BEING DIGITAL

Nicholas Negroponte; Knopf, 231 pages, $23.00
Recently a friend asked me to suggest a poem to be read at her wedding. A certain e.e. cummings sonnet came to mind, but I didn't have it around the house. So I stopped by the library, where I had to: 1) locate the book, using the ridiculous numerological system of American libraries; 2) make a copy of the poem, involving a trip to the nearest place of business where I could get the proper change; 3) return home and fax the copied poem to my friend.

Somewhere between steps 1 and 2, I imagined myself with a wallet-sized, hand-held scanner that captured a digital image of the poem and stored it on a computer that I wore like a wristwatch. Operating on my vocal instructions, the computer faxed the image to my friend.

Better yet, why couldn't I have "checked out" the collected works of e.e. cummings from an on-line library and e-mailed the poem with out ever leaving my house?

This is the way Nicholas Negroponte wants you to think, and his book Being Digital provides the right combination of techno-history and cyberoptimism to cast your household appliances in a new and unsatisfactory light, making even the ubiquitous fax machine appear like an oafish dinosaur from the technological dark ages.

Negroponte directs MIT's Media Lab and writes the popular back-page column for Wired magazine. Like Forrest Gump spurring every milestone event in boomer history, Negroponte was apparently in the vicinity everytime something exciting happened in the last 25 years of computer innovation. This leads to some juicy anecdotes (while reviewing designs for what became known as the bar code, Negroponte helped reject the idea of making all food more or less radioactive in proportion to its cost, and turning supermarket checkout stands into Geiger counters.) But Negroponte's formidable background sometimes leads him into greater detail about technical issues (the architecture of the nation's phone and cable systems, for instance) than many readers may want to know.

Like Wired, Negroponte operates from the assumption that technological advancement is inherently good -- in his desire to promote it, he revels in several scenarios of digital omnipresence that may raise huge ethical and esthetic question marks for those more grounded in the humanities than engineering.

First of all, Negroponte dismisses the question of whether a digital society, in which information that used to come in books, newspapers and TV broadcasts instead comes over the Internet, wouldn't disenfranchise those who can't afford a computer and modem:

Some people worry about the social divide between the information-rich and the information -poor ... the First and the Third Worlds. But the real cultural divide is going to be generational. When I meet an adult who tells me he has discovered CD-ROM, I can guess that he has a child between five and ten years old.

In other passages, Negroponte describes computer chips sewn into clothing so that in workplaces, when a phone call comes for you, whichever phone you're nearest will ring. But getting away from that infernal ringing is precisely the reason I leave my office for the break room and spend 30 minutes contemplating my choice of vending-machine snacks in the first place.

And this shocker, hidden late in the book, would horrify many of the writers, musicians and visual artists I know:

The digital superhighway will turn finished and unalterable art into a thing of the past. The number of mustaches given to Mona Lisa is just child's play. We will see serious digital manipulation performed on said-to-be-complete expressions moving across the Internet, which is not necessarily bad. ... Although this may sound like the total vulgarization of important cultural icons ... being digital allows the process, not just the product, to be conveyed.

Ultimately, I believe Negroponte is right -- that the possibilities for creativity and communication opened by these changes will outweigh the abuses; that rethinking the way we intake information and art will invigorate our culture. But it will take some unbiased, public debate to sell certain segments of society on the changes Negroponte depicts as inevitable.

Other advancements predicted and analyzed by Negroponte should threaten no one but the old guy on MCI's "Gramercy Press" commercials. The real computer revolution will start, according to Negroponte, when the interface between user and computer becomes more human. Right now, for most of us, our "interface" choices are Macintosh's System Software or Microsoft's Windows -- the programs that determine how we communicate with our computers. But what if our computers responded not just to keyboard commands and mouse movements, but to our voices, moods, and habits around the house? Then imagine the computer on your desk communicating with the one in your refrigerator, your car, your VCR, your coffeemaker.

If you're already rapt in anticipation of the digital lifestyle, Being Digital might give you a better sense of how the mechanics will work. If you're uncertain, but willing to learn, it's a wonderful introduction, full of hard facts and billowing enthusiasm.

Oh, and if you're the old guy in the Gramercy Press commercial -- it's your worst fucking nightmare.

--Benjamin Cohen

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