John Thackara | Essays

From Easter Island to Three Mile Island

You don't need to know how a combustion engine works to drive your car to work. Why should you need to know anything about the programming behind the pixels just to get around the web?

For Douglas Rushkoff, in his new book Program or Be Programmed, the answer is that the web is different.

“It's both medium and content,” he writes; the real question is, “do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?” Choose the former, Rushkoff contends, and you “gain access to the control panel of civilization.”

I'm not so sure. Gaining access to the control panel of Three Mile Island would be a better comparison.

Rushkoff believes that we are moving into “an increasingly digital reality.” Therefore we must learn not just how to use programs, but how to make them.

But this progressive-sounding proposition is based on a dangerous assumption: that “digital reality” is all encompassing and is the only one on offer.


As Jarred Diamond explained in his book Collapse, one reason societies fail is that their elites are insulated from the negative impact of their own actions.

On Easter Island, the focus of Diamond's book, the overuse of wood products eventually destroyed its inhabitants' survival prospects. And they didn't even notice they were doing so until it was too late.

This lesson applies equally to us, today. We are bewitched, as a culture, by just one element of the world around us: its digital overlay. Thus bewitched, we waste astronomical amounts of energy and resources without even realizing it. Thus bewitched, we are destroying the biosphere upon which all life, including our own, depends.

Thinking digitally, Rushkoff suggests and we will be able to “see beyond social conventions and power structures that have vexed us for centuries.”

I believe the opposite to be the case. Think digitally and we will perceive only what the power structures want us to perceive.

Doug Rushkoff is a great writer, but he needs to get out of town more.

He needs to hug a tree.

Posted in: Media, Technology

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