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A TCI Book Review

Being Digital

Nicholas Negroponte
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995

Nicholas Negroponte is the Director of the Media Lab at MIT, and thus uniquely qualified to comment on the new digital reality. This book, in part drawn from his column in Wired magazine, explores the consequences of living, as we do, in this digital age.

Negroponte makes the fundamental point that the economy is increasingly oriented towards moving bits around, not moving atoms around.

"A bit has no color, size or weight, and it can travel at the speed of light. It is the smallest atomic element in the DNA of information. It is in a state of being: on or off, true or false, up or down, black or white. For practical purposes we consider a bit to be a 1 or a 0. The meaning of the 1 or the 0 is a separate matter. In the early days of computing, a string of bits most commonly represented numerical information.

Try counting, but skip all the numbers that have anything other than a 1 and a 0 in them. You end up with the following: 1, 10, 11, 100, 101, 110, 111, etc. Those are the respective binary representations for the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc.

Bits have always been the underlying particle of digital computing, but over the past 25 years, we have greatly expanded our binary vocabulary to include much more than just numbers. We have been able to digitize more and more types of information, like audio and video, rendering them into a similar reduction of 1s and 0s." (p.14)

In this book Negroponte talks about some of the implications of living in the digital age. (Incidentally, he points out quite correctly that we have no choice but to deal with a digital lifestyle; the technology is so ubiquitous and so inevitable that all we can do is learn to live with it. Indeed, he is quite optimistic about the kind of future that a digital world will bring.)

Some of the topics and implications that he discusses are:

  • Myths about bandwidth: it is true that fiber optic cable has a nearly infinite bandwidth capability and is extremely inexpensive to produce, and that it will probably ultimately replace 'twisted pair' copper wires, Negroponte points out that the existing huge infrastructure of copper cable should not be dismissed - copper has a huge untapped bandwidth potential (on the order of hundreds of times the present utilization), and thus could be a very cost-effective delivery mechanism in the shorter- to medium-term.
  • The 'Negroponte switch': given the huge capacity of the 'terrestrial network' (i.e. cable) and the relative scarcity of 'ether spectrum' (i.e. radio), he sees that a switch will take place at some point in not-too-distant future - the airwaves (ether) will be reserved for communications where things are moving around (ships, cars, etc.) and the cable network will be attached to stationary receivers - this represents something of a shift in the current use and allocation of the 'airwaves'
  • Pricing systems: pricing strategies will become aligned to the use of the networks - rather than be charged time for use of a line, in future you will be charged on the basis of the size of the packages that you drop into the delivery system
  • The nature of broadcasting will change: already, we hear of 'narrowcasting', where much more specific programming is delivered to a very small and highly interested group (through a device that has merged the television with the computer) - in future, Negroponte sees that programming will be delivered to an audience of one or two, and that it will be the user/viewer who determines the content (thus in a sense the complete opposite of either broadcasting or 'narrowcasting')
  • Bits will not be 'medium specific': in the more distant future, bits will be broadcast without specific reference to the receiving medium - the medium, instead, will interpret the bits according to the user's preference (e.g. 'weather bits' could be interpreted as a map, a written report, a TV-type presentation, etc.)
  • 'Agent-based interfaces': will emerge as the dominant means by which computers and people talk to one another: "There will be specific points in space and time where bits get converted into atoms and the reverse. Whether that is the transmission of a liquid crystal or the reverberation of a speech generator, the interface will need size, shape, color, tone of voice, and all the other sensory paraphernalia." (p.102) - speech recognition, voice identification and 'personality' will all be potential features of this agent-based interface
  • Fax machines will soon become obsolete: as, increasingly, documents become digitized, they will be sent back and forth directly, without need of the intervening step of converting an image to bits and then back to an image again - the bits will stay bits
  • Television will be anything, anytime, anywhere: we will not be locked into network schedules in the future - anything that we want, we will be able to access (including a range of virtual reality experiences that are almost beyond the imagination at this point)

Throughout the book, Negroponte mentions a new class of individuals who are comfortable with the digital reality and understand how to manipulate it to enrich their lives. This class is the digerati:

"The Internet surfers are the crazy kids on the block. The digerati have moved beyond multimedia into something closer to a real life-style than an intellectual manifesto. Their nuptuals are in cyberspace. They call themselves bitniks and cybarians. Their social mobility covers the planet. Today, they are the Salon des Refuses, but their salon is not a cafe in Paris or an I.M. Pei building in Cambridge. Their salon is somewhere on the net. It is being digital." (p. 226)





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