Digital world

Nicholas Negroponte is one of the chief architects of the emerging information landscape. As founder and director of the MIT Media Lab, and as back-page columnist for the ultra-trendy cyberspace magazine Wired, which he helped start, Negroponte has played a crucial role both in shaping the digital world that's coming into view and in explaining what it means.

This world, Negroponte says, will be populated by "digital butlers" that will round up information of interest to you, handle your travel itinerary, and even make sure your coffeepot doesn't automatically start brewing at 6 a.m. if you oversleep. Hybrid television/computers will download movies, newspapers, and magazines over unimaginably fast fiber-optic networks. Computerized devices from wristwatches to automobiles will respond to simple voice commands. "Computing," he writes, "is not about computers anymore. It is about living."

Now Negroponte, who's dyslexic and says he doesn't like to read, has made an uncharacteristically retro move: he's written a book, Being Digital (Knopf, 243 pages, $23), a collection and expansion of the pieces he's written for Wired over the past two years.

The essence of Being Digital is his argument that it is far more efficient to move bits - the ones and zeros into which every piece of text, graphics, video, or sound can be converted - than atoms. But he acknowledges that it's still necessary to embrace the old media to reach people who are interested in the future but who aren't yet taking part in it. Negroponte was trained as an architect. "It taught me how to ask questions and how to think in a very tactile, sensory-rich manner," he says. "At 16 I was determined to be a sculptor, but I happened to get an 800 in my math SAT. So I went to architecture school to find the place where art and math met. By 1965 I learned it was elsewhere, and ever since it has been, for me, in computing."

There's a random quality to Being Digital, and Negroponte is better at details than he is at the big picture. But what makes Being Digital both useful and entertaining is its unifying principle: his passionate belief that being digital is ultimately not just more efficient, but liberating, democratizing, empowering, since information can no longer be restricted and ladled out by an elite. Even his exposition on why e-mail is superior to the fax is informed by this view, turning a potentially mundane essay into a manifesto in miniature.

If you don't have time to read the book, you might want to check out the audio version. It will be read by Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller, who was a Wired cover boy last year. "They have both been involved with the Media Lab for some time," Negroponte says. "I have come to know them better over the past two years. In fact, they both have 'visiting scholar' appointments at MIT through the Media Lab.

"I have not heard the audio version of my book," he says. "I did read the rewritten manuscript, and was greatly impressed by the work of whoever converted what I wrote into something to be read. I thought it was better than the book. There was not enough foul language for Penn. I hope he added some."

Negroponte, 51, lives on Beacon Hill. This interview was conducted by e-mail; he answered questions on his laptop during a recent flight. In Negroponte-speak, our exchange was "asynchronous" - that is, our communications took place at different times, and were not dependent on the other person's availability at that moment. A "synchronous" communication, by contrast, would consist of a phone call or a face-to-face meeting - more satisfying, perhaps, but also more difficult to arrange.

Q: You write about the importance of a human touch in communication: gestures, eye contact, tone of voice. Yet here we are interacting with - as you would put it - each other's bits rather than our atoms. What is lost? Will we get some of that human contact back in, say, 10 years?

A: The irony is easily explained. I am able to put much effort into this interview because we are doing it off-line, not in real time. If we had to set up a time to meet, it probably would not happen. Thus the real power is that of being able to time-shift. We happily or not-so-happily forgo an interface richness just to get the bits back and forth. Would it help for you to see my expressions while I typed? Probably not much.

Most people want more-synchronous communications, especially for interviews. That is what you are missing. But even though an e-mail interview 10 years from now might include video, I don't believe that will be used too much. Even today, answering machines are only used for short messages. And talking into a blank camera is not easy.

Q: You envision a world in which newspapers, television, radio, and other forms of communication will be tailored to our interests. At one point you even write about a dial you could turn that would customize political news depending on whether we're on the left, the right, or somewhere in between. What happens to the concept of shared experience? What will the effect be on the culture?

A: I see no fundamental conflict between personalized information and shared experiences. In fact, it is somewhat odd that this question is asked so repeatedly.

I already get very personalized news from human agents. In fact, one summer a secretary spent a few hours per day making a personalized newspaper for me, which was then faxed to a Greek island, where I was. It was terrific. It included a mix of headline news, remarks from my mother-in-law, office events, how the dog was doing, weather in Boston, a few phone messages, Media Lab sponsors in the news, etc. What may suffer is not the "shared experience," but the "serendipitous experience." One of the joys of reading magazines and newspapers is to bump into small things you never considered. Serendipity is very important, but for me it plays no role at 7 a.m. on a Monday. As I get busier and busier, I may be shortchanging myself. Maybe I should be reading the airline magazine instead of typing to you.

