The Net Net Home


















Contribute Masthead About Home


by Elizabeth Regina

Nicholas Negroponte's much-hailed Being Digital has spawned much adulatory prose as well as a whole empire of sites and discussion groups and related excrescences around the web. But I found that the book, wrapped like sushi inside an ObBlackCover, is like a hologram: it looks real, but if you reach out to touch it your hand goes right through it.

Negroponte's whole book -- which mostly collects his ongoing back-page columns for Wired -- has the comfortable sound of someone who's been preaching to the converted for too long. He's confident and convincing when he talks about what's good and bad in computer interfaces and he's got enough contacts in big business -- entertainment, hardware design, media -- to know his subject when it comes to the near future of data delivery. His writing is a smooth sell with some amusing anecdotes and occasional bits of wry self-deprecation, but very little but handwaves to address the problems of the world outside his high-end technocrat circle.

No wonder web geeks love him. They know that if Negroponte has the nifty gadgets he lusts after within five years, they'll have them at home within six. And, since Negroponte is advising big business, it actually is likely that some parts of the book will be self-fulfilling prophecies. If the book tempts you, read it for that aspect alone if you haven't already grokked his point of view from his columns.

But as the pages archaically flipped, I wondered: where is the big picture, where is the prophecy? Primed for some large world-spanning vision of where the data will be in 2020, I only felt a little spark of authentic excitement when he talks about what the high-level geeks will be doing. And we already know perfectly well what the affluent high-level geeks will be doing.

This is like the wonderful promise of the industrial revolution: more efficiency! more streamlining! more leisure! Of course, the footnote says that the benefits will go to the investors, and the question of the workers' fate will become more and more marginalized, so that just to raise the issue will brand one as a pinko and, very possibly, a dangerous crackpot. So, what about the info-have-nots, from the computer illiterates to the text illiterates? Is this an empty question? Will benefits trickle down from Negroponte, from the likes of you and me (writing for the web, reading on the web), to the folks living in the cracker box below the tracks, not to mention the wider world?

Who gets to live in the Gernsback continuum?

To raise this social issue isn't just a marginal concern: Negroponte makes sweeping statements about impending changes in data delivery, but he never even glances at the issue of the market, of the mass of people whose choices (or lack of choice) dictate the pace of change.

Instead of delivering a thousand television programs to everybody, it may be better to deliver one program to each person in one-thousandth of the real time.

He wants entertainment and data all on personal demand, everything tailored for the individual by "intelligent agents," forgetting that, for most people there is great comfort and community in the media as they already exist: the shelves of books, the local paper, the office chat about the previous night's TV shows, the remote village clustering around their radio for news. Negroponte's wish is for devices which will help a solitary, independent, busy person -- him and people like him -- deal with the mass of data. He ignores the coldness of the vision: people are already at one step from the bonds of oral culture, and his wireless, rootless devices take them yet another step away from it.

But more than a social critique this is an economic one. One issue is that someone has to buy the electronic book, newspaper-assembling or media-mediating box, but another is that someone has to produce or at least input the reams of information they will carry. Like the 500-channel universe of TV, the questions of who will pay for the material and control it, what it will sell and what political and social viewpoint it will promote are left open.

Negroponte tosses out an unconvincing few remarks about ordinary folks producing video for the net, but except for this his vision is corporate, and politically and aesthetically naive. The notion of putting everything that's been filmed or videotaped on line is a mind-boggling one until you consider there will be every episode of Green Acres and only two hours of Citizen Kane.

Negroponte's optimism about a wonderful future free of prejudice, full of opportunity, is not borne out by the current evidence of the net -- easy communication doesn't automatically foster affection and tolerance, as a quick scan of any of the more discursive newsgroups demonstrates. He tosses out a nonchalant line: "A previously missing common language emerges, allowing people to understand across boundaries" -- hmm. That'd be English, now wouldn't it?

This kind of view is what hobbles the book's more utopian elements: although Negroponte has worthwhile things to say, he gets caught up in a utopian dream in which everyone will eventually be more like him: autonomous, anglophone and affluent. Certainly he's been able to sell all or some of his vision to people like him, and as such he has been and will be influential. There will be bits in this book to interest you, sitting at your box and reading this review on the screen -- Negroponte touches on plenty of stuff that affects or will affect net-people. But I hope that you'll find enough gaps in his reasoning to set you thinking critically as well.


The Net Net is affiliated with
All contents of this Web site are copyright © 1996 - 2001 The Net Net and individual artists and authors. Do not reproduce contents of this site without permission of The Net Net and the artist or author. You may link to this site freely.
Design by Marmoset Media. Illustrations by Les graphiques Grenade.