In the epilogue to Being Digital, his treatise on the coming wonderland of digital communications technologies, MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte admits, “I am optimistic by nature.”
No shit. Negroponte’s book, a series of essays on how emerging technologies will affect society (culled in large part from his Wired magazine columns), is nothing if not upbeat. That’s hardly surprising, since Negroponte himself has been at the helm of communications technology development since he and several MIT colleagues co-founded the Media Lab in 1983. Leading one of the world’s top media research facilities has made Negroponte a bona fide honcho in tech circles, and in Digital, he speaks fondly of the acquaintances he has made: brilliant students and savvy businessmen who live, eat, and breathe the future.
However, Being Digital is not for those people, or for anyone else who has paid attention to the brouhaha surrounding the “information superhighway.” Instead, Negroponte wants Digital to reach “executives, politicians, parents, and all those who most need to understand this radically new culture.” He cozies up to Everyman with anecdotes about the luxuries that advanced communications will bring: digital newspapers with the portability of the real thing; PCs that relate to their owners as individuals; and other marvels of the “infobahn.”
But Negroponte doesn’t just use these examples for gee-whiz impact. Through simple, spare prose and down-home analogies to his own childhood and professional life, Negroponte attempts to put the lay reader at ease with the coming digitization. He underscores the difference between atoms (pure matter) and bits (pure information); much value is currently placed on atoms, he writes, but as digital communications improve, bits will become increasingly valuable. To illustrate this point, Negroponte tells a receptionist that his PowerBook, because of the “bits” (programs, papers, proposals, etc.) it contains, is worth “roughly, between one and two million dollars” as opposed to the two grand he actually paid for it. Nobody likes a smartass, but Negroponte skillfully makes his point: The new technologies will not only redefine the business and economics of communications, but the way Joe Six-Pack perceives and values information.
Being Digital is a tome of predictions. As such, it is at its best when it discusses the inevitable: the death of CD-ROM, or the development of the human/computer interface. But when Negroponte says the “information highway…will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions,” he sometimes forgets to include his own.
It’s probably because of his “optimistic” nature that Negroponte’s vision of the future is so beatific. After all, MIT is a rather comfy place from which to view (and influence) technological developments, and that’s why Being Digital spends most of its time lavishing praise on the technologies’ potential. But, ensconced in his academic cocoon, Negroponte gives alarmingly short shrift to the wrenching social realities these technologies will create.
For instance, the author devotes just one chapter to freedom-of-information issues. His rap is essentially one of technological saviorism: He maintains that information technology will spread too quickly for the “bit police” to control all the naughty bits, although he cavalierly admits that “a few brave and early data broadcasters may be eaten by the Washington lions in the process.” In a century overabundant with dictators that effectively use technology to repress a citizenry, Negroponte’s point-of-view is disconcertingly blasé. One need look no further than modern-day Singapore, which is aggressively establishing an “intelligent island” information structure even as its leaders are gagging the local media.
Perhaps Negroponte inherits his sunny outlook from media philosophy guru Marshall McLuhan. Even though Negroponte disses the author of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man when he says that “the medium is no longer the message,” the Media Lab director’s writings echo McLuhan’s noted “global village” theories. Back in 1964, McLuhan predicted that communication links (notably, at the time, television) would soon enable all humankind to chat, form virtual communities, and become pals. Negroponte warmly embraces this notion, assuring us that the digital age “has four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering.”
This pastoral vision of the future is suspiciously affirmative, not unlike those creepy AT&T “You Will” commercials. But being able to talk to someone doesn’t mean you’ll like him, and as Internet bulletin boards’ vitriolic “flame wars” attest, the virtual world is likely to resemble the real one: a lot of normal people mingling with a minority of Nazis, murderers, chiselers, and psychos. The prospects are equally alluring and horrific, and to look at cyberculture through rose-colored glasses is simply naive.
Perhaps sensing that the majority of Digital is a tad sanguine, Negroponte indulges in a spasm of elitist guilt, briefly bemoaning the dangers of digital piracy and the horrors of world hunger. But troublesome issues get only a fraction of his attention. The rest goes to the undeniably astonishing work taking place at the Media Lab.
Ultimately, Being Digital is a sweet bedtime story for the analog age, an assurance of tomorrow’s techno-benevolence. Written for the nondigital multitude, Being Digital concerns itself with what Negroponte thinks the masses want to hear (or read, or see) without delving into high tech’s more seductive, insidious possibilities.