Q: Your discussion of "intelligent agents," which would handle everything from household chores to travel schedules, makes me wonder what we're doing to ourselves. Are we creating people who won't be able to take care of themselves without digital assistance? What happens if the electricity goes out?

A: I think you have to look at human assistants. When I am at MIT, I enjoy the help of several secretaries who will get people on the phone, process letters, and arrange travel. This does not mean I can no longer dial the telephone, type, or call TWA. Delegation does not necessarily lead to atrophy.

In Greece I enjoy the full-time help of a maid, not something you can afford in Boston. But when my wife and I are in Boston, we love to cook and we share household chores. The kinds of things that may atrophy are mental skills, like multiplying in your head, maybe spelling if you have a spell-checker (but that can work both ways), or remembering appointments.

Q: You often criticize the Japanese education system for relying far too much on rote digestion of facts. Yet the US education system clearly is beset with major problems, and many observers would be ecstatic if the Japanese system could be imported here.

A: What people admire in the Japanese system is not education but discipline. Discipline is highly valued in education in most of the world, often at the expense of expression. What we have done, knowingly or by force of our heterogeneous society, is to place more emphasis on individualization. While many people pooh-pooh our education, it has fared rather well in the creative department.

There is a strong interplay between personal lives and learning. One of my optimisms is that computers will be available to kids both in school and at home, and will thus likely be more helpful than some piece of audio-visual equipment of the type schools have traditionally used.

Q: You write that the printed word is enjoying a renaissance because of the limited speed and storage capacities of CD-ROM and the Internet. And yet you also say that this situation is temporary: that fiber optics will allow just about any amount of information to be transmitted instantly.

A: All indicators point to the "renaissance of the word" as being temporary. But I think text will survive because it works best for some purposes, such as e-mail. We will still want to do some things asynchronously and with more left to the imagination. Though I don't like to read, I do. I would hate to think of 50 pieces of e-mail coming in each day as video clips.

Q: You're quite enthusiastic about hypermedia, which allows users to jump almost randomly among related pieces of information. I wonder, though, if it might lead to a breakdown of linear thought, and of the whole notion of a body of knowledge.

A: That is a hard question, because good narrative does have a well-formed beginning, middle, and end. But I don't think this extends to a body of knowledge, which is much more of a network of concepts. In fact, we are often deluding ourselves when we think that "A" must be learned before "B," after "C," etc.

Today's schooling leads to very serial thinking, which leads to an incrementalism that may be harmful in the world of new ideas. Maybe hypermedia will produce fewer serialists and add to the diversity of thinking. I don't think it will disassemble our ability to put one foot forward before the other.

Q: What's your view of the debate over the possibility of a widening gap between the information-rich and the information-poor?

A: I am a born optimist, and it has served me well. One of my enthusiasms for something like the Internet is that it is blind to economic and racial forces. In fact, I have just finished an op-ed piece for the New York Times that points out that the information-poor these days are suddenly a large group of affluent 35- to 55-year-olds who missed the digital age. By comparison, among American 10-year-olds there must be hardly one who is digitally illiterate.

Q: As we live increasing portions of our lives on the Net or its successors, it would seem that we need greater guarantees of privacy. What steps can be taken? Do you see the Clipper chip - a federal initiative to encourage the use of a privacy-protecting coding system that could nevertheless be cracked by government agents - as a threat?

A: There is no question that privacy is a huge issue. Ironically, we may be able to do more about it in the digital world than in the world of atoms. My next piece for Wired is on this topic. But one point it makes is that Clipper is just not that important an issue, because you can already protect your communications with virtually unbreakable code: I can overlay another layer of code regardless of what the government does. Though I don't plan to run drugs or evade taxes, I promise you that you and I can communicate in a totally safe manner over the Net. To prove it, you will notice that the spine of Being Digital is printed with zeros and ones, 105 rows of 12 bits, which include a coded message. State laws made it impossible for Knopf or Wired to make decoding that message a competition for cash. But I claim it is unbreakable.

Q: More than one critic has attacked what might be called the Wired mindset - that cybernauts can be an elite, intolerant lot whose preference for interacting with bits rather than atoms leads them to take a very narrow view of their fellow humans. Do you see any truth in this?

A: I think we have to readjust our views. At one time there were a few, sometimes self-centered and narrow people. But "being digital" now has thrown too wide a net; it has engaged artists, philosophers, politicians, all sorts. The association of technology with anti-humanism is just too banal. Sure, Wired magazine can be criticized for an overdose of narcissism, and many of the newsgroups on the Net are foolish and self-indulgent. But to suggest that people who interact with bits are a new lowlife is silly.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.