “ten commands”? Is there one “command” in particular that librarians might begin with?

DR: What prompted them was the realization that we are undergoing a shift as profound as the shift from oral to the literate society. Digital media are that different, and biased just as deeply. Just as the shift in the Axial age required us to contend with law, monotheism, ethics, accountability, and so on, the shift in the digital age will require us to contend with new sorts of collaboration, socialization, permanence, loss of privacy, change in our notions of individuality, and so on. The people of the Axial shift got Ten Commandments to help them contend with a world bound by written rules-laws. So I thought we all deserved ten commands to help us gain command over a world bound by programs.

As for where to start, I put them in order. Time seemed like the initial command to learn to use. But if there’s a single most important concept to get, it’s command #10, Program or Be Programmed. Just as the invention of language meant learning to speak as well as listen, and the invention of text meant learning to write as well as read, the invention of programming really does require some facility with programs if we want to maintain a modicum of agency in the new terrain.

We have to be able to look at a program or website and know what it does. Who made it? Who is the customer? Who does it serve? How does it work? If we don’t know what the programs we use are for, we can’t expect to know whether we are using them or they are using us.

LJ: Can you envision a future in which people have taken up the call to be less passive, and are more intentional in their relationships with technology? What does that look like? How does the library fit into that future?

DR: Well, it’s the same as a future in which humanity take up the call to be less passive and more intentional in their relationships with reality. Dewey foresaw a society in which people would be able to participate actively in democracy and other social institutions. Lippman thought that was a pipe dream. The jury is still out.

Egyptians decided to become more active. Others decide to become more passive.

Librarians can help people to understand what they’re choosing, and that it’s a choice. It might be that we live in a civilization that chooses to stay passive-but we can at least help people understand that this is a choice, too. We are actively choosing to stay passive. I think librarians can also create an atmosphere of reassurance that permits people to experiment more. If we know you’re there collecting the results of what happens, holding down the fort, preventing the sum total of human knowledge from being lost, then the rest of us can venture out onto new territory without fear of not being able to find our way back.

That’s really more the librarians’ role in society than in an individual’s life, but it is just as important. You provide the foundation, the memory, the map home.

LJ: Where do ebooks fit as part of the conditioning idea of software you explore in your book? Are we confusing the container for the content?

DR: Containers do change. Scrolls bec
ame books, and now books are becoming ebooks. What ebooks do is force us to reconsider the length constrictions of printing-press era bound volumes. Did they end up this length for any reason other than form factor?

Ebooks aren’t primarily software, they are content. Where the idea of media biases comes in is more in the selection of device and interface. What is the real difference, if any, between reading on a Nook, a Kindle, or an iPad? How do the various buying options and online stores influence what we read and the way we do it? Do the shortened selections being made available for little bits of money have anything to do with the way we really want to engage with content? Or is the entirety of literature about to conform to the latest model of publishing business plan put out by media conglomerates looking for a growth industry? All in a decade?

LJ: Are you an ebook reader yourself? Do you borrow ebooks from the library? If so, where do you hold a library card?

DR: I haven’t done the ebook thing yet. I have too many regular books to read. The closest I get is when people send galleys as PDFs which I have to read on the computer. I am still not convinced the ereaders are good for the environment, and I won’t be until I see people buy one and keep it for a while before getting the next one.

I have a few library cards. I teach every couple of years in order to keep one from NYU or New School. I have a local one, too, but I haven’t achieved the same level of database access with it as I can get through NYU. And I’m not sure how far beyond our own county system I can go with interlibrary loan.

But I’m not a typical library user. I am writing non-fiction books and need weird stuff that nobody has looked at in a long time. I end up traveling to libraries, sometime.

My daughter is into our library, and has been making inter-library requests since she was four. She loves it when the librarian actually has a book waiting behind the counter with her name on it, that people procured for her. Even if it’s just the Sound of Music companion.

LJ: As an observer of digital publishing and an author yourself, what’s your take on the current state of affairs between libraries and publishers around ebook publishing? Is there a danger to libraries from this retail focus on direct-to-consumer ebook distribution and sales?

DR: I think you guys will be fine, especially if publishers go for these ebook borrowing services I’ve seen popping up. I want more libraries to buy my Program or Be Programmed book, but it was published by an independent (ORbooks) and most don’t know how to even purchase it. It’s possible that some of the ebook networks will make it available, though, through one of those systems where one person at a time is allowed to borrow and access the book in the library’s system.

I think that’s all good, and public libraries have to serve their primary public purpose-which is to make reading material available to the public for free. Once all this e-stuff is taken care of and a standard e-borrowing solution emerges, you can go back to the more fun work of maintaining a collection and building a community around high-touch reading experiences.