What is Digital? Is it merely as simple as the "information superhighway?" Or, is it a complex web of intermingled electronics destined to replace everything home, hearth and workplace?
In this, the Technology Age, one is lead to believe it's either get on the bandwidth-to modify the phrase--or die a slow, excruciating information death, like a victim of Civil War Gangrene.
Negroponte takes all us pseudo-techies, the ones who are too ashamed to admit they just don't quite get `it', and guides us down the path of digital history. As a founder of MIT's Media Lab, a place where technology is studied for fun and academics, Negroponte is certainly qualified to discuss such things. He does so comfortably and simply, explaining digital technology in a concise and entertaining manner. The format is precise, the prose is easy-to-read. This is a man one could truly envision enjoying a cup of microwaved coffee with.
Negroponte explains technological history and its implications on society in basic terms that any literate luddite could process. The premise is based in a clever analogy: Atoms (the real, tangible items we see, touch, use each day) vs. Bits (it's the packets of information stupid!). Atoms are the tangible stuff that comprise everything physical; bottled water, books, computers. Bits are the invisibly-invisible minute pieces of information upon which much of modern society relies; credit as we swipe our bankcard at the grocery; on-demand instant information via the web; e-mail rather than antiquated parchment air-mail letters.
Understanding the digital phenomenon is easy with Negroponte. The chapters are almost flashcard/sound bite like. A brief introduction is followed by sub-sections that explain the technical stuff and offer familiar real-life comparisons. The chapter on bandwidth (that same bandwidth everyone seems to be bent on increasing these days) gives an account of what bandwidth means; its potential (more TV channels fer g'dsake!), and its complications (if government rations out bandwidth to a few big-media conglomerates, public access will be restricted and we'll have to pay more for those channels). Negroponte also discusses some failures in the digital age, HDTV for one. His thesis? HDTV? Been there, seen it, done it, forget it! Give me Digital-it's clearer, faster, and it's interactive.
The book is filled with visceral descriptions that relate technology to real life. Examples such as driving 160 KMP per hour are compared to faxing at 1.2 mbps (millions of bits per second). This is how fast we can and should want to be transferring those bits back and forth to each other.
Negroponte foresees potential benefits for citizens of a digital society. In the on-demand digitized marketplace, customers are still real people but their merchants become the computer. Thus, each of us has the potential to request what we want, (a TV program or an airline ticket) when we want it, where we want it, and at the price we want to pay. Think pay-per-view and priceline.com.
We will also have the capability of becoming more intelligent and time proficient thanks to pc browsers capable of knowing what we want on screen-even before we demand it. One need only look at the recent ads for etour.com, "surf without searching." (You register, get profiled, and are instantly delivered websites matching your interests).
However, some criticized Negroponte as being too optimistic. Technology that can recognize our eyeprint? Who cares? And then there's the popular fear of Internet addiction and the thought that all this info-on-demand will create generations of solitary, mouse-clicking, chip-crunching moles. Negroponte believes rather than become isolated, technology and computers connect us to cultures, people and ideas previously inaccessible to the average person--even if we have been sitting alone at the computer screen for three days running.
Some of Negroponte's scenarios may have seemed fantastical in 1995, but we truly have come to see many of his visions as day-to-day reality-cars with satellite navigation systems, recordable CDs, `intelligent interfacers' (our personalized browsers). Rather than go west young man, we should be cheering Be Digital! Thanks to Negroponte, we know why.