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Review of Being Digital
by Nicholas Negroponte

Paul Cipywnyk


The future is bits, not atoms.

So says M.I.T. Media Lab visionary Nicholas Negroponte. After reading his book, Being Digital, I say the sooner the better!

What does this mean, bits, not atoms? Negroponte's main thesis is that while "world trade has traditionally consisted of exchanging atoms... the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable."

Eventually on-line computer networks will replace video tapes, CDs, books, newspapers, and magazines. "The information superhighway is about the global movement of weightless bits at the speed of light. As one industry after another looks at itself in the mirror and asks about its future in a digital world, that future is driven almost 100 percent by the ability of that company's product or services to be rendered in digital form."

Much of the book, as Negroponte readily admits, is based on his columns for Wired magazine. He also acknowledges that even with editorial assistance, the book is "one step away from bullets" (point form outline style). Being Digital is not a literary classic, but the form suits the material, and it is fast on its way to becoming a techno-future classic. Negroponte hops from idea to image to fact to criticism, leading the reader on a stimulating perambulation into the digital future. Composed of many short chapters with even briefer, to-the-point subsections, the book was made to read on Tokyo trains.

Negroponte is known as a multimedia guru, and a good chunk of the book is about the future of multimedia and television. He forecasts the demise of video stores and the concentrated power of major networks. He says:

Think about the consequences of a broadcast television show as data which includes a computer- readable description of itself. You could record based on content, not time of day or channel. Or, what about a single digital description that can generate a program in audio, video, or textual form at the receiver? And if moving these bits around is so effortless, what advantage would the large media companies have over you and me?

Negroponte visualizes a future in which television has been digitized and absorbed by computers. A future where computer interfaces are much more human, and digital personal agents constantly monitor the Net and handle our communication, entertainment and information needs. He calls for digital systems with open standards:

'Open systems' is a vital concept, one that exercises the entrepreneurial part of our economy and challenges both proprietary systems and broadly mandated monopolies.... In an open system we compete with our imagination, not with a lock and key....

The growth of personal computers is happening so rapidly that the future open-architecture television is the PC... there is no TV-set industry in the future. It is nothing more or less than a computer industry: displays filled with tons of memory and lots of processing power.

Televisions as computers? Yes. Consider this concept:

Instead of delivering a thousand television programs to everybody, it may be better to deliver one program to each person in one-thousandth of the real time. This will totally change how we think about broadcast media. The broadcast of most bits will have absolutely nothing to do with the rate at which we consume them as humans.

Sounds great, eh? Come home after work and tell your computer to download the highlights of your favorite teams in any sport from anywhere in the world, the local news from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, half an hour from CBC Radio's morning show, and Eric Clapton's latest MTV music video. The computer/TV/stereo logs on and downloads all these bits in a minute or two, and you sit back and enjoy your own personalized show.

Negroponte also has plenty to say about computers and the on- line world of the Internet. Some of the ideas I found most interesting dealt with the present state and future development of telecommunications (bandwidth); the computer/human interface; the future use of "agents" to pull out and sort information for us; and the Net, e-mail, and how it will change our work and play.

Telecom systems are of great interest to on-line computer mavens (and their pocketbooks). According to Negroponte, "...the entire economic model of pricing in telecommunications is about to fall apart. Today's tariffs are determined per minute, per mile, or per bit, all three of which are rapidly becoming bogus measures."

Try telling NTT! I'm spending more on so-called "local" phone charges than I am for Internet access. Yoo-hoo, NTT, listen to this:

We have to evolve a more intelligent scheme. It may not be time, distance, or bits as the controlling variable and basis for tariff. Maybe bandwidth should be free, and we buy movies, long-distance health monitoring, and documents because of their value, not the channel's.

Free bandwidth? I doubt if we'll ever get to that point, nice as it sounds.

Some of Negroponte's most interesting comments and ideas concern the interface between computers and humans. His main point is that "'Ease-of-use' has been such a compelling goal that we sometimes forget that many people don't want to use the machine at all. They want to get something done."

For all their so-called power, personal computers are dumb, and Negroponte says they don't have to be so. He compares the senselessness of computers to the relative awareness of other appliances that we take for granted:

Personal computers are less able to sense human presence than are modern toilets or outdoor floodlights that have simple motion sensors. Your inexpensive auto- focus camera has more intelligence about what is in front of it than any terminal or computer system...

We think today solely from the perspective of what would make it easier for a person to use a computer. It may be time to ask what will make it easier for computers to deal with humans... It is time to make computers see and hear.

Negroponte points out the obvious, that human beings weren't designed to communicate by typing or by dragging mice or pushing pens across tablets. Computers should be able to understand human ways of communicating. Using only a keyboard is incredibly limiting. Even the eventual refinement of speech recognition is not enough. Negroponte harps on redundancy - the use of many channels to communicate, including speech, gaze, gesture, etc. Redundancy is good, he says, and the more ways in which a computer can get input from us the better.

Negroponte uses an interesting metaphor, one that I'm sure most TPC members (as foreigners living in Japan) can relate to:

In a foreign land, one uses every means possible to transmit intentions and read all the signals to derive even minimal levels of understanding. Think of a computer as being in such a foreign land... ours.

