review

Subject: review
From: Roy Johnson <Roy -at- MANTEX -dot- DEMON -dot- CO -dot- UK>
Date: Sun, 21 May 1995 23:59:25 GMT

Nicholas Negroponte, BEING DIGITAL, Knopf,1995. pp. 243.

Nicholas Negroponte is professor of the [multi-]Media Lab at MIT and an
enthusiastic spokesman for the revolution in information
technology. He writes regular columns in WIRED, which have been
expanded to form this manifesto for the future of digitisation. The
fundamental thesis he expounds is simple but profound. He suggests
that the revolutionary state we now inhabit is one in which the *bit*
is to be distinguished from the *atom*. That is, information
encoded and transmitted electronically in binary form needs no
material existence, whereas its physical realisation in print, film
stock, or VCR is earth-bound and cumbersome. The bit can be
transmitted instantly, globally, and virtually cost-free, whereas its
tangible version in atoms immediately requires physical production,
distribution, and storage. The future, he claims, is digital.

In the course of a dozen and a half short chapters he covers just
about every aspect of modern communications. Developments in
data compression; the next stages in desktop publishing; how the
television monitor and the PC will merge; ownership and intellectual
property rights. He is particularly interesting on multimedia, [whose
origins he reveals in the Israeli attack on Entebbe airport!] CD-
ROMs [described as "the Betamax of the 90s"] the historical development
of GUIs, and the politics of those businesses which are busy buying up
information for "repurposing". *En passant* he covers holography,
teleconferencing, speech recognition, virtual reality, and how PCs
will develop. There's something here for everybody.

"But where is the text and the writing in all this?" you might ask. As
far as Negroponte is concerned it is *all* text, all bits. For with
digitisation, any one medium becomes translatable into another. A
book chapter is no different from a video clip once it has been
transposed into binary code (except that it takes up less space). The
future of PCs for writing he sees being affected by miniaturisation,
touch-sensitive screens, and "intelligent agents" which will learn to
interpret our demands. All this is delivered in a breathless
telegraphic style (which I suppose befits his subject) and he is
deliberately provocative and cryptic in a manner which suggests that
many of his ideas could be developed further.

It's easy to spot the contradiction that this electronic vision comes
to us in a form which he wittily describes as "ink squeezed onto
dead trees". In fact the book is produced on paper of such poor
quality that you can read the print on both sides at once. [It's not
clear if this is a high-tech device or an ironic comment from the
publishers.] In addition, for someone extolling the transmission of
data in milliseconds, Negroponte does a lot of travellers name-
dropping. One wonders why he has to go traipsing round the globe
so much when he could do business using Email. But he has tips for
travellers: boycott those hotels which don't let you plug your laptop
straight into the wall.

The persuasiveness of what he has to say arises from his own first-
hand experience. As someone who has been in the business of
computers and multimedia since the 1960s [whilst Bill Gates was
still at school] he is well informed about the history of its
technology, frank in revealing the true ownership behind corporate
names, and generous in attributing credit for the technical advances
we all now take for granted. However, if you can steel yourself against his
breathless rush, one or two of the arguments can be made to tremble a
little with some applied clear thinking. He supposes for instance that
writers would earn more if their work were distributed digitally (smaller
profits, bigger sales). But would you want to download then print off a 500
page book to avoid the publisher's price-tag? (This is already
possible from databases such as Project Gutenberg.) Why have your
edition of MOBY DICK on 600 loose sheets of A4 when Penguin
will supply a bound copy for less than the price of a gin-and-tonic?
Nevertheless, this is just one small idea amongst many that he
throws off in a series of elegantly catenated chapters.

Others ideas might be more disturbing for those professionally engaged
in existing forms of communication - but they make sense when
measured against common experience. This is what he has to say
about manuals for instance. "The notion of an instruction manual
is obsolete. The fact that computer hardware and software
manufacturers ship them with product is nothing short of perverse.
The best instructor on how to use a machine is the machine itself."
This is bad news for technical writers, but do you *really* refer to
that 900 page manual any more? Of course not: you just click on
HELP.

This is a stimulating and thought-provoking book, and unless
Negroponte has it all wrong (which seems doubtful) it will provide
ideas for the rest of us to work with for many years to come.
Anyone who wants a glimpse into the future should start here.

Roy Johnson
May 1995


--
Roy Johnson | Roy -at- mantex -dot- demon -dot- co -dot- uk
PO Box 100 | Tel +44 0161 432 5811
Manchester 20 | Fax +44 0161 443 2766


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