You’d always thought of computers as being the most practical, out-of-the-ordinary, user-friendly, wonder tools, be it any field — the arts, the sciences, engineering, medicine, or think of what you may — for too long. Right? You may be wrong. Because, computing is not about computers, any more. It’s about living. This isn’t all. Computers have transformed our technology and moved out of the giant, mainframe article of faith — from desktops on to our laps, hands and beyond. In the next few years, “The digital planet,” as author Nicholas Negroponte puts it in Being Digital [Vintage Books], a bestseller, published exactly twenty years ago, and translated into 40 languages, “will look and feel like the head of a pin.” That Negroponte saw the dramatic evolution of computers that we see today, over forty years ago, at his lab, is scientific eventuality, no more, no less.
Negroponte was a specialist in Media Technology, and founder of MIT’s Media Laboratory, US, when he first wrote his seminal work. The work gave him a new sobriquet — the Thomas Jefferson of the digital revolution. Yet, and interestingly too, he preferred to write an old fashioned book on printed pages, instead of bytes, for decoding the fascinating world of computers, bandwidth, multimedia, virtual reality, the Internet, and so on. For three reasons. As he himself observed, “First, there was just not enough digital media [then], [and] where computers are omnipresent, the current interface was archaic — hardly something with which you might wish to curl up in bed.” The second reason was his monthly column in Wired magazine, through which he received thoughtful feedback and also inspiration. And, the third? “Interactive multimedia leaves little to the imagination. By contrast, the written word sparks images and evokes metaphors that get much of their meaning from the reader’s imagination and experiences.” In his words again, “When you read a novel, much of the colour, sound, and motion come to you. I think the same kind of personal extension is needed to feel and understand what being digital might mean to your life.”
Negroponte amusingly debunked the frenzied hard-sell and the tizzy build-up surrounding our digital perestroika too. Nevertheless, his best-selling book forecast the advent of new technologies that would make your telephone respond to incoming calls like a well-trained English butler; or, replace TV broadcasters with intelligent ‘broadcatchers’ that assemble and deliver only the programming you want. Like your personalised newspaper. Wrote Negroponte, the billion-dollar byte-man: “Imagine a future in which your interface agent can read every newswire and newspaper, and catch every TV and radio broadcast on the planet, and then construct a personal summary… In the distant future, interface agents will read, listen to, and look at each story in its entirety too… In the near future, the filtering process will happen by using headers, those bytes about bytes.” What’s more, Negroponte reckoned that being digital “is all about being in terms of [our] laws, education, politics, and amusement — in short, for the way we live.” Schools, he said, would change too to become more like museums and playgrounds for children — to assemble ideas and socialise with other children across the world.
“Multimedia today,” as he explained, “is a desktop, laptop, or living room experience, because the apparatus is chunky.” “This,” he articulated, “will change dramatically with small, bright, thin, flexible high-resolution displays. Multimedia will become more book-like, something with which you can curl up in bed and either have a conversation, or be told a story… [Also] multimedia will someday be as subtle and rich as the feel of paper and the smell of leather.” This too is waiting to happen and also happening — in its sum and substance.
Negroponte was obviously excited with the amazing possibilities of Artificial Intelligence [AI] and fibre optics. And, why not? Yet, he lamented the fact that many people are still uncomfortable with the idea that machines will be intelligent. All the same, Negroponte did not miss the wood for the trees. He conceded that every technology, or gift of science, has a dark side, and being digital was no exception. “The next decade,” as he put it in his work, “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.” This is happening, practically every day — as we all know.
On the positive side, Negroponte observed, that as the business world globalises and the Internet grows, one would realise the dream of a seamless digital workplace. He added that bytes will be borderless, stored, and ‘manipulated’ with just no respect whatsoever for geopolitical boundaries. “Jobs, and getting them, would be difficult, all right; but, not for someone who has digital resilience… [And] as computer-controlled systems become more complex and thoroughly entwined in the fabric of our lives, their potential for costly, life-threatening failures keep growing.” Is this the price we have to pay for progress? Well, yes, you know it — don’t you?
Negroponte, now 72, is a man of many parts. He is founder and chairman of the One Laptop Per Child, a non-profit organisation. He is presently on ‘leave’ from MIT, where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory and Jerome B Wiesner Professor of Media Technology. The Media Laboratory, which was first conceived in 1980, opened its doors in 1985. A graduate of MIT, Negroponte is also a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design [CAD] and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. In the private sector, Negroponte serves on the board of directors for Motorola, Inc., and as general partner in a venture capital firm specialising in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Wired magazine. Negroponte is a pragmatic realist, no less. Not for him just the rosy side. Bytes, as he underlined in his book, are not edible; they cannot stop hunger. They are also not moral; and, they cannot resolve complex issues like the right to life and death. However this maybe, being digital, he argues, does give much cause for pragmatic optimism.
To sum up. The digital age, a force of nature, as Negroponte deftly notes, along with sublime panache, cannot be denied or stopped in its tracks. More so, because, it has four vital qualities that will have a say in its ultimate victory: centralising, globalising, harmonising, and, finally, empowering. Yes, there is more to Being Digital — a perennial best-seller — than Negroponte’s perceptively knowledgeable, challenging and entertaining insights, or whatever, that has been touched upon in this ‘recap’ of his work. The best part — when you read Being Digital today, twenty years after it was first published, you will sure get a fresh ‘feel’ of our new-fangled world towards which we are racing with purpose, diligence, and utmost excitement.