The high cost of computers programming us

By Jeanette Friedman

Jeanette Friedman

ENGLEWOOD, New Jersey — About a week before I covered the Clinton Global Initiative in Manhattan, I read the galley proofs for Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff. Rushkoff has written lots of books about how our lives are affected by computers and marketing, corporations and the media, and he’s invented words we now use all the time. His new book focuses on how computers and smartphones have changed our lives and what we have to do to make those tools work for us, so that we aren’t used by them.

But in a more subtle way, it is also about weapons of mass distraction — if we are all distracted by all the things we are doing on our computers and phones, we will be too busy to notice how America has fallen by the wayside. We may not realize until it’s too late that we have turned ourselves into a nation of ignoramuses — and it is just one of the issues Rushkoff talks about, issues that were significantly related to issues addressed last week at the Clinton Global Initiative.

In Program or be Programmed, Rushkoff explains how computers work, how they force you to make narrow yes or no choices with no room for nuance; how they use your personal information and net history to ensnare you in a culture you think you know but don’t, and how computers change the way our brains work. He explains how we are all trained to use programs but not create them and asks how Americans will be able to maintain our role as a global leader if our kids don’t learn math and science. He also shows how computers can be used to change policy and make the world a better place.

The main point the author and people at CGI and elsewhere have been making lately is that the American educational system is not teaching our children how to write the programs that people use or they can use themselves. Instead we are becoming a nation of button pushers and game-players, not people who make those things for others to use. We are losing our scientists to other countries whose schools emphasize math and science and we are not creating our own. We are losing good teachers and not training our future teachers to use the technologies that are available to us. By the end of 2007, our students in math and science already trailed their peers in 23 countries. That’s scary.

In a sense, Rushkoff’s book prepared me for what I learned this year at CGI. Last year, what impressed me most was how former President Clinton had harnessed a huge amount of global power to do good in the world without having to kow-tow to the polls and obstructionists — it looked like personal diplomacy aced the political power of the kind used at the United Nations. This year I learned more about the nuts and bolts of the way people at CGI make things happen. Basically the battle for human rights, respect and peace starts with clean water, clean stoves, and educated women and children. Where the women go, men will follow if, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke pointed out, the men get “hammered” to live by the rule of law and are forced to respect other human beings.

These lessons do not just apply to developing countries, where people are thirsty for knowledge and people are eager to make things work. These lessons apply to our own country and my own Garden State of New Jersey, which, in the last year, has shown remarkable contempt for the women and children who are the bedrock of our future. We live in a country where 5 million jobs are going begging because we don’t have people qualified to fill them, and where other jobs, like picking harvests, are jobs we full-blooded Americans simply don’t want to do — but we won’t let in those from the outside who want to fill those jobs.

To top it off, we are losing our own people. Why are people leaving New Jersey in record numbers? Perhaps it’s because our education budget was slashed by a billion dollars and parents want to live in states with decent public schools. The “Race to the Top” fiasco cost the state an additional $400 million in education funds — because our own bureaucrats couldn’t figure out how to do the paperwork!

Perhaps people don’t want to live in a state where the governor vetoed $7.5 million dollars in family health care for the poor that cost programs that served poor women and children an additional $67.5 million in federal funding. True, some of the funded clinics offered abortions, but none of the state money could have been used for them. Most women visited these free clinics for cancer screenings, pre-natal healthcare and sound parenting advice — for an education about their bodies, their children and themselves. Now, by the time many of these women and children will get to hospital emergency rooms, it may be way too late to save them. And what we will have accomplished with these cuts will force the Federal government to spend even more money on health care — and the Republicans scream at the Democrats and the Democrats scream at the Republicans that it’s all their fault for giving away the store.

Just how much is a woman or child’s life worth to our vaunted elected officials? What is our future as a nation worth if our children grow up sick and stupid?

After attending CGI, it was clear that our state is doing the exact opposite of what needs to be done. You do have to wonder at a state which is handed $100 million for the schools in Newark by a young philanthropist — who is then treated like a pariah by the media. I was astonished that on the day Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced his gift, a reporter on NBC’s Today show snarkily noted that Zuckerberg was a New York suburbanite who never lived in Newark, so why should he care?

As Bill Clinton will tell you, that’s exactly the wrong attitude to take if you want to change things, to create some positive energy. We do need change. We need to care about New Jersey’s women and children. Unless, of course, we New Jerseyans want to be represented around the world by the likes of Snooki, the bimbos on Jerseylicious and the nasty Housewives of New Jersey. (Full disclosure — I lived in Franklin Lakes for 18 months and couldn’t wait to get out of there!)

Last week, Bill Clinton said a lot of things that the world needed to hear. He said things that President Barack Obama and every politician in the world needs to hear and implement. He and the people he gathered in New York last week carried many messages and lessons that are of value to the citizens of New Jersey and the global community. If you want to learn more, visit and pay close attention to the archived videos. They aren’t sound bites, and they aren’t short takes. They will make you think, and then, perhaps, you will do something positive in your neighborhood or school system that will make the world just a little bit better than it was before you got here.
Friedman is New York bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World.

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