why computers are important – now and in the future
Nicholas Negroponte is professor of the Media Lab at MIT and an enthusiastic spokesman for the revolution in information technology. He writes regular columns in WIRED, which have been expanded to form this manifesto for the future of digitisation. The fundamental thesis he expounds in Being Digital is simple but profound. He suggests that the revolutionary state we now inhabit is one in which the ‘bit’ is to be distinguished from the ‘atom’.
That is, information encoded and transmitted electronically in binary form needs no material existence, whereas its physical realisation in print, film stock, or VCR is earth-bound and cumbersome. The bit can be transmitted instantly, globally, and virtually cost-free, whereas its tangible version in atoms immediately requires physical production, distribution, and storage. The future, he claims, is digital.
In the course of a dozen and a half short chapters he covers just about every aspect of modern communications. Developments in data compression; the next stages in desktop publishing; how the television monitor and the PC will merge; ownership and intellectual property rights.
He is particularly interesting on multimedia, [whose origins he reveals in the Israeli attack on Entebbe airport!] CD- ROMs [described as “the Betamax of the 90s”] the historical development of GUIs, and the politics of those businesses which are busy buying up information for “repurposing”.
En passant he covers holography, teleconferencing, speech recognition, virtual reality, and howPCs will develop. There’s something here for everybody.
As far as Negroponte is concerned everything is bits. For with digitisation, any one medium becomes translatable into another. A book chapter is no different from a video clip once it has been transposed into binary code (except that it takes up less space). The future of PCs for writing he sees being affected by miniaturisation, touch-sensitive screens, and “intelligent agents” which will learn to interpret our demands. All this is delivered in a breathless telegraphic style (which I suppose befits his subject) and he is deliberately provocative and cryptic in a manner which suggests that many of his ideas could be developed further.
It’s easy to spot the contradiction that this electronic vision comes to us in a form which he wittily describes as “ink squeezed onto dead trees”. In fact the book is produced on paper of such poor quality that you can read the print on both sides at once. [It’s not clear if this is a high-tech device or an ironic comment from the publishers.] In addition, for someone extolling the transmission of data in milliseconds, Negroponte does a lot of travellers name-dropping. One wonders why he has to go traipsing round the globe so much when he could do business using Email. But he has tips for travellers: boycott those hotels which don’t let you plug your laptop straight into the wall.
The persuasiveness of what he has to say arises from his own first-hand experience. As someone who has been in the business of computers and multimedia since the 1960s [whilst Bill Gates was still at school] he is well informed about the history of its technology, frank in revealing the true ownership behind corporate names, and generous in attributing credit for the technical advances we all now take for granted. However, if you can steel yourself against his breathless rush, one or two of the arguments can be made to tremble a little with some applied clear thinking.
He supposes for instance that writers would earn more if their work were distributed digitally (smaller profits, bigger sales). But would you want to download then print off a 500 page book to avoid the publisher’s price-tag? (This is already possible from databases such as Project Gutenberg.) Why have your edition of Moby Dick on 600 loose sheets of A4 when Penguin will supply a bound copy for less than the price of a gin-and-tonic? Nevertheless, this is just one small idea amongst many that he throws off in a series of elegantly catenated chapters.
Others ideas might be more disturbing for those professionally engaged in existing forms of communication – but they make sense when measured against common experience. This is what he has to say about manuals for instance. “The notion of an instruction manual is obsolete. The fact that computer hardware and software manufacturers ship them with product is nothing short of perverse. The best instructor on how to use a machine is the machine itself.” This is bad news for technical writers, but do you really refer to that 900 page manual any more? Of course not: you just click on HELP.
This is a stimulating and thought-provoking book, and unless Negroponte has it all wrong (which seems doubtful) it will provide ideas for the rest of us to work with for many years to come. Anyone who wants a glimpse into the future should start here.
© Roy Johnson 2001
Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, London: Coronet, 1996, pp.249, ISBN 0340649305