Are you for sale and don’t know it? Is there a little price tag pinned to the back of your head where you can’t see it? Or maybe a bar code tattooed in some nether region that you haven’t noticed? If you are at all digitally social, the answer is yes.
That’s the conclusion Douglas Rushkoff has come to based on his research into and knowledge about how the social web and the commercial entities behind it operate. Rushkoff is the author of Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. In his book he makes the case that the most significant “boom” of the digital age is not that the web has become such a powerful marketplace for selling goods, but that it has become a remarkably powerful system for selling people. Selling products is what manufacturers and marketers do and have always done. But in recent years, thanks to social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn, the makers of goods and services have learned to monetize social interaction. Basic human relationships have been commoditized. Simply put, Facebook is delivering the goods and the goods is us.
“…Facebook’s job is to sell our social graphs to companies, and to get us experiencing ourselves in terms of our social graphs, then we are much more susceptible to changing the way we think of ourselves and our relationships. We are more likely to use our Facebook profile as a mirror, chalking up its deficiencies to the technology itself. We don’t consider that the ways in which Facebook screws with the way we see ourselves is its function, rather than some random artifact of social networking.”
Rushkoff does not detect any insidious conspiracy to hijack and manipulate our social lives. The product purveyors and marketers who serve them are only behaving in accord with their species. The red flag he raises has to do with the unwitting participation of users who, in a sense, cede their social lives and those of their friends to the companies in a contract they don’t fully, or even slightly, understand. Our lack of awareness cripples our ability to make informed decisions about how we participate in the dance of the digital marketplace.
Rushkoff sees the need to develop another digital literacy to add to our Literacy 2.0 survival kit. He calls it “programming literacy”. Though it sounds a bit geeky, programming literacy refers to our ability to discern the nature of the program/service we are using and when and how it is using us. Programming literacy is just one more of the skills necessary to help us “use the right technologies for the right job”.
He advocates program wisdom:
“If people can’t learn programming, I just want them to know what it is. That it exists. I want people to be able to read the programs and online environments in which they spend so much time. I want people to be able to ask themselves, “What does this website want me to do? Who owns it? What is it for?” [It’s] really simple stuff like that, which doesn’t occur to people if they think of the net as a natural space. It’s not. It is a created space.”
Rushkoff is not optimistic about the potential for most people to acquire programming literacy. He thinks it will take a generation at least. Or, may never happen. Instead, he calls upon the technologists to take the high road, to design systems that have humanity at the code level, so to speak.
“Rather than getting people to use the web responsibly and intelligently, it may be easier to build networks that treat the humans more responsibly and intelligently. Those of us who do build stuff, those of us who are responsible for how these technologies are deployed, we have the opportunity and obligation to build technologies that are intrinsically liberating — programs that reveal their intentions, and that submit to the intentions of their users.”
Now it’s my turn to be the pessimist. As difficult as it might be to usher in a Literacy 2.0 era in which the users of technology are aware and able to make sound decisions about being digital, that is far more likely to happen than for the manufacturers and marketers to change their spots. It is not a condemnation, only an observation, to say that they, the sellers, will always see media–television, radio, newspapers, websites, social networks, etc.–as a means to the sale. If users are what vendors are buying, that’s what marketers are going to sell them.
People can learn to use technology carefully and wisely. It works with guns and automobiles, most of the time. It is entirely possible without being a programmer by profession, to learn how the commercial side of social media works and how to manage it safely, sanely and in one’s own best interest. As with a gun or a car, we need to recognize the damage these things can do when handled improperly and apply that knowledge when we are using them. We don’t have to be a mechanic or gunsmith.
I have a chore for the technologists, one that shouldn’t be too difficult–or maybe it isn’t difficult enough. I would ask that they use their skills to lift the veil on the machinations of the social media marketing machine so we can see inside. I’d like to see something like those graphical displays in hybrid vehicles that show you how the gas engine and electric motor are working together. I’d like to be able to know when Facebook, or LinkedIn, or Farmville, is sapping my power and draining my batteries and when they are giving me a recharge.
If we all had that, it would change the way we drive our online social lives.