Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 9

A Little Bit of Everything, But Not the Whole Picture

by Kevin Hunt (

Book Review:
Being Digital
by Nicholas Negroponte
Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1995. 243 pages
$23.00 US/$32.00 CDN
ISBN 0-679-43919-6

Nicholas Negroponte puts great stock in the power of the imagination. The founding director of the Media Lab at MIT, Negroponte was one of the imaginative minds behind many of the pioneering efforts -- now legendary -- in computer graphics, multimedia, and computer-mediated communication: early excursions into what were then the revolutionary worlds of graphical user interface design, virtual reality, and teleconferencing. Fueled by his years of experience conceiving ideas that could be made possible through computer technology, Negroponte's Being Digital provides a glimpse into the world he currently envisions taking shape, a world at the cusp of what he calls the "post-information age," an age in which everything's about "being digital."

Being Digital is about what life will be like in the not too distant future, life in a world in which the bit has replaced the atom as the primary commodity in all our human interactions: in how we entertain ourselves, educate our children, conduct our business, and express ourselves. Wide ranging and anecdotal, the book is a compilation of ideas that Negroponte originally explored in his monthly column for Wired magazine. But the book is not a mere anthology. Fortunately for us, when compiling these columns, Negroponte deemed it important to re-examine and -- as he says -- "repurpose" many of his original ideas in light of what has changed in the short time since he originally wrote many of the Wired pieces. The result is a read that is often insightful, often maddening, and always provocative.

Negroponte organizes his ideas into three major sections. In Part 1, "Bits are Bits," he reflects on the difference between bits and atoms: how the shift to an economy based on the transfer of bits is affecting the structure of the information industry; how the transmission of bits is regulated; and how the major players -- the telecommunications industry, cable operators, and electronics and computer companies -- are reacting to the digital revolution (and, in most cases, how they are focusing their efforts on misguided projects). Along the way Negroponte offers his ideas on how the information infrastructure should be shaped, where the players should be (re)directing their efforts, and what all this will mean for you and me, as both information consumers and creators.

Just what will all this mean? Well, one of Negroponte's more intriguing ideas in this section is his view that "the medium is no longer the message": information providers will transmit bits of information that are, essentially, formless. The bits, in turn, will be assembled by us -- the receivers -- according to how we want to interact with them. As a result, we will exert more control over both the content of information that we want entering our homes and the form in which we wish to see it presented to us.

In Part 2, "Interface," Negroponte redirects his examination to a micro-level, to how computers will be used to do tasks at home and at work. He examines the currently uneasy interactions between humans and computers, and discusses optimizing dealings with computers using intelligent agents, speech recognition technology, and artificial intelligence. He continues his efforts, begun in Part 1, to both prognosticate and to prescribe, insisting that the goal of interface design should be to make the interface go away. "The challenge for the next decade," Negroponte writes, "is not just to give people bigger screens, better sound quality, and easier-to-use graphical input devices. It is to make computers that know you, learn about your needs, and understand verbal and nonverbal languages." What sort of interface design meets these criteria? Negroponte believes that the "well-trained English butler" would serve as a good model. As with many of his ideas, this one is both intriguing and unsettling.

Part 3, "Digital Life," is the most wide-ranging of the three sections, meandering from discussions about the variety of electrical plugs needed to jack a laptop into the wall in various European cities, to the exploits of rural Senegalese children using Apple computers and the Logo programming language. Exploring themes that overlap and mesh with those in the previous two sections, Negroponte prognosticates about the effects that the digital revolution will have on our lifestyles in the post-information age: how we will structure our time in cadence with the rhythms of our own creating; how we will educate our children; how we will design technology into our buildings and homes; and how we will express ourselves through art and technology in concert. This section is the most imaginative and optimistic. Take, for example, his discussion of how digital technology will -- potentially -- make all of us into " new e-xpressionists." This discussion is typical of Negroponte's optimistic view that digital technology will foster increased self-expression and more harmonious group work.

Throughout the book, Negroponte rightly points out that the frenzied pace of the digital revolution begs us to ask questions about how we can shape technologies, infrastructures, and policies in ways that provide us with maximum benefits. Being Digital is a collection of Negroponte's questions about -- and answers to -- these issues. The problem is that, while the questions he asks and the answers he provides are provocative and insightful, in many cases he merely glosses over or fails to ask a few that are fundamental: Who will determine what sorts of bits are created? Who will have access to the technology that he imagines? And finally, what does it mean to be human in the post-information age?

Negroponte does broach the question of information content -- the important question of just what all those bits will combine to form. For instance, he asks, "When you watch television, do you complain about picture resolution, the shape of the screen, or the quality of motion? Probably not. If you complain, it is surely about programming" (page 37). Unfortunately, he doesn't follow up his original question. Instead of examining questions of political and economic power -- questions about who determines what programs will be made, what information will be produced, etc. -- he chooses instead to focus on questions of how the information will be transmitted and retrieved, leaving the content issue to be answered by the combined forces of the marketplace, technology, and "human nature." For example, we are to believe that "[t]he combined forces of technology and human nature will ultimately take a stronger hand in plurality than any laws Congress can invent" (page 58). Unfortunately, we have plenty of reasons not to share in his optimism.

The unexamined issue of content also begs questions about access to technology. Negroponte optimistically believes that everyone will have the ability to become information creators or providers in the post-information age. For example, he writes, "In the near future, individuals will be able to run electronic video services in the same way that 57,000 thousand Americans run computer bulletin boards today." The result? "In a few years you can learn how to make couscous from Julia Child or a Moroccan housewife. You can discover wines with Robert Parker or a Burgundian vintner" (page 176). Unfortunately, in a world in which a significant portion of the population does not have access to telephones or even electricity, we can project that only a privileged few will have access to the technology that will empower them to be information receivers, to say nothing of producers. Will the Moroccan housewife and the Burgundian vintner have access? It's questionable. Yet Negroponte fails to address this issue: that of the information-haves versus the have-nots.

And finally, Negroponte fails to ask what is perhaps the most important question: What does being human mean in the post-information age? While focusing on the technological means by which we should be interacting with digital technology, Negroponte neglects to focus on the goal of these interactions, which is to help us function more fully as human beings. Take, for instance, his discussion of how expert software agents should be designed to cull and select -- based on a knowledge of our tastes and interests -- the massive amounts of information we will likely face in the digital age. He points out how, when he wants to go to the movies, rather than search for and read reviews, he simply asks his sister-in-law, a person who is both an expert on movies and an expert on his tastes. "What we need to build," he writes, "is a digital sister-in-law" (page 155). Isn't this effort to share information with others, to ask for advice, to build common interests, part of what being human is all about? Is this something we want to replace with expert systems? Nicholas's sister-in-law no doubt thinks not.

In fairness, Negroponte freely admits in the epilogue of Being Digital that his is an optimistic view of technology and that "every technology or gift of science has a dark side" (page 227). He even briefly touches on this dark side in the last four pages of the book. Yet we're left with a sense that he should elaborate more fully on this dark side. Negroponte's imagination is his gift, and his willingness to share it with us in this book is a great service. In his role as consultant and visionary for CEOs from the telecommunications, entertainment, computer and electronics industries, we hope that he more fully integrates his ideas about being digital, which he so fully and eloquently expresses in this book, with those about being human. ¤

Kevin Hunt, an assistant editor of Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, is interested in how hypermedia technologies such as the World Wide Web are changing the way that expertise is constructed in American culture. He hopes one day to discover wines with a Burgundian vintner.

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

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