Computers must be made more aware of human means of communication.

...interface is not just about the look and feel of a computer. It is about the creation of personality, the design of intelligence, and building machines that can recognize human expression....

The challenge for the next decade... is to make computers that know you, learn about your needs, and understand verbal and nonverbal languages....

The burden of interaction today has been placed totally on the shoulders of the human party.... This will change.

Some months ago, there was a lively debate on the TPC BBS about ease-of-use, manuals, etc. The camps were roughly divided into those who just wanted to get something done with their computers, and those who enjoyed tinkering. Even those who liked the nuts and bolts were getting tired of endless questions, and exhorted the technophobes to "read their friendly manuals." While perhaps the hackers may fear losing some income from explaining the mysteries of computers to the ignorant masses, in the long run I think both sides will be pleased to hear that:

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. It knows what you are doing, what you have just done, and can even guess at what you are about to do. Folding that awareness into a knowledge of its own operations is a small step for computer science....

What about e-mail, the Net and those personal agents? According to Being Digital, the Net will rule. "I am convinced that by the year 2005 Americans will spend more hours on the Internet (or whatever it is called) than watching network television." If so, how will we winnow the wheat from the chaff? Won't we drown (I'm already floundering) under ever- increasing deluges of information and entertainment, much of which we aren't interested in or don't need? Never fear, your personal agent will be there:

The idea is to build computer surrogates that possess a body of knowledge both about something (a process, a field of interest, a way of doing) and about you in relation to that something (your taste, your inclinations, your acquaintances).

These surrogates or agents will be constantly cruising the Net, finding things for us, and presenting them to us when we have the time or inclination to read them, listen to them, or watch them. Agents will take care of the drudge work of poring through the Net, or even the messages on the local BBS. In the near future computers and agents will increasingly focus information and entertainment for us:

In the post-information age, we often have an audience the size of one. Everything is made to order, and information is extremely personalized....

In being digital I am me, not a statistical subset.

This is all fine and dandy, but how will this affect us, and our work? This is where I really start to like Negroponte's future. "Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible." Yay! Anything to get me off those damn trains....

Today, writers and money managers find it practicable and far more appealing to be in the Caribbean or South Pacific while preparing their manuscripts or managing their funds. However in some countries, like Japan, it will take longer to move away from space and time dependence (my emphasis), because the native culture fights the trend.

Oops. Maybe I'm living and working in the wrong country. Negroponte brings up Japan a few times in the book, often to point out mistakes Japanese have made, or the difficulties Japanese may have in adjusting to the digital future:

E-mail is a life-style that impacts the way we work and think. One very specific result is that the rhythm of work and play changes....Some, especially in Europe and Japan, will say this is a disaster. They wish to leave their work at the office. I certainly don't begrudge people the right to distance themselves from their work. On the other hand, some of us like to be "wired" all the time. It is a simple trade-off. Personally, I'd rather answer e-mail on Sunday and be in my pajamas longer on Monday.

Count me into the working in pajamas crowd. In the digital future, I should be able to live on the beach, or mountain- top, and do my work. "Distance means less and less in the digital world. In fact, an Internet user is utterly oblivious to it...." Assuming that is, that my work can be done digitally. How soon will I be able to teach English using holographic VR over the Net?

This is the ideal (naive?) view of a future of doing what we want to do when and where we want to do it, including work. Negroponte points out that "we are constantly interrupted or forced into being punctual for things that truly do not merit such immediacy or promptness." The ringing telephone, the TV show that takes over your dinner, all will be more controllable in the digital future.

Digital proselytizer that he is, Negroponte realizes that the future will not be all fun and games and working from poolside:

The next decade will see cases of intellectual property abuse and invasion of our privacy. We will experience digital vandalism, software piracy, and data thievery. Worst of all, we will witness the loss of many jobs to wholly automated systems, which will soon change the white-collar workplace to the same degree that it has already transformed the factory floor.

But in the final analysis, he remains confident that the "bit" future will be better than the "atom" present. "...my optimism comes from the empowering nature of being digital. The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present."

Negroponte may be too glib at times, as when he rhapsodizes about the new society of the Net.

"The true value of a network is less about information and more about community. The information superhighway... is creating a totally new, global social fabric."

Yes, but, the Net itself is neutral, and can be used by humans not only for good, but also for evil. Witness the hate groups who are using the Net to spread their ideologies. Or spend a bit of time in some Usenet newsgroups. All is not love and peace and harmony on the Net. Like any society, the Net will reflect the humans who frequent it, with all our flaws and fears. But I hope that simply the access to greater amounts of information by increasing numbers of people, and the greater cross-cultural opportunities that the Net brings will help build that "new, global social fabric."

The bottom line is:

Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.

If you care about the way technology will influence your life, and the lives of everyone on this planet, read Being Digital. The fact that you are reading the Algorithmica Japonica in itself shows that you probably are concerned about computers and the future. A last quote:

Computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living.

Being Digital
Nicholas Negroponte
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995
ISBN 0-679-43919-6


© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

July, 1995

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor


Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN