Predicting the future is tricky business generally best left to the imaginations of science fiction writers or to prophesiers like Nostradamus. Yet if anyone knows about the future, it's Nicholas Negroponte. Neither a prophesier nor a science fiction writer, Negroponte has spent the last 30 years inventing the future at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as founder and director of the Media Laboratory. In Being Digital, Negroponte presents his vision for the future of mediating technologies, how they could and should
evolve and how they will impact on our lives. Written
in an anecdotal style with more than 20 essays grouped under the three themes of bits, interface and digital life, the book presents its author's personal and first-hand experience with the development of multimedia, personal computing, virtual reality, the internet and other digital technologies.
At the origin of these digital technologies is "the smallest atomic element in the DNA of information", i.e.
the bit. In spite of the fact that much of the information today is still received in the form of the atom such as in newspaper form, we nonetheless are digitizing more and more types of information. Digitization has numerous advantages such as the capacity for high levels of both error correction and data compression. Error correction provides for high quality broadcast for television and eliminates annoyances such as radio hiss and telephone static. Data compression allows for the delivery of large quantities of information such as digitized video at high speeds and low cost by using less channel capacity. Yet digitization is more than simply reducing costs and increasing speed. It's also about a "change in the distribution of intelligence" and the transposition of one medium to another so that information "can be consumed differently by different people at different times".
Greater use of digital technologies will be facilitated by more reliance on fiber optics rather than copper wire. While data transmission using copper wire has a capacity of about 6 million bits per second, fibre optics can deliver at speeds estimated to be close to 1000 billion bits per second. The transition from copper to fiber will not only be costly but it will require a shift in thinking in terms of the economics of bandwidth. Differential pricing of bits will need to replace the current system of charging on the basis of time regardless of what the bit is. "Should the value of a bit vary not only in accordance with its essential character (i.e., a movie bit, a conversation bit, or a pacemaker bit) but also in accordance with with who is using it? or when? or how?"(p.32)
Changes will also be necessary in the delivery of television to replace its point-to-multipoint structure with a point-to-point system like telephone to allow for more individualized viewing of programs. At the same time, technological improvements and advancements in the delivery of television programs will need to be coupled with improvements in "artistry of content". "New information and entertainment services are not waiting on fiber to the home; they are waiting on imagination." (p.30)
Televisions will eventually parallel the electronic architecture of computers to become scalable and upgradable. The PC will turn into "an electronic gateway for cable, telephone or satellite" with bits being "transferred at a rate that has no bearing on how they will be used". The consumer will be able to turn the bits received into audio, video or print. Censorship will be more a function of the receiver than the sender and "the consumer will censor by telling the receiver what bits to select."(p.55)
What we will witness is an enticing shift in control and power from the machine to the user. As machines become more powerful they will empower users by allowing them more control than they had previously. On-demand television, the ability to choose in which media format we would like the bits to be displayed, user control of censorship: these are but some of the ways in which technology will be designed to respond to individual needs.
Yet if consumers are to effectively control bits, changes will need to be made to the interface. Intelligence, personality, expression, the ability to understand meaning, interactivity, and sensory richness are all essential to good interface design. Future computers should be able to sense human presence and emulate face-to-face communication. The ability to track eyes, recognize speech, and to sense touch are important ways in which future computers can be improved to better respond to the needs of the user. While many of today's computers require that users be seated and that they attend to the computer, speech recognition would permit "being able to use a computer beyond arm's length".
Speech will become the "primary channel of communication" between user and computer interface agents. These agents, or "digital butlers", will be endowed with enough intelligence to be knowledgeable about the user's taste's, interests, acquantainces etc. Agents could act as filters of information and make news' selections on behalf of the user.
All these changes are part of the post-information age or the future digital life. This new age will be less dependent on or restricted by space and time. Virtual reality and telecommunications technologies will reduce the limitations of being in "a specific place at a specific time". E-mail, like voice mail, will allow for more asynchronous communication. Television and radio broadcast will be delivered on-demand and asynchronously. Increased use of the internet will facilitate global networking and lead to a "new, global social fabric". The digital life will also change the way in which we learn and will allow for accommodation of a greater variety of "cognitive styles, learning patterns, and expressive behaviours". Intelligent environments, ubiquitous computing, smart appliances and cars, wearable computers - these are the features that will enhance and improve living in the new digital age.
While the new age promises much to be optimistic about, it will nonetheless provide us with many challenges. Intellectual property abuse, invasion of privacy, digital vandalism, software piracy and data thievery -these are some of the side-effects to be encountered in the post-information age. As we live and work more with bits and less with atoms, the job market will have to compete with the cheap labour available from India and China. In spite of the power of bits and the possibilities they offer us, they still "cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and death" nor can they stop hunger. "But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism." The digital age will result in decentalization in commerce and in the computer industry where computers will work together for individuals and for groups to solve problems. Digital technologies will free us from the limitations of geography resulting in globalization. Being digital will facilitate companies and different disciplines working together using a common language. Finally, the most important promise of the digital age is its ability to empower. "The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present."(p.231) And digitization will increase dramatically with each generation becoming more digital than the preceding one. Being digital is not about the future: "It is here. It is now."
Being Digital reminds us that, as Paul Valéry once remarked, the future is not what it used to be. And this is largely because, like the future, change is not what it used to be. Negroponte's description of the growth of digital technologies as "almost genetic in its nature" evokes the organic metaphor of exponential growth to describe the dynamic rate and self-organizing character of change. In this sense, Negroponte's book is as much about change as it is about the future. Not surprizing, since it is difficult to refer to one without referring to the other. In the same way, it has become almost impossible to refer to either the future or change without mention of technology since all three are facets of the same intricate entity.
The future is not what it used to be, nor is it when it used to be. Negroponte concludes his book by stating that the future is here, now. In fact some of
pronouncements about the future, such as increases in modem speed, have already occurred since the book was published. Thus, not only is Negroponte's future here and now, in some regards, it is already past! Oddly enough, only twenty years ago, Negroponte's view of the future would have appeared as almost pure science fiction yet now his reference to intelligent agents, smart rooms and virtual reality are already familiar to many. Technological changes often filter into our lives in subtle, unsurprizing ways and not in abrubt, intrusive or startling ways which are sometimes evoked when we envision "the future". Technological change, like the future is not something that arrives on our doorstep unpredictably unannounced. Indeed, the future is here, now and the technological change is ongoing in what could be described as a non-linear continuum.
The future is neither when nor what we predict it to be and trying to predict it is, indeed, tricky business. Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile pursuit, particulary when the 'futurologist' has direct experience and knowledge on which to base his projections. Whether his vision proves to be an illusion or a chimera matters little. What matters is that he have a vision for the way in which he would like to see technology evolve. We cannot predict with accuracy how technological developments will evolve, nor can we precisely plan all the developments. Negroponte's genetic metaphor of the growth of digital technologies focuses our attention on its autonomous nature. Autonomous because it is not under the control or direction of one person or group. Research, design and development of new technologies occur in nations around the planet and in a wide variety of government and privately-owned and sponsored laboratories and institutes of which the Media Laboratory is but one example. Often, certain technological developments, of which the Internet is a clear example, grow and evolve in ways that were not planned or predicted.
We cannot truly control, invent or even predict the future. However, we can hold a vision for it in order to inspire our efforts and actions. Sharing this vision with as many people as possible increases the potential that the vision will serve as a blueprint for future developments. Thus, regardless of when, or what we believe the future will be, our individual and collective visions are what matter. At the very least, they allow us to adopt Negroponte's perspective on the future - that of 'being optimistic'.