WebVisions Keynote: Douglas Rushkoff

PORTLAND—Whatever Brad Smith of WebVisions had to do to bring Douglas Rushkoff to Portland to speak, it was worth it. Few speakers bring this kind of passion and clarity to their talks. Even fewer are willing to grapple with real societal issues and call bullshit when and where it is needed.

Rushkoff doesn’t have a slide show at the ready, he has notes at the lectern, but he doesn’t need them. He wrote the book. Literally. And at 152 pages Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands For A Digital Age is a little book that packs a big punch.

Rushkoff writes in his first chapter: “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.”

“You are our last, best hope for peace,” is the first thing Rushkoff says after accepting a warm Portland greeting. He then starts talking about how at the birth of the hypertext era the only people who understood the potential of the new technology were kids and stoners. “People comfortable with visions,” he says. At this point the crowd gathered in the Oregon Convention Center knows something’s up–this isn’t how normal people talk.

“We have a technology that can rewrite the world, and what do we do with it? We serve the interests of corporate capitalism.” The gloves are off now, and the people in the audience who work for Microsoft and Intel (and many other corporations) have something to think about.

Rushkoff wants us all to learn basic programming. He likens it to being a driver in a car, versus being a passenger. He says we don’t have to become a mechanic, but if we want to command the experience instead of being commanded, we need basic literacy in programming.

“Understand the inherent biases in technology,” he says.

When speaking about the bias toward complexity, he says access to the tools has convinced people they’re qualified to use them. “Not everyone should blog. You may have an opinion, but that doesn’t mean it’s an informed opinion.” He has my full attention now.

“People are looking at the tools for amateur production, and think that because they exist, there is no value to professional production. Why should we pay for a journalist? Because corporations are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to convince you of stuff that isn’t true. Can’t we spend a hundred bucks to have some guy spend more than an hour writing a blog post trying to figure out what really is true?”

When speaking about technology’s bias toward social, Rushkoff argues that content was never king. “Contact is king!” In other words, it’s not the information, but the communication that’s driving the digital revolution.

For more notes from Rushkoff’s talk, see William Hertling’s Blog. Rushkoff also spoke to Read Write Web before his talk today. The man has a lot to say and his message inspiring and spot on.



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.