Been Digital

by Rob Horning

17 January 2010

cover art

Being Digital

Nicholas Negroponte


Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital was written in 1995, but it seems much older. The detail with which he has to explain concepts we now take utterly for granted (the idea of broadband internet, the concept of cell phones with internet capabilities, even things like browsers and streaming video) reveals how drastically society has changed.and how much technology we have assimilated in the past 15 years to everyday life. Negroponte was prescient in some ways (about timeshifting and automated recommendation systems, for example), but he makes some predictions that seem foolish now—we’re all supposed to be interacting entirely with voice commands with our devices, and videoconferencing with miniature holograms, like when Darth Vader talks to the emperor in Empire Strikes Back.

The most notable thing he is wrong about is the future of the media, the economics of digitization; he simply couldn’t anticipate social media or peer-to-peer sharing. He thought that media companies would be able to monetize their archive by digitizing it; instead, digitization has promoted the concept of universal availability and the whole “information wants to be free” idea. It’s interesting to see how complete the big-media hegemony was, so that futurists like Negroponte (who were talking to corporations more than individuals, it seems) couldn’t see around it. Negroponte expects media to move to a lucrative pay-per-view model, with customers paying extra for more personalization and ad-supported media diminishing. Instead, search and advertising is the largest online business, and big media has found itself competing with noncommercial information providers and sorters, who have made editing and metainformation as much a free commodity as information itself. Big media has lost its leverage, not gained it. We can get personalized information only from peers, and it is personal in some senses precisely because we don’t pay for it. Personalization has proven to mean a growing acceptance of amateurism and the “good enough revolution”. Information becomes “free” but so does a great deal of intellectual labor. Intellectual property is no longer profitable, exploitation of free labor moves to replace it.

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