Digital beings

This is the third in my series of retrospective reviews on seminal learning and technology books. I have scoured my personal book library in search of a dozen books that have influenced my own thinking, and share a synopsis of their contents with you. Today's book recommendation is:

Nicholas Negroponte (1995) Being Digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Nic Negroponte's Being Digital was groundbreaking. It was the first substantial mainstream book to explore the impact of digital technology on society, and demonstrated just how prescient and insightful Negroponte could be. As the man who was instrumental in setting up MIT Media Lab, and also the founding editor of Wired Magazine, much was expected of him, and he delivered, in spades.

He begins with a sort of apology, pointing out the irony (before his critics can) of publishing a book about digital technology as an analogue artifact. Later he labours the point that we live in a society created around atoms, when in fact most of our information is now in bits. This atoms and bits division amplifies and reveals the societal divides we see all around us. Such dichotomous contexts would necessitate the rethinking of social rules, relationships, privacy, ownership and copyright, legal rulings, and just about everything else we were comfortable with. He warns: 'As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role.' (p 7) In short, Negroponte was warning that disruptive change was imminent.

Negroponte's writing style is acerbic and witty in equal measure, and he has the knack of situating complex and potentially alien concepts into everyday context, so that his reader can apprehend their full meaning and implication. He ranges effortlessly through personal technologies, social spaces and the Internet of Things (writing about all of these technological advances while they were still either in their infancy, or just a gleam in the eyes of the Silicon Valley geeks. At the time of publication there was much discussion about the so called 'Negroponte Switch' - where he had predicted a switch between terrestrial and satellite distribution of content. What became the real Negroponte Switch for me however, was probably more important and useful, and less obscure for everyone. The switch I am referring to is the transition of control over content creation from the producer (film companies, record labels, broadcast media and publishers) to the consumer. Negroponte had already begun to think about how the Web might facilitate this sea change, when he remarked that there would be 'a change in the distribution of intelligence... from the transmitter to the receiver.' (p 19) Much of new Web content in recent years has indeed been generated by individuals using personal technologies. Wikipedia, YouTube and a host of other social media platforms are examples of this switch.

He poses the question how can technology make our lives better? Answering his own question he suggested 'creating computers to filter, sort, prioritize, and manage multimedia on our behalf - computers that read newspapers and look at television for us, and act as editors when we ask them to do so.' (p 20) With almost two decades of hindsight and technology advances, we can safely say that there are dozens of tools that can do just that for us, filtering, aggregating, curating content - but it is often the users and the community that do the editing and sorting for users to read. In being digital, we become digital beings. So perhaps we are half way there.

Negroponte also had much to say about design and multi-modal interfaces in Being Digital. He posited reasons why touch screen interfaces could be so versatile and intuitive, and cited some early research he had been involved in at MIT on the development of gestural tools. He believed then that the best kinds of designs incorporated human intuition into the interface, and that touch screens would become more or less common place. His remark here is revealing and prophetic: 'Wherever the computer may be, the most effective interface design results from combining the forces of sensory richness and machine intelligence.' (p 100)

When I first bought my copy of Being Digital, I read it from cover to cover in a single day. It is that sort of book, and even today, nearly 20 years on, it still has much to inform us about not only what we have already witnessed, but about what is yet to come. I can report that after enjoying dinner with Nic recently in London, he is as witty, engaging and entertaining in real life as his is within the pages of his book.

Oh - and I also made sure Nic signed my first edition copy.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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Digital beings by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dan Pontefract said…
You had dinner with him? Damn, that would be cool.
Steve Wheeler said…
Yes, I certainly did have dinner with Negroponte at the K-West Hotel in West London in January ... and several other invited speakers were at the table too, including Futurist Gerd Leonhard and LPI Chairman Donald H Taylor. That's where he signed my book. It was quite an evening! ;)

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