Coping with the Code

Ugh. Tech stuff. Is that really necessary if you just want to communicate better?

Yup.

Why? Because, beyond your words, it’s the code behind your particular flavor of digital media — website, blog, Twitter feed, Facebook page, YouTube video, Flickr photo stash, whatever — that stands between you and your audience/customer/client. It’s the code that affects the appearance of your message, all the way from what it looks like on various screens to whether it actually shows up when and where it’s supposed to.

Sigh.

I feel your pain.

So does Douglas Rushkoff, long-time media theorist, author, op-ed contributor to The New York Times, radio commentator, and creator of the PBS “Frontline” documentaries Digital Nation, The Persuaders, and Merchants of Cool. All are worth watching. His latest book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, connects people and programming in a way that may be surprising. Rushkoff makes the case that if we don’t know how to run our machines (via programming languages), they will run us — or the small cadre of people who do know how to make the machines dance are the ones who also program the rest of us. Yikes.

Rushkoff’s chapter titles hint at the critical issues we face and over which we can exert some control, if we choose to learn the lingo:

  1. TIME: Do Not Be Always On
  2. PLACE: Live in Person
  3. CHOICE: You May Always Choose None of the Above
  4. COMPLEXITY: You Are Never Completely Right
  5. SCALE: One Size Does Not Fit All
  6. IDENTITY: Be Yourself
  7. SOCIAL: Do Not Sell Your Friends
  8. FACT: Tell the Truth
  9. OPENNESS: Share, Don’t Steal
  10. PURPOSE: Program or Be Programmed

By exploring how we got here and nudging us to think about what we’re doing on the digital frontier, Rushkoff gives us the perspective we need to make astute decisions in an ever-changing and media-saturated landscape. It’s a short book — you can read it in an airplane ride — but it’s one that will draw you back in, highlighting connections and flagging a-ha moments to review again and again as you consider how to cope with the code that underlies your interactions with various forms of the digital world. Immersing yourself in Rushkoff’s missive is time well spent.

And here’s a real-world case in point…. When Adobe slurped Macromedia’s Dreamweaver website authoring software into its Creative Suite (CS) products, the use of cascading style sheets (CSS) for website design became mandatory. You couldn’t even create a new page without first specifying the CSS. Aarrgghh. And not too many iterations later, you couldn’t open your old Dreamweaver files in the new version if they weren’t originally made with CSS inside. Double aarrgghh.

That’s when you have no option but to rebuild your entire website or start something new from scratch, obviously, with CSS baked in. So you have to learn enough about one or more programming languages to stay in the game and get your website back into Google’s good graces. Unless you’re ready to let your business disappear. What a choice. Suck it up and dig into the code.

You’ve probably seen this movie before. Me, too. After all, I’ve been using computers since the dark ages of the 1980s when you had to speak a programming language to get your PCjr (DOS) or Apple IIe (BASIC) to do anything. So the command-line interface, the value of adding a programming language to one’s repertoire, and the periodic leap that dispenses with software’s backward compatibility are nothing new. But it’s a pain every time it happens.

Be warned. Even if you want to farm out the heavy lifting, code-wise, you need to know enough about what’s going on under the hood, behind the scenes, inside the programming language, so you don’t get taken to the cleaners. Don’t let the tech bunnies grab all your coin just because you don’t know what’s really required to create the widget, flying whiz-bang, or cool app you want. Take a deep breath and learn what you need to know to be able to communicate better with the code monkeys.

Your new media literacy and language skills will pay off big-time, on screen and down at the bottom line.

©2011 Jill J. Jensen/Clarity from Chaos

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