In preparing for the final lecture of a two-day seminar that Urs Gasser and I are teaching here at the University of St. Gallen, I was going back through one of the books that got me interested in Internet law in the first place — Nicholas Negroponte’s seminal book in atom form, Being Digital (1995).
A passage that spoke to me, on p. 20: “One way to look at the future of being digital is to ask if the quality of one medium can be transposed to another. Can the television experience be more like the newspaper experience? Many people think of newspapers as having more depth than television news. Must that be so? Similarly, television is considered a richer sensory experience than what newspapers can deliver. Must that be so?
“The answer lies in 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. This kind of intelligence can live in two different places.
“It can live at the transmitter and behave as if you had your own staff writers — as if the The New York Times were publishing a single newspaper tailored to your interests. In this first example, a small subset of bits has been selected especially for you. The bits are filtered, prepared, and delivered to you, perhaps to be printed at home, perhaps to be viewed more interactively with an electronic display.
“The second example is one in which your news-editing system lives in the receiver and The New York Times broadcasts a very large number of bits, perhaps five thousand different stories, from which your appliance grabs a select few, depending on your interests, habits, or plans for that day. In this instance, the intelligence is in the receiver, and the dumb transmitter is indiscriminately sending all the bits to everybody.
“The future will not be one or the other, but both.”
He picks up the story of the newspaper industry again, on p. 56, noting how everything is created in bit form, then pressed onto atoms. Imagine if the head of a newspaper read Being Digital in 1995 and really listened? Maybe that’s what happened with Martin N. and co. at NYT Digital and a few others. But most clearly missed this lesson back then; I doubt many are missing it now.
Also, on copyrights, he nailed the vision of the trainwreck we’ve experienced in the late 1990s and early oughts (p. 58 ff.).
I think he gets a handful of things wrong, of course, but only at the margins — mainly, the reliance on machines, rather than humans, who I still think will play a key role, as the “web 2.0″ people will tell you — but this book was astonishingly prescient. I’m not sure that he predicted quite the information quality problem that Urs is talking about right now, but then again, most people don’t focus on that even now.
Whether or not you first read it in 1995, it’s fun to read Being Digital today. (Then again, I learned last night from Prof. Dr. Herbert Burkert that you can only read 3,172 books in your life. I don’t know how re-reading fits into that calculation.) In any event, wildy impressive as a futuristic tale.