being digital

Eighteen years ago I bought a book that changed the way in which I thought about the world. It was a book I wanted to share, and after I had consumed it page-by-page, I leant it to a friend and never saw it again.

The book was Nicholas Negroponte’s being digital, first published in 1995, in paperback in 1996. As it described itself on the back cover, “The first book to explore the impact of digital technology on the world, the best selling BEING DIGITAL explains, in an exhilarating and totally accessible style, what being digital means and how your life can be enhanced by it.

This weekend just passed, whilst browsing books for sale in the public lending library near to my parents house, I found and bought a pristine copy for eighty pence. Buying a physical, paper book, second hand, with cash, in a public lending library is probably one of the least digital acts I have performed in many years.

Over the course of a few articles, I’ll reflect on was Negroponte foresaw, what has actually occurred, and what we might learn from a historical view of the future that is our reality.

I’m not doing this to prove Negroponte wrong: much of his book was remarkably prescient. But understanding what has (and hasn’t) happened gives us a few of our present and also of what is currently being predicted might be the next generation’s future.

To start by giving some context (and reflecting on Negroponte’s introduction), it’s worth understanding that at the time of writing:

– 35% of American families had a personal computer at home (that had increased to 76% by 2011, although between 2010 and 2011 had actually dropped for the first time)

– 30 million people were estimated to be on the Internet (2.4 billion worldwide by 2012)

– 65 % of new computers worldwide were to be used in the home (can’t find the stats today – but of course the overall PC market is now in decline, being replaced it seems by smartphone and tablet purchases)

– 90% of those computers came with a CD-ROM drive

That last stat is the first indication of the future being imagined in the form of the present – multimedia (which in 1995 was a really big deal) is a theme that Negroponte talks about a lot. How many computing devices today ship with a media drive? If you include phones and tablets, a small minority.

However, he recognised that as a transitory step. Let’s unpick some of the predictions from the introduction:

Early in the next millennium your right and left cuff links or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more computer power than your current PC.

Well, you can’t argue that wearable isn’t the vogue of the moment. It’s mobile phone cells, low-power Bluetooth and WiFi rather than satellite that is doing the communication layer. The cheapest of smartphones will pack a bigger spec than the most advanced of PCs from 1995.

Your telephone won’t ring indiscriminately; it will receive, sort and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well-trained English butler.

All available. Whether people actually do that or not is another issue. And of course we have multiple channels of communication coming into our phones today.

Mass media will be redefined by systems for transmitting and receiving personalized information and entertainment.

Undoubtedly the mass media have been redefined by the Internet and the Web. Personalization and on-demand delivery of content is changing our choices. It’s a theme we’ll come back to…

Schools will change to become more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world.

Oh, if only. What Negroponte didn’t foresee here was the rise of obsessive measurement, examination, and the rise of Victorian values that seems to be the way the our current administration seem to be taking education.

The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin.

I take from this that the digital planet will feel very small. Check.

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities.

Although maybe underestimated how the right in particularly would continue to use petty national stereotyping to drum up fervour amongst the general population. Because of course our strong national values of Chicken Tikka Masala and hamburgers are under grave threat from a wave of immigrants…

We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role.

Welcome to Facebook.

Twenty years from now, when you look out a window, what you see may be five thousand miles and six time zones away.

Especially if that window is your smartphone.

When you watch an hour of television, it may have been delivered to your home in less than a second.

Maybe not quite, but we are getting there. As we’ll see in later articles, the breaking of the time it takes to deliver a piece of content from the time it takes to consume was a big deal for Negroponte in 1995, but is something that we just take for granted today.

Reading about Patagonia can include the sensory experience of going there.

Maybe not in the full “smell-o-rama” multi-sensory way, but think about how we can explore through maps, photos, satellite, StreetView, and also the reflections of hundreds of other travellers through services like TripAdvisor.

A book by William Buckley can be a conversation with him.

And here comes another recurring theme, and one where Negroponte has yet to be proven right – whilst delivery mechanisms for media have changed remarkably in the past two decades, the forms of content have remained fairly unchanged. TV programmes, whilst maybe delivered on-demand via the Internet, are still predominantly 30 or 60 minute chunks of linear, sit-back content. Newspaper stories, whilst available online and augmented with audience comment, still follow a very set structure

Much of the above today doesn’t seem that remarkable. But go back to those first statistics. Only 35% of US homes with a computer, and only 30 million people using the Internet when the book was written. It’s hard to remember back to the day when I first looked in awe at a postage stamp-sized video on a PC screen, driven from a CD-ROM. Or animated GIFs. Or the first time someone showed me a laptop connected via Wireless to the net. Or my first PDA. Or my first mobile phone. All of which (not in that order) happened after Negroponte had put down his MacWrite.

Next – bits are bits

3 thoughts on “a generation of being digital

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