Breaking the tyranny of technology

by Nigel Hollis | February 17, 2011

Douglas Rushkoff launched a new book last year entitled, “Program or Be Programmed.” His basic premise is that we need to get a grip on ourselves and break the tyranny of technology.

“What tyranny?” You ask, simultaneously glancing at the envelope icon on your toolbar. Yes, that tyranny. The tyranny imposed by the Apple, RIM or Microsoft interface. The tyranny imposed by our iPad, BlackBerry or Dell hardware. Come on, you know it’s true…if only multitasking left you time to think about it. I just proved my own point.

Here I am a few minutes into writing a blog post, and I cannot resist a quick look at Outlook, Gmail and Facebook to make sure nothing new is going on. Now I have lost my train of thought. Ah the joys of multitasking.

As Rushkoff states in this interview on NPR’s On Point, we all believe we can multitask in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

OK, having focused on this post for a couple of minutes, I am now back on track. I want you to listen to this interview because there are so many points made in it that are relevant to our jobs as marketers and market researchers.

No, not listen and read your e-mail or IM, I mean give it your undivided attention. Here are three points I thought worth calling out:

  1. “Getting information is fine but it is not an end result.” OK, read that again and this time focus on what it means. Rushkoff is commenting on the value of Google. He suggests it is a great source of information but that the information you can glean from it is a beginning not an end. In that sense, information gathered from Google is just like information gathered from a market research study. It is a commodity unless you add value to it, or create something new from it.

  2. The (insert technology of your choice here, e.g. BlackBerry, iPhone or iPad) is a one arm bandit. There is a horrid fascination with the (technology of your choice). Somehow what happens on that little screen draws our attention away from what’s going on around us. So put down that (technology of your choice) and step away from it. Remind yourself what your spouse and kids look like. For that matter maybe you should do that with your colleagues, clients and business partners.

  3. Think critically. I am not sure I agree with Rushkoff that we need to learn to program to break the tyranny of technology, but I absolutely agree that we need to stop taking things at face value. Facebook is for finding friends? No it is for monetizing your friends. Can’t play Flash on your iPhone? There is a reason for that too.

And, of course, the same is true of market research data. You cannot take it at face value or if you do, you risk making some very bad recommendations. To read a previous post on this, click here.

These are just three of the points I took away from the interview but there are many more. Even if you do not have time to listen to the interview (What are you going to do instead? Check your e-mail?) do check out Rushkoff’s 10 commands for breaking the tyranny of technology. I love number five, “Thou shalt never be completely right.”

OK, that was fun. You are now free to check e-mail and status updates…or perhaps you could leave a comment here?


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  1. Hue Won, February 22, 2011
    I guess the whole point is not to get ourselves enslaved to technology, being controlled by it so much that we'd feel insecure or have withdrawal symptoms without them. As long as the nature of the job does not involve fatal outcome (like doctors), anything urgent enough would eventually reaches us.
    I think I'm pretty much alright with the idea of slightly "being programmed" since it provides efficiency, push content can be easily ignored by just adjusting our expectations and relax. Cheers.
  2. Nigel, February 20, 2011
    Hi Dario, yes, many of these devices make our lives easier and we might feel lost without them. But that does not mean we should accept them without question. Many things we assume are "normal" turn out not to be, e.g. bottled water is not demonstrably safer than tap water in the U.S. but many people assume it is, or taking two hours to drive to work and back is assumed to be normal in spite of the waste of time and resource involved. I think the essential point is that once we realize what is going on we can make deliberate choices about whether it works for us or not. I continue to use Facebook, a Blackberry and an iPad but I try to make sure I do not get hooked on them. Sometimes I just choose to ignore them and appreciate what else is going on around me. Heck, I have even been known to smile at people for no good reason. Crazy or what?! 
  3. Dario, February 20, 2011

    Great article. Thanks for that!! When I first read your post, saw the video and read Rushkoff's interview (while checking my inbox, of course :) - I couldn't help but being kind of fascinated by the idea of programming everything around me, instead of "being programmed". And, no doubt about that, it will be possible one day.

    But I would like to raise the question, whether that is something people really want? Doesn't it facilitate their lifes, despite being monetized? Hell yes, I'd like to get flash on this damn Iphone and don't want a company to sell my personal information to others (facebook). Although some of these issues are known to many, they continue using the same product or service...As long as we can attach a meaning/rationale to it (and consumers are good at that ) or as long as it contributes to our lives.

    After all, however, we all became slaves already by the tools we are using as they are accepted and acknowledged by everyone around. Or does somebody want to say WE HAVE ALL BEEN WRONG :) ?

    (By the way, I don't use facebook anymore since I got so many invitations for stupid games and networking groups -BUT I keep my account... - After friends I made around the globe are all enslaved there and I can only communicate with all of them, if I accept to be enslaved as well...That's the price we must pay...)

  4. Nigel, February 18, 2011
    People might think that someone who smiles at them is insane? But how will we make new friendships and relationships if we don't smile at people...oh yes, I remember, we meet them online!
  5. Suzanne, February 18, 2011
    It started, I think, with iPods keeping us from "looking bored" to others. It's one thing to sit at a Starbucks alone, pretending to wait for a friend, but once you had an iPod to furrow your brow at --the game changed. Now we furrow our brows at Blackberrys (-ies?), iPhone/Pod/Pads, smartphones. It's to remind ourselves just how important we really are (and remind the others around us as well). The tyranny of technology is not limited to the corporate set, for I know plenty of stay-at-home mommies who are also *so important* that they need to check e-mail while at the playground; I guess the Old Navy coupons can't wait. For the record, I have none of the above.
  6. Joanna, February 18, 2011
    Wait! If he smiles at someone (without a reason) - he may be seen as ..insane? Maybe today all of people who CAN perceive "being programmed" are seen as insane by people who don't want to think about it?

    thank you 4tips:)
  7. Nigel, February 18, 2011
    Hi Joanna, yes, it is scary to think about, isn't it? Sometimes it feels safer not to know all the complexities and issues that exist in the world we have created. I am not sure we need to learn to program but I do think we need to learn to recognize when we are being programmed. My basic principle is that if I feel I have "got to" do something then I should take a moment to figure out what drives that impulse.
    Irresistable urge to check your Blackberry? What is really going on?
    Is it worry about missing out? Missing out on what? And does it really matter to you?
    Is it boredom? What else might you do? What might be more fun?
    Chris, now put the Blackberry down and smile at someone. It will make you both happier.
  8. Chris, February 18, 2011
    Wait, I read your blog post on my Blackberry.  What now?
  9. Joanna, February 17, 2011
    It's so bizzare...
    I live in Europe and I can read/watch it - so am I being programmed? I get this information from FCB/ I agree with everything you wrote, but still I feel scared? that so few people think about it.

    How can we programme? how can we not being programmed -so many information around us - we don't have enough time to think about HOW something works (eg Google - and its algorithms, FCB and other).
    I read one a great book - the paradox of choice in which the author reccomended a few simple rules how to be happy in a world with so many choice. did you do sth like that - do you have a few simple tips for 'normal people'?

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