He Has Seen The Future Or Has He?


By Nicholas Negroponte

Knopf 243pp $23

Nicholas Negroponte begins Being Digital with a telling confession: "Being dyslexic, I don't like to read. As a child, I read train timetables instead of the classics...." The slightness of Negroponte's literary bent makes itself far too evident in this maddening jumble of a book.

Being Digital began as a series of back-page essays for Wired magazine, of which Negroponte is a founder and part-owner. Now he has "repurposed" those musings--mainly, it seems, by stringing them together with a loose stitch here and there. The result is a breathless but squishy hodgepodge of thoughts which, although occasionally provocative, lack one ingredient: a coherent argument.

There is a theme, sort of: Digital technology is changing everything. It's the postmodern world's aqua regia--a universal solvent of alchemical power that is dissolving material goods, social and commercial relations--even commonly held notions of time and space. Skipping from topic to topic, frequently with only a paragraph's notice, Negroponte, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of its renowned Media Lab, seems to be saying that he has seen the future and even helped invent parts of it and that that future is bright--way bright. There's no need to worry.

Where we're headed, as Negroponte describes it, mixes the gadget-happy world of the Jetsons with the simulacra of Disneyland. The future that he envisions is thoroughly saturated by electronic media, for instance. Numberless high-definition computer screens flicker with information of every kind. Everything can be simulated--even the smell of dinosaur dung. Forget books as you've known them: One fine day, you'll be curling up in bed with a screen instead.

Also, in this future, "we may find that we are talking as much or more with machines than we are with humans." Indeed, machines will "understand individuals with the same degree of subtlety (or more than) we can expect from other human beings...." Every item of data ever recorded will be accessible anywhere at anytime, instantly. And everything from teacups to pets will be tagged with a tiny computer that "can say where it is."

What is propelling us toward this cybernetic utopia, of course, is the plummeting cost mf data storage, computer- processing power, and digital transmission capacity. Over time, Negroponte predicts, whole categories of culture--books, newspapers, magazines, videos, musical recordings, films, and personal mail, for instance--will be sucked into the digital domain.

And once there, they will be malleable and moveable as never before. We'll be able to instruct electronic "agent" programs, for instance, to automatically search through huge libraries of text and video clips, pick out the items that would most interest us, edit them, and prepare a polished multimedia presentation--perhaps for something as trivial as planning a vacation. Turning a knob on your television set, Negroponte says, will one day "allow you to vary [the] sex, violence, and political leaning" of its programs.

Negroponte could very well be right about all this. Certainly few people are in a better position to offer informed ideas about the possible shape and effects of information technologies. During his 25 years at MIT, Negroponte has been involved with advanced computing research, much of it funded by the military and focused on multimedia. And since its 1984 founding, the Media Lab has spent millions of dollars in corporate funds on such projects as digital TV and electronic newspapers.

What's missing from Negroponte's futurism, however, is perspective. It's exceedingly difficult to predict how society will use any tool or technology, especially when its cost is changing as fast as that of information technology. But there's no sign that Negroponte is aware of that difficulty--or of the fact that industrial-era technologies have often been bizarrely misunderstood, by specialists and laypeople alike. As the 1986 book Imagining Tomorrow, edited by Joseph J. Corn, points out, X-rays, radio, nuclear power, even the electric lightbulb, stirred wild fantasies in their time. X-rays, it was once thought, would someday reveal people's thoughts and feelings. Nuclear power would make electricity so cheap that it wouldn't be worth metering. And so forth.

Only in his short epilogue, titled "An Age of Optimism," does Negroponte evince the slightest awareness that the digital technology revolution he celebrates may have some negative consequences. In passing, he mentions its possibly devastating effects on jobs. What a shame, though, not to hear more from such a learned participant and observer about the risks that he perceives along the Information Superhighway.

One could argue, too, that Negroponte should have taken the trouble to master the old before championing the new. By releasing such a poorly written text, he seems to be dismissing the traditional book--not to mention the traditional reader--as passe, if not useless. He seems to be suggesting that we hang on until the time--just when, he can't say--when most knowledge gets created, recorded, and moved around as electrons so that it can be understood by lifeless software agents. Until then, though, perhaps we'd all do well to read more classics.

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