Review of Being Digital
by Nicholas Negroponte
The future is bits, not atoms.
M.I.T. Media Lab
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
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
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
half an hour from
CBC Radio's morning show,
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
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
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
members (as foreigners living in Japan) can relate
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
...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
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
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
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
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995
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