From atoms to bits

One of the first books I ever read about digital media was Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital. I have a first edition, published in 1995, and I was honoured to have dinner with Nic last year, where he duly signed my copy. Negroponte has been influential with many projects such as MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine and the One Laptop Per Child initiative bearing his name. One of the things that most struck me about Being Digital, was the distinction Nic made between atoms and bits. The atom represents physical space, content, objects, while the bit represents the digital, virtual world. Atoms have to be shipped and handled which takes time, and they take up physical space. Bits by contrast, in Nic's own words: 'have no colour, size or weight, and can travel at the speed of light.' What a difference bits have made in the last few decades! They have changed the way we listen to music, watch films and entertain ourselves with games, take photos, engage in dialogue, work and purchase everyday things. Yes, some things still need to be shipped to us, because we will always need physical objects such as clothing and food. As Nic states in his book '...the world as we experience it, is a very analog place.' And yet, rapidly and exponentially, our lives are being transformed by the transition from atoms to bits. There is even a Center for Atoms and Bits now, at MIT, another example of the reach of Negroponte's amazing influence.

This leads us on to the transformations happening in education. In many ways these changes are slower than those seen in the worlds of leisure, work and business. Although physical learning spaces are still with us, more and more education is now being conducted outside of them. Gradually, we are seeing a shift in emphasis from the analogue to the digital. Just about any content can now be found on the Web, and downloaded in seconds onto your personal device. In fact, if it takes seconds, we may lose interest - 'instant' is the currency of the digitally minded. Learning at the speed of light is another expectation. Libraries are changing their emphasis from physical book stacks to all media. We still attend physical spaces, but we now also have the option to study anywhere, any time. The transition from atoms to bits, and back to atoms again is also seen - in the use of additive manufacturing (otherwise known as 3D printing) now appearing in schools, and also in the maker culture movement.

For me, the most advantageous aspect of the shift from atoms to bits has to be the affordance of provisionality. Gone forever are the many physical corrections we needed to make in the early days of document production. We no longer need correction fluids because nothing is permanent now. Provisionality enables learners everywhere to continue to develop, edit and polish their content, constantly learning from the process of iteration and reiteration. We no longer need to fear failure - we just need to see another opportunity to learn and make things better next time. Nic Negroponte was right two decades ago - we are definitely moving more and more from atoms to bits, and in the process, we are learning new things about our increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology and how it can be used to support great learning.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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From atoms to bits by